Brad R. Torgersen

When is it okay to quit?

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Harshness ahead. You were warned.

There have been a very few instances when I’ve encountered a writer who is clearly wasting his/her time. I know, we’re not supposed to talk about it. We’re not supposed to admit (among ourselves) that any of us could be wasting his/her time. Yet, clearly, there are people in this field who are wasting their time. I know. I’ve met them. They are few in number, but they do exist.

Sure, 90% of the business is work ethic and never quitting. But if you don’t have the other 10% (imagination + style + insight + voice + creativity + ability to learn + yadda yadda) then you’re kind of trying to paddle up the Mississippi with a soggy flap of cardboard.

In each of the these few instances (and they truly are few) the writer in question had been struggling for decades (yes, plural) with no results: no sales, no publications, or at least no publications of serious note (badly formatted, unproofed self pub, with a bad cover, almost doesn’t count.) As a result, (s)he had developed a rather ferocious level of envy towards anybody who had enjoyed some success (YMMV as to the definition of “success”) and there was also a fair degree of conspiracy paranoia happening. Ergo, “The publishing system is rigged against me! The reviews system is rigged against me! Amazon is rigged against me!” Et cetera.

I have come to strongly suspect that such tortured people are far more in love with the idea of being authors, than they are with actually writing stories. No, not in love. Wrong word. Love is a healthy emotion. They are obsessed with having a book (or books, or stories in magazines) with their names on the covers, and with passing through the halls at conventions in the guise of “author”, and with also having fans, and with gathering to themselves all the acclaim and credibility of accomplishment, and warm fuzzies, and all that they believe will come to them, if only . . . if only . . . if only . . .

In one particular instance (because I am sometimes too nice for my own good) I read some of the works proffered by just such a writer. (S)he claimed to have spent the better part of 30 years perfecting them, before putting them up on the internet. In despair. In the hope that someone might read them.

I did. Because I was morbidly curious. And I wanted to see if I could help. I paid my dues. Two decades of toil and effort, no sales. 1992 to 2009. Surely the patient could be cured? Lord knows I’d been brought back from a near-flatlined state myself. I was determined to see what I could do for this despairing individual.

The stories were . . . pale and flat. They were stale. Lifeless. Clearly, they had the abuse marks of having been “polished” into oblivion. And they did not manifest — from story to story — any sign that the author in question was getting any better. Not even a little bit.

I made a few (what I thought) were gentle suggestions; for potential improvement. Not with the stories themselves. They were DOA. In fact, that was the thrust of my advice: let the old stories go, get on with the business of telling new stories. Polishing (or the process most of us call “polishing”) has what I consider to be a rather sharp curve, in terms of diminishing returns. Past a certain point, you cannot improve a thing. You’ve looked at it too much. It’s as good as you can make it. Let it be. Go on to something different. Something fresh.

I also said (s)he might think about trying a new style of voice (1st person to 3rd, or was it 3rd to 1st? I can’t remember . . .) and branching out into a new arena of speculative storytelling, etc. (“Instead of near-future contemporary, try off-world, or maybe even a cyber-fantasy?”) It seemed to me this author was trying very hard to write what (s)he thought the markets wanted; without much consideration for what the author wanted. I of course cited my own trials and tribulations, to make him/her aware of the fact that I knew from personal experience how this kind of uncomfortable change — turning over the writer’s apple cart — had helped me grow, get better, and break through.

Yet, I was rebuffed. (S)he got defensive. Started up with the victim stuff, and the paranoia stuff. I was accused of being both lucky, and knowing how to “game” the system.

So I gently withdrew my interaction, and allowed him/her to return to his/her dark closet of creative despair. I could not help him/her. (S)he did not want help. Even from a fellow traveler who knew his/her struggle in intimate detail. Having secured for myself a life preserver, when I offered to show him/her how to also obtain a life preserver, (s)he preferred to stay submerged.

How do you (gently) tell such a person, that (s)he is running him/herself over the proverbial cheese grater for nothing? That perhaps (s)he simply wasn’t meant to do this thing we call writing? The mantra is that (s)he who never quits, gets published. And it’s true. Especially now that Amazon and CreateSpace have made it easy. But what can you say to a person who has dwelt in a personal wasteland of disappointment for so long, over failing at a thing (s)he was clearly not given any gifts for?

It’s a bit like seeing a cellist who has no musical ear, nor any finesse with the instrument, saw painfully at the thing day after day, over the same dog-eared sheets of rote music, all the while despairing of ever joining an orchestra or getting to play solo at the concert house.

The noble response is to simply smile and say, “Keep trying, you can do it eventually!” The professional arts world is replete with examples of failures who simply pushed one step farther, and the light went on, and success was had by the truckload. We adore and love these rags-to-riches examples. They inspire us all to keep after it. To keep putting our butts back into our chairs. Because we need to believe that we too can be that rags-to-riches (“riches” being defined any way you please) person.

But sometimes . . . sometimes I wonder if we’re also not just enabling a person’s further descent into a paralyzing spiral of fruitless time consumption — for the sake of a dream that probably should have been set down at the side of the road long ago. Really, not everyone who wants to be a writer (or a concert cellist) was given the gift.

That’s blasphemy, I know. And as someone who went the better part of 20 years without any success, it may be wrong of me to suggest that somebody else may not have what it takes to make it. How dare I?

But there ought to be a point of clarity. A realistic look in the mirror. A limit past which sanity tells you that you’re doing something self-destructive. That the void you’re trying to fill (with Passion A) is actually just a process of digging your hole deeper. When what you really need is to go discover Passion B (or C or D or E, ad infinitum) and allow those seed(s) to sprout, and blossom, in the soil of your soul.

Misery, bitterness, paranoia, for years on end . . . these things are just not worth it. There are other ways to be successful. To leave a meaningful impact on the world. There are even better, quicker, more lucrative ways to achieve fame and fortune, if fame and fortune are what you truly desire in the final analysis.

I didn’t quit, because I ultimately couldn’t stop telling stories. To myself. In my brain. On the bus, or while driving, or even at night with my head in the pillow. I couldn’t stop the puzzle-assembly fun of putting characters and situations and settings together, like a cookie dough mix, and imagining where the mixture might go. On the “movie screen” of my mind. Even when the rejections were piled up and the thousands (yes, thousands) of hours spent, seemed waste. I couldn’t help myself. My mind would find excuses to go back to the stories. To the mental bijou. And (ultimately) wanting to share my mental bijou with the rest of the world.

If you don’t have your own mental bijou — if your favorite thing is not getting a soda and a bucket of popcorn, and sitting alone in your personal theater to watch the imaginary movie(s) of your own making — I suspect that you might be trying too hard at the wrong thing. That writing may not be what you were cut out for. Especially if the exercise has lasted for so long, with so much disappointment, that all you have left for the affair is pain and sorrow. It might be time for a divorce: kick your “dream” out of your life, and go find a new dream. Something that actually makes you happy and which brings you joy. Something that makes your spirit light up like fireworks on New Years Eve. If writing doesn’t do that for you, take a close look at what it is you truly need from writing.

And maybe you can fulfill that need somewhere else?

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