Is it Time to Separate Your Writing Craft from Your Ambition?

BY HANNAH GUY • May 19, 2022

Is it Time to Separate Your Writing Craft from Your Ambition?

There comes a point in every writer or author’s life when we are seriously tempted to quit. To bid farewell to the painful crafting of sentences, plotting, deadlines, stress, writer’s block, unreliable income, and nonstop passive-aggressive comments from loved ones and even complete strangers.

Writers rarely quit because they don’t have a desire to write anymore. For some, the decision comes after struggle. Sometimes it’s a matter of a broken heart. Writing and never feeling like you’ve gotten anywhere with it can feel like loving some ethereal being who just refuses to love you back.

But the occasional bursts of “I’m done” aren’t specific to new and emerging authors and writers, or those struggling after years of hard work with little reward. This tendency can hit writers of all ages and profiles, including those who are critically acclaimed and even bestsellers.

“Each year, though, seems to deliver major writers ready to say goodbye to their art,” writes Daniel D’Addario in When Writers Quit Writing. “Consider Philip Roth, whose readers hold out hope for another volume despite his claim that 2010’s Nemesis was it. Or Alice Munro, who said last year that she was through. Faber’s declaration happened to coincide with the death of his wife this summer.”

For many writers and authors, adds D’Addario, the decision comes much later in their career, often when the author is well past the age of retirement and just can’t do it anymore. “Writing may take a relatively minor toll on the body, but it’s hardly easy to keep it up for a lifetime. Munro told a reporter, ‘I don’t have the energy anymore.’ Roth left a Post-it on his computer reading, ‘The struggle with writing is over.’ And one need only look at Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger, both of whom retreated into seclusion following their touches with stardom, to see just how existentially taxing the process of writing—and being read—can be.”

For many emerging, experienced, and struggling writers and authors who hit this point, it’s usually a sign of frustration that comes with having expectations—whether it’s specific markers of success (income, book sales, achieving bestseller status) or ideas about where they should be in their writing career. This pressure can make the joy that comes from writing shrink pretty rapidly and in some cases disappear. Nothing—and I can say this from personal experience—dries up a love of book writing like that voice in your head whispering, “This one has to be the success, otherwise you’re wasting your time.”

Sometimes it’s pressure that comes from your loved ones who don’t see the point in pursuing a “ridiculous hobby” when you could be channeling your energies into another field. While it’s easy to laugh off the lack of support when it happens on rare occasions, it becomes more challenging when your career and hobby choices are questioned on a regular basis.

It seems, in fact, that most of the flak writers and authors receive is for choosing a profession that isn’t considered as stable or lucrative by society’s standards. It isn’t so much that we write, it’s that we’re failing to monetize our craft in a manner considered acceptable by society and even ourselves. Why would anyone choose to live this way without a guarantee that they’ll be moderately successful? And how dare we?

The issue, it seems, is not the act but that we should turn this labor of love that brings us (mostly) joy into a means of making money. And maybe that’s the problem for many of us struggling with writer’s block or disillusionment. Maybe it’s time to take the pressure off writing and focus solely on the process and not on the end result.

“We live in the era of the hustle,” writes Molly Conway in The Modern Trap of Turning Hobbies Into Hustles. “Of following our dreams until the end, and then pushing ourselves more. And every time we feel beholden to capitalize on the rare places where our skills and our joy intersect, we underline the idea that financial gain is the ultimate pursuit. If we’re good at it, we should sell it. If we’re good at it and we love it, we should definitely sell it. This seems to ring especially true in creative fields, where these days selling art is less likely to be considered ‘selling out’ than self-actualization. But even those who are commercially successful in creative fields often lament the disconnect between what it is like to do their jobs and how society views their life and work.”

Look at the pressure we place on those who try a new hobby. On one hand, we’re amazed that someone has picked up a new occupation that either keeps their hands busy, creates something, or channels emotions into the act of creation. Invariably, once you start improving, someone will say, “Maybe you can sell this” or “Have you thought about turning this into a business?”

What happened to just doing things because we enjoy them?

“It’s no surprise we feel pressure to monetize our spare time,” says Conway. “The cult of busyness is one of the most toxic aspects of our culture, but it’s also a defense mechanism . . . How did we get to the point where free time is so full of things we have to do that there’s no room for things we get to do? When did a beautiful handmade dress become a reminder of one’s inadequacies? Would the world really fall apart if, when I came home from a long day of work, instead of trying to figure out what I could conquer, I sat down and, I don’t know, tried my hand at watercolors? What if I sucked? What if it didn’t matter? What if that’s not the point?”

That’s not to say we can’t or shouldn’t love our profession. As much as writing seems at times to be a cruel and often unloving mistress, I’ve dabbled in other industries long enough to decide that this is the right one for me. But if you find yourself wanting to quit, to walk away, and to throw in the proverbial towel, maybe it’s time to change your perspective.

Because what would happen if we turned “I don’t want to write anymore” into “I don’t want to monetize my writing anymore”? Maybe by changing the way we look at the expectations we place on writing, we can shift our relationship to it.

Rather than give up on something we love, we need to give ourselves a chance to enjoy it again—no matter how much we make.

If you find yourself getting frustrated, think about demoting your writing instead. Take a break, give yourself permission to make mistakes or simply be terrible, and better yet, let yourself be imperfect for a little while.

And maybe, if you’re lucky, you might just surprise yourself.

Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.

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