When you want to give up

There comes a time when every writer wants to give up, to crumple those pages into tight little balls and toss ’em in the basket, or better yet — burn ’em. In fact, when I’m teaching I often tell students this in the first class, so they won’t be blindsided when it happens to them.

If you happen to be feeling just now like it’s hopeless, like you should just give up those silly dreams of being a Real Writer and get back to something more sensible and less emotionally draining like say, alligator wrestling or land mine detection… You’re not alone. Happens to all of us. Yes, even the Published (snort) Author!

Allow me to share the following —

Consider this scene. I am in my office, head on my desk, surrounded by scraps of paper and half-drunk cups of tea. I am making small snuffling noises.

“Aha, so you’re there, are you?” says My Best Beloved from the doorway, which is, quite sensibly, about as far as he dare enter when I’m in such a mood. He smiles, equal parts amusement and sadness, and I want to pinch him, because this is what he says whenever I tell him any of the following:

This book is crap.

I can’t write.

Maybe I could write, but that was the last book. I’ll never write another.

I have nothing to say.

I’m a fraud. They (critics/agent/editors/readers) just haven’t found out yet. But they will with this book if I’m stupid enough to try and finish it.

Other writers, like ___________ are brilliant. I am a talentless hack.

And each time My Best Beloved says “So, you’re there,” I reply, with wide-eyed astonishment, “I’ve never felt like this before. This is different. It’s horrible. I’m going to quit. Nobody’s waiting for my next novel, believe me.”

And he says, “Uhuh. You’re there all right.” And then he reminds me of the extract I once read to him by Pulitzer Prize winning Robert Olen Butler. It’s an exchange between Butler and his wife that sounds awfully like the exchange we’re having, which ends when Mrs. Butler says, “Well, you’re certainly filled to the brim with self loathing, dear, which means you should be writing again soon.”

Blech. Oh, bother.

Quite right. I am filled with self-loathing. And, yet, shockingly, it passes and I do start writing again, and my husband smiles Cheshire Cat-like and waits for my next bout of self-doubt and self-loathing.

Hear me on this: All writers feel this way now and again. Some years more. Other years less. But it’s always there, and any writer who tells you different is a Big Fat Liar. It’s part of the territory of being a writer. I have published four books – 2 collections of short stories and 2 novels with a major house. Bestsellers. Short listed for a lovely prize. Longlisted for others. Recipient of 2 Canada Council grants. I tell you this not to brag, but to tell you the experience is universal and has no regard for accomplishment. (I bored my husband stupid for three months last year when I repeatedly insisted I was ready to give it all up and go back to being a really good reader.) You have to accept that now, as an emerging writer, and learn to deal with it, because if you are anticipating a time when you’ll be forever free of such emotions, you’ll really be disappointed.

The truth
is that if you think it’s tough before you publish – you will be shocked at how hard things get once your book is out there in the world. As Anne Lamott says,

“Being a published writer will make them (unpublished writers) long to be ONLY as mentally ill as they are now. Their current level of obsession and doubt and self-loathing will look like the good old days. Honest.”

Cheery, no?

But what the hell, why not just accept that fact that part of the writers bag-‘o-tricks is a huge brick of doubt and go ahead and write anyway? Take it as a sign of the Serious Writer. (Although I don’t recommend losing your sense of humor, either!) I tell my students, if you can do anything else, do it. Writing’s tough. But if you can’t do anything else, if you MUST write, then just get on with it. You can always lie on your back and be paralyzed by self-pity and doubt later. In the meantime, why not look out the window and be dazzled by that late afternoon light slanting through the red and yellow leaves — turning the world such a celebratory shade of rosy gold — and write about that until something better comes along.

Keep writing.


  1. lucky 8 on November 4, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Thanks for another insightful post. Feeling alone and insecure is part of the writer's life, and knowing it's part of the package makes it easier to bear. You are inspiring, keep it up!

  2. liliannattel on November 5, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Oh yes, been there. Though I'd add to the conversation, "I should be writing something else."

  3. Nicky Roesing on January 7, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    Aw, this was a really quality post. In theory I’d like to write like this too – taking time and real effort to make a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done.

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