Fun fact about writing: it’s going to feel like you’ve fucked up, a lot. There will be days where it feels like things are so fucked up that your career is 100% over, never to be resurrected or rebuilt, and the best thing you can do is wander off and get a job in the fast food industry.
The reasons it feels like you’ve fucked up are varied. Maybe it’s been caused by a decision that seems stupid in hindsight, or a book has come out and done not-as-well-as-expected for reasons outside your control. Perhaps you said something you shouldn’t have in a professional context, or vomited on the first agent you met because you were nervous. It matters not, in the end, because the feeling that settles over you is invariably the same – like someone’s fitting you for cement shoes and escorting you to the nearest pier. You have fucked up, and you are done. Hasta la vista, baby; your writing career is over.
I spent most of last week in that mode. After GenreCon wrapped up a bunch of mangy, you-suck brain-weasels dug their way into my head and started insisting that the con had been a bad cal. Sure, it was successful, but look at the opportunity cost – no writing time, no PhD time, no real gains to speak of. They moved on to whispering dire things about my shoddy work ethic when it comes to writing, then started a refrain about always being the guy behind the scenes instead of actually being a writer. Time to quit, the brain weasels told me. Go find yourself a real job. You’re forty fucking years old and you’re officially no good at this shit.
The nice thing about this being the forth GenreCon is that I’m already prepared for this, and I had projects with non-negotiable deadlines that meant I had to pull my shit together before the week was out. I gave myself forty-eight hours of indulging the brain-weasels, largely because I was exhausted after running a con and needed time to recoup anyway. Then I sat down and started planning a few weeks of writing projects, because the reality is that it’s incredibly hard to actually kill of a writing career stone dead.
It’s just really easy to believe you’ve done it when your expectations and your reality aren’t in sync.
FIRST, SOME PERSPECTIVE: IT’S REALLY HARD TO KILL A WRITING CAREER COMPLETELY, YO
Here’s the bad news: writing is a hard gig, and you’re playing a long game. It’s easy to have a bad year, or feel like you’re achieving a lot without seeing much tangible benefit in terms of income. The message that’s driven into you, from the moment you first express a desire to write, is that the only way to succeed is to be extraordinary. You’re a best-seller or you’re nothing; you are consumed by writing, twenty-four-seven, or you’re destined to fail and die in the gutter.
This will fuck you up, if you let it.
Most writers aren’t going to be best-sellers. Even among the best-sellers, there are aspects of a writing career that they still hunger for, which often manifests itself in canards like genre writers get the money, literary writers get the praise. Truth is, you’re going to spend the bulk of your career being less successful than you’d hoped, but that’s only the death of your career if you accept the premise that less-successful is not-successful-at-all, letting the unmet expectations drive you to quitting rather than re-evaluating.
Here’s the good news: Writing careers are resilient fuckers. It’s actually incredibly fucking hard to truly kill a writing career to the point where you won’t be published or read at all. It takes outright plagiarism or…well, shit, I don’t know, maybe slaughtering a moose at your first writer’s festival and painting the front row with its blood while openly calling all readers morons? Even then, the attention you’d grab would probably help undo some of the damage.
I struggle to think of real, honest-to-god career killers here because publishing will forgive all manner of things if they think they can sell your book. Even Helen Darville got other writing gigs in Australia after the controversy around The Hand That Signed The Paper, and it took a whole new plagiarism controversy around her courier mail column to really shuffle her off the literary radar (and even then, she went on to write for conservative presses and it seems she’s both learned nothing and has a new book coming out).
Odds are, you haven’t fucked up on anywhere near this level. What’s happened is usually something simpler.
SHAKESPEARE WAS A SMART FUCKER
I’m not alone with the brain-weasels. In this year alone I’ve had the maybe-it’s-time-to-quit-and-work-fast-food conversations with three different writers at three different stages of their career. None of them actually did it, to my knowledge, but the desire was definitely there and it usually came down to one word: expectations.
One of my favourite lines in Hamlet is the title character’s lament that he could be bound in a nutshell and count himself a king of infinite space, were it not that he had bad dreams. In a similar vein, I could publish a single short story a year and consider myself a successful writer, were it not for the fact that my goals and expectations aim for more than that.
The brain-weasels give me a list of reasons my career is over right now. When I write them down, there is a recurring theme: I’ve only had two short stories out this year; I haven’t finished enough new work; I don’t have enough readers to justify going indie; I only met a handful of people at the conference and didn’t do enough to expand my network; I haven’t done enough with the opportunities I had this year; I haven’t done enough on my thesis draft, with the deadline looming.
The repetition of only and enough in those phrases is an immediate warning sign for me.
It means that my expectations are not in sync with the reality around me, and I’m prone to second-guessing every decision I’ve made in the last twelve moths and judging each choice a failure. Only and Enough mean I’m ignoring the context that guided all the decisions, or that I’m weighing up what I’ve achieved and measuring against what was achieved in other years of my career (or against the careers of people who have had very different years in the business and different constraints on their work process than I have).
Despite the brain-weasels suggestion that I quit, what they’re actually warning me about is a moment where the things I value about my writing life aren’t currently being met. That’s not a reason to quit, but it is a reason to take some time to figure out how I can match up my practice and my values in the coming months.
THE FEELING OF FUCKING UP LIES IN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHAT IS AND WHAT I WANT TO BE, THE REALITY OF FUCKING UP LIES IN WHAT YOU DO AFTER YOU IDENTIFY THAT DISCONNECT
Herein lies the lesson: if you think you’ve fucked up your writing career, ask yourself what expectations you had that aren’t currently being fulfilled. The line between success and failure is often a matter of perspective, and you will be harder on yourself than almost everyone else. Look for the thing that you want, and figure out why it’s currently missing.
Once you’ve got that, identify the the smallest, easiest things to move you in that direction you want to go. Inertia will fuck with you in ways that movement will not, and keeping your focus on where you want to be instead of what you’re doing now will inevitably rob your process of the joy that sustains your efforts. Stop looking at the horizon and start looking at the very next step, then focus on enjoying what you’re doing here and now.
Not meeting your expectations is disappointing, but it isn’t necessarily failure. At worst, the brain-weasels telling you it’s all over are really just giving you important information about what you really want to get out writing (mine, post-Genrecon, are largely focused on the hit the cultural capital of my work will take once I start indie publishing). They’re a chance to re-align the mental cross-hairs and focus on the work that is meaningful to you and taking you towards your goals.
There is no shame in re-evaluating plans, once you’ve got that information. There’s not even shame in walking away, if you’ve looked at what you’ve wanted and judged it no longer worth the effort, but walking away is harder than it looks when you’re in the throes of the kinds of disconnect that causes brain-weasels to form.
It’s far easier to take a few moments to consider what it feels like you’re missing in your career right now, then take a few steps to plug that gap while following your business plan.
ONCE YOU KNOW WHAT SUCCESS IS, YOU CAN START LOOKING AT PATHS TO GET THERE
There is a great interview from the wrestler, Chris Jericho, where he talks about becoming a main event talent in the world’s largest wrestling organisation. He wasn’t worried about rising to the top despite being a smaller talent than the WWE prefers, because he’d been at the top of other wrestling companies and he knew what it took to get there. He had to learn how to work in the new environment, but once he knew that he’d get to the spot he wanted.
Everything my brain-weasels are whispering to me are things I’ve done in the past, which means I know what’s involved in getting back to the level I want to be at. It will take work, but work that I know how to do.The things I don’t know, I can still learn, now that I know I need to learn them.
If my whole career tanked tomorrow, I could switch to a pen name and start over (which, lets be clear, is a thing that plenty of writers have done).
Quitting is a big, dramatic action. It’s your brain searching for a solution to your frustrations in the clumsiest way possible, because writing is a gig that is built around the mythology of grand gestures and all-consuming genius. Small fuck-ups feel bigger than they should, big fuck-ups feel monumental.
What’s weird is that the best response is usually doing something small. Once you’ve identified the thing that is bugging you, focus on the smallest and easiest thing you can do here and now to start moving you towards it. Take a small step towards bringing your process back into alignment with the values you bring to your craft.
For me, all those brain-weasels were just complaining about feeling a little invisible as a writer rather than an organiser after disappearing into the conference. This says all sorts of things about my ego, but also means the weasels were placated by a little work on The Birdcage Heart release and drafting a couple of blogs posts. This, in turn, freed me up from the anxiety they caused and got me back to the keyboard to start working on the next thing.