Occasionally I get this request, either sent through to my email or from someone I just met:
Hey, can you take a look at my story/book and tell me if I’m wasting my time as a writer?
And, man, my heart aches every time I see that. I remember that stage of my career so fucking well, and it was hard.
I made the decision to become a writer when I was fifteen or so. I stuck with it long past the point where it was sane, living on the kind of money that made my parents wince well into my late twenties. I took bad jobs, ’cause it meant I could work very little and write a whole lot. I wasn’t getting paid anywhere near enough from my writing to make that worthwhile, and the number of times I seriously thought about quitting…
It happened a lot.
There were points where it was a god-damn weekly occurrence. I’d work at stories or poems or novels and I’d peer into the future and I could literally see no way that all the effort would pay off.
The uncertainty was terrifying. There were all sorts of piss-poor decisions made ’cause I was literally working blind and trusting that somehow, somewhere, there would be a career for me if I just kept plugging along.
And there were successes. Publications, even. But that didn’t help. The sheer amount of crushing shame I felt for devoting all my time and energy to this thing that seemed like a god-damn lottery…
Wait. I’m getting distracted.
My point, oh brothers and sisters of the keyboard: I know your fucking pain. I do.
But I cannot read your work and tell you if you’re wasting your time, ’cause I can’t actually do that. Your current work? It’s just a snapshot. A picture of where you are right here, right now, as a writer.
It’s got absolutely no bearing of where you end up.
I may read it and go, well, yes, this sucks, but that’s completely okay. Everyone sucks, at some point. There is this myth that if you’re a writer, you have some kind of natural talent. That there will be some spark of genius in the heart of your work that other writers/editors/publishers will look at and go, well, yes, I can see it in there, if you just keep working…
That spark doesn’t exist.
For example: I spent my first year at university failing every writing assignment I was given. Repetitively. Regardless of topic and form. Which culminated in a particularly crushing one-two punch from a lecturer, who gave me a 3/10 for a script assignment and then pointed out this is derivative, callow slapstick, and not particularly good examples of either.
No-one who saw my work in that first year was expecting anything from me, as a writer. I was young and I was bad, and I was derivative as all get out. If I’d asked any of those people who were reading my work if, perhaps, I was wasting my time, I expect the answer would have been an dead certain, “fuck yes.”
I can still remember the hollow terror in my gut that accompanied every mark that year. I’d always assumed I could be a writer, and now it turned out that I sucked.
I’d like to say that I took that as a reason to up my game, but I did not. I wallowed. I blew off classes and basically hung out with my friends and figured…well, I’m screwed. That career I thought I could fluke my way into against all odds, it’s gone now. Time to figure out plan B.
But I didn’t.
I tried, don’t get me wrong, but I screwed up plan B just as impressively as I was screwing up plan A. In the end, I stuck with my writing course because I couldn’t think of anything else I really wanted to do and I’d also failed the pre-requisites for 95% of the other majors that appealed to me.
So I kept reading. And I kept writing. And, over time, I got better. Still not as good as I wanted to be, or enough to make it feel like the effort was going to pay off, but good enough to suggest that maybe, one day, it would all come together. By the end of my second year, I’d figured out enough to get pretty good marks. By the end of my third year, I was doing well enough that they started talking about me coming back and doing post-grad work one day.
I started selling work – not a lot, but enough, and moderately regularly. And I still felt like a failure, wondering if I was wasting my time as a writer.
I’m not alone in this. Every writer I know has an equivalent story. Sometimes, in their stories, the evil prick who used words like derivative, callow slapstick is me. Sometimes I’ve said shit like dude, you need to learn how to structure a sentence. Sometimes, I’m the mother-fucker who says, if I have to read another word of this shit, I will fucking cut you. My vengeance will be swift and terrible. This shit is causing me pain.
I’ve been the guy who dug a melon baller into the heart of someone’s dreams and gutted it. Never intentionally, but I get grumpy when I read people’s work. It’s one of the reasons I so rarely do it, unless it’s a favour for an actual, honest-to-god friend who will not take it personally when I give them feedback.
But the truth is this: you are wasting your time.
Right up until you’re not.
If you find yourself wondering which side of the divide you’re on, there are far more effective things you can do with your time than asking a grumpy writer (and all writers a grumpy) for feedback.
The list goes like this:
One: Develop your craft. If your gut is telling you that you’re not good enough yet, go figure out how to get good. Work at it systematically. Move forward.
TWO: EDUCATE YOURSELF ON HOW THE PUBLISHING/SELF-PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS.
What got me over the hump – the terrible, aching wondering – wasn’t the quality of my work. The feedback I was getting actually suggested I had some future in this writing thing, even if the actual publications weren’t reflecting that. Good feedback alone wasn’t enough to cut through the despair of seeing no future in this industry.
What got me through was actually sitting down and putting together a plan, treating my business like a fucking business, instead of just spitting creative work into the wind and hoping like hell I’d get lucky.
It was thinking: well, the five book theory, that’s a thing I can actually work towards, and then thinking, wait, if I need to get five books published, I’m going to need to produce work faster than I am at the moment. And figuring, even if it was wrong, I’d at least have five books to shop around instead of one.
It was about learning to finish shit and send it out and move on to the next thing, and learning not to sweat it if one story didn’t actually take off ’cause, yo, I have more stories to tell. The list of novels I’d like to write one day number is well into double-digits. The number of short-stories I need finish is into the triple digits and growing daily.
I haven’t made it any way that feels like making it yet, but I’m closer than I was. And the number of times where I feel like quitting is pretty much zero, these days, ’cause I know what I’m doing and what I’m working towards and I very rarely feel lost. I do my best to avoid wasting time. I can see the mountain and keep figuring out ways to get there, and even if I don’t ever make it, I feel pretty good about getting to the foothills.
Despair creeps into the places where knowledge runs out.
Most writers develop their craft intentionally and assume that the business side of things will work out. That’s the rhetoric, after all: you unleash your genius upon the world and you get discovered. All you need is confirmation that you have genius and everything will be okay.
But that’s not how it works.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the industry knowledge is there, when you start looking, and it gives you the sense of progress that spitting into the dark never will. It gives you a measure of control, if you study it.
Embrace that. Nurture it. Give yourself a plan. Be like a fucking shark and keep moving forward.
It will do more for that feeling of of uncertainty than one writer’s feedback ever will.