Not everybody is cut out to be a writer. Or an actor, or a musician, or a painter, or any other artistic career. So, for some people, it is important to know when to quit. But when you have doubts about your writing career, should you really quit? Is there an alternative?
Quitting your dream has a bad rep, but it could mean that you were chasing after the wrong dream to begin with. Jonathan Taylor Thomas, the little boy who played Randy in Home Improvement, quit acting to study history and philosophy in Harvard and Columbia Universities. Tom Tryon had built a solid career as an actor and made a steady string of movies like I Married a Monster from Outer Space. He even appeared with Marilyn Monroe in her final, and unfinished, film Something’s Got to Give. He eventually gave up on acting and took up writing horror novels. He said that he got a lot more satisfaction, and made a lot more money, from his writing than he ever did from his acting. Jessica Alba nagged her parents into getting her into acting lessons at age 11 and devoted herself to acting for the next twenty years, until she became disillusioned with acting when, reportedly, director Tim Story of the Fantastic Four instructed her NOT to make a crying face in the scene in which her character cried lest she wrinkle her pretty face. Although she did not entirely retire from acting, she re-directed her energies to The Honest Company which sells consumer goods, of which her stake alone is valued at billions of dollars. So some people can quit their first loves and find rewarding alternate careers.
Writers who quit writing are not as obvious as actors who quit acting. Actors perform in the public eye, while writers work in seclusion. An actor who makes no more movies is a has-been. A writer who stopped publishing is just having a prolonged writer’s block. In reality, however, writers burn out quicker than short birthday candles. Actors who are unemployed are not acting. Writers are writing, employed or not. Writing has drained the life out of writers who never published a page.
If you studied creative writing in college, practically your whole class is composed of people who gave up writing to pursue more fiscally stable careers. Twenty years out, some of your classmates might still be writing, on blogs, school newspapers, low circulation academic journals and such. Some of them might even have a vanity publication or a self-published e-book. A few could have gone back to writing after a long hiatus, scribbling away ideas in notebooks now that the kids are off to college. That is generally the fate of most aspiring writers.
So when is it time to give up on writing? If you google, “signs it is time to give up writing”, you might find a list of symptoms to watch out for which are almost identical to the symptoms of writer’s block. The symptoms alone cannot tell you if it is time to quit.
I cannot recall the exact age at which I gave up on writing fiction. It was twenty years ago, give or take. Since then, I finished the medical school I had been bullied into, completed my PhD, saved a few lives, contributed to several professional books on medicine, and worked on the development of a new cancer treatment. I cannot say that I had been a complete failure without being a writer. If I had a confidant, he might tell me that I made the right choice in quitting writing. In fact, I do have a few confidants. They tell me instead to quit my medical career, or at least suspend it for a while, and devote myself to writing. I am back into writing now because I know that this is what I should be doing. I am not whole without it.
So what if you start having doubts and start wondering if it is time to give up on your dream of a writing career? Do you need to quit?
My advice is, quit for ten years. Then, if you think you can pick it up again, start over. I had a hiatus of over twenty years. That might have been a bit overlong. Ten years is ample time to build another career, gain worldly experience, travel the world, and acquire new insights about people and life. It is a long time to spend reading lots of material. If, after that time, you still have the spark of the writer in you, you might emerge from your doldrums a different person. And that person may have a better chance at surviving the world as a writer than the person who is toying with the thoughts of quitting.