Monday, November 04, 2013

When a writer stops writing

In the way that these things sometimes do, writers who have decided to stop writing has come up as a topic several times in the past few months. I don't mean writer's block. I mean writers - some of them very well published - who have decided they've had enough. One of the most eloquent about it was Sonny Brewer who apparently announced it to his friends on Facebook. As his blogger friend says, "I’ve talked to Sonny many times on the phone, but I’ve never heard such bone-tired exhaustion in his voice as he told me about his new job in construction.
He’s sixty-five.
Sonny’s published books fill a long shelf in my loft—yet writing’s not paying his bills."

This is a guy who has devoted his life to books and writing, and sometimes worked as an editor, but at 65, he's had enough. In case you think this is an anomaly, I've talked to several older writers recently who have decided they've had enough of battling publishers and trying to be noticed "in the marketplace". A couple have even said they don't think they'll write at all anymore, not even just for fun.

I also know younger writers who have been writing for a long time and feel they are getting nowhere. They feel as though to get noticed you have to have an angle or something "hot" about you, or your book has to stand out in some way. Or you have to spend hours on FB and Twitter and your blog to show you're out there, being noticed. Even publishers talk about "discoverability". There are just so many books being traditionally published, let alone those who are going it alone. You might slave over your book for five years and it gets published and disappears from sight in three months, never to be heard of again.

The disappointment that comes with this experience can be crushing.

Are writers doomed now to always having to have a Real Job? Who is actually making a decent living from their writing, enough to stay home and write fulltime? Mainly genre writers, I have to say. It seems as though the accepted scenario these days is that if you want to be a fulltime artist, you have to get used to the idea of living a life of poverty. In the US, you'll have no health insurance or retirement funds. Here in Australia you will get the aged pension at 60-65, which will also allow you to live in poverty. Yay.

If this sounds like a whinge, it's not. But it raises questions for me about how we value our literary culture, about how we value (or not) the work of people who create books. If writers were paid more in royalties, would this change anything? How can we expect writers to create works of value after they've spent 8 hours of their day expending energy and brain power and creativity on trying to earn money doing something else? So many writers teach, and yet as the saying goes, "You are trying to draw more and more water from the same well, and it's dry."

Mostly I've been thinking about this because a writer friend told me recently she is going to stop writing. A big part of the reason is because it's not enough to just write a good book anymore - you have to do all that other stuff and she doesn't want to. She just wanted to write. And now she doesn't.

What will we lose? A unique voice. Terrific poems. A view of the world that no one else I know could describe in quite the same way. Years of experience and craft put onto the page. You could say this is an age thing. It's not. Or only partly. Maybe it's about the fact that we've always been told, over and over: "Write from the heart." And now that doesn't seem to matter much anymore, unless it's a heart that will appeal to thousands of readers in the "marketplace".

I have no idea what the solution is. I'm not even sure there is one. But it makes me sad all the same.