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.

14 comments:

Steph Bowe said...

This is a very poignant post, Sherryl, which I'm glad you shared. It's something I think about a lot as a young writer - wondering about longevity, and the way everything shifts, and for how long things will remain viable. I can't imagine a me that ever doesn't write because it's the way I have always made sense of the world, but the idea of not being able to maintain it as a career, even a poorly paying one, is very sad to me, since it's very much what I want to do with my life.

Jill Blee said...

I guess that is why some of us get involved in the publishing process ourselves and resort to social media to publicise the fact. It is certainly why I started Eurekahouse.com.au

Alex Fairhill said...

A very interesting blog, Sherryl. Writers seem to be copping it from both ends - as someone trying to break into the business as a writer there is definitely an emphasis on having the social media network happening. It's a shame to lose good, published writers because the 'business' side has become too demanding.

Sherryl Clark said...

Thanks for commenting, Steph. I was hoping to hear from a young writer about if and how you think about this. While it's sad and depressing for older writers, it must be doubly so for you, in a way, and scary. As you say, wondering if the years ahead that you planned to fill with great writing might no longer welcome you.

Sherryl Clark said...

You're right, Jill, doing it yourself helps. But you still face the PR morass, and the marketplace demands. It's exhausting and one more thing to take us away from writing.

Sherryl Clark said...

Alex, some writers enjoy social media. I love my blog! And FB is often fun. But for those who hate all that stuff, it's becoming some kind of black mark against them, and it's a worry when it then is a big reason why they stop writing.

Georgia said...

Sherryl, this is something I've been struggling with recently. I think I'm a decent writer, have a lot of experience, including that coveted MFA, but...as stated above, simply writing a good book isn't enough now. And so, I'm thinking about whether or not the struggle is something I can continue.

Laurine said...

Thanks for this post Sherryl. It is great that you are getting this topic into the public forum because many writers I have spoken who feel the same way are under the impression that they are alone in how they feel. The ASA has put together a two day course called Reboot on just this topic with a program designed to help writers look at ways in which they can sustain creative practice and hopefully bring in some money at the same time.

Meredith Costain said...

Interesting and thoughtful article, Sherryl, and no doubt one that will strike a chord with many writers now that there is so much change in publishing. Also because the other post I've read today on Facebook this morning - also by a writer - was about writers being expected to provide material for free - in this case to an online food and lifestyle magazine - under the guise of being 'great exposure for your work' and 'material for your portfolio'. Like they're the ones doing you a favour!

Debra McArthur said...

I think a lot of us struggle with it, Sherryl. I certainly couldn't make a living from my writing. Most "full time" writers I know aren't only writing. They are making most of their living with teaching (at schools or through correspondence courses), school visits, writer's workshops, etc. And the electronic conversion of the industry is unsettling and unpredictable as well. But those of us who love to tell stories will go on.

Wendy Orr said...

It is scary, and although I've been lucky enough to make my living purely from writing for nearly 20 years,there's always the fear that next year I won't. Lately I've been feeling swamped by the social media expectations and general public demands, which I suspect have contributed to not being particularly well for a few months. It's made me really look at priorities and feel that no matter what happens, I've got to remember that I'm a writer, not a promoter or free mentor. But not easy to put into practice.

Sherryl Clark said...

Georgia, I think part of writing is that we want to communicate - the struggle lies in creating that strong, true connection between you (and your imagination) and the reader. When the other stuff gets in the way, I think we all get dragged down by it. But we have to keep writing!

Sherryl Clark said...

Laurine - I did see a mention of that course. Will it run in Melbourne?

Sherryl Clark said...

Hi Debra! Yes, a lot of us do teach, although sometimes I feel like my writing would benefit more if I worked at WalMart!
It seems a lot of writers find the mental energy that goes into social media and marketing yourself is really stressful.

Wendy - you sound like this is you right now. It's so hard to know where to draw the line. Even school visits, fun though they are, can be exhausting.