A (Not-So) Formal Notice
That’s right. I quit. As that old hilariously depressing piece of writerly advice goes, “If you can quit, you should quit.”
Well, I did. Stick that in your vape pen and smoke it, you self-righteous, know-it-all hipster.
Want the truth? Let’s talk truth.
I spent three years writing a book on contract, a book I sold on passion over substance, a book I thought was sure to be a hit from here to hell and highwater beyond. I’d been struggling at this writing gig for over a decade at that point, and this finally seemed to be my break. Scored a five-figure advance that I dropped on a suped-up, hot-rodded…uhh…Kia Rio…inside which I almost died when colliding with a 12-pound fawn on a snowy New Hampshire backroad during a pitch-black, winter evening’s commute home from my big boy job at a flailing digital marketing agency that catered to businesses around the same size as the baby deer I’d struck with my baby car.
It wasn’t my first book (wasn’t even my second or third), nor was it my first instance of car-on-deer violence. Or should I say deer-on-car violence, as it’s a pretty safe bet that the creature fared far better than the tin can I was driving. There’s a saying in these parts that you haven’t really arrived until you’ve hit two deer with two different vehicles.
Well, I’d officially arrived, both as a professional writer and as a New Hampshire-ite.
I was that kid in school who argued with his teachers, who crossed his arms and tossed his too-long hair and got all snotty and defiant when Mrs. Robinson in English 301 said it was impossible to make a living as a writer or a rock star or whatever my flight of fancy was that particular week. I played that gloriously naive and rebellious role fairly well all the way through undergrad and grad school, still refusing to accept the truth – then as a balding, late-starter some ten years older than the other students in my classes – when my mentors would say things like, “Don’t expect to make money as a writer. You get a degree to teach, and you write on the side for fun.”
To that I would cross my arms, toss my head (freshly shorn to hide the pattern of male baldness), and get all snotty and defiant.
“I’ll show YOU, DAD…I mean…PROFESSOR!”
For many years, even long before my “arrival,” the routine was more or less the same. Up at 5 am with a pot of coffee, stabbing away first at a TRS-80 monster of a machine, then a fourth-hand HP keyboard, then a shitty Dell laptop (with several broken keys that had to be replaced one-by-one as they broke because I couldn’t afford an entirely new keyboard), then a Macbook that miraculously survived the dumping of a full pint of Guinness upon it, and finally the little bluetooth toy I’m working on now.
Through it all I’ve spent a fortune on SASEs (and if you know what that acronym stands for, you’ll have an idea how long I’ve been at this), sold short stories and not-so-short stories. I gave stories away. I self-published, I published traditionally. I whored myself on any and every given social media platform, MySpacing and Tweeting and Facebooking and DeviantArting and Mediuming and WattPadding and Instagramming and Patreoning. I wrote essays for Yahoo! and album reviews for heavy metal websites. I blogged. I newslettered.
I had an Angelfire website, fer christ’s sake.
…and I got tired.
I got really fucking tired.
Tired of chasing publishers for payments and sales statements. Tired of submitting rush pieces by request only to never see them published. Tired of putting hundreds of hours into work that even my psychotherapist wouldn’t read all the way through.
Tired of putting hundreds of hours into work that no one read.
I lashed out from time to time, especially lately, blaming my once-beloved social media for dumbing down the world, shortening attention spans, spawning generations of people who only care about the latest international tragedy in as much as it allows them to play at empathy and overlay their profile photo with a flag of whatever nation happens to be attracting thoughts and prayers that day until the next trending hashtag.
But it wasn’t them.
It was me.
Writing just wasn’t fun anymore.
See, everything in the world is about ROI – return on investment. In marketing-speak, it boils down to investing a little to make a lot (or even just a little more). “It takes money to make money,” every perfectly coiffed talking head on CNN Money will tell you.
But ROI doesn’t just apply to money; it applies to everything. Time is an investment. Energy is an investment. And the return on those investments, in the creative arts, can be monetary or they can be emotional. A fan letter or a five-star review on Amazon is a return on investment. The joy you feel when creating – and knowing your creations are being enjoyed by others – is a return mostly greater than the two cents a word you make on a short story sale.
The time to reassess your strategy comes when the investments become greater than the returns.
Over time, the excitement of seeing your name in the wild loses its luster. You Google yourself less and less. It’s the opposite of a drug addiction; a heroin fiend will risk life and limb and love in search of the feeling they got from that first shot in the vein. A writer will just do it until it’s not fun anymore. I realize that is also the stark opposite of the long-revered, romantic vision of a suffering artist who continues to slog away in misery, drinking whiskey messy and smoking clove cigarettes into the night while toiling away on just the right fucking word.
Bullshit. There are more writers who quit halfway through their first novel than there are writers who become a caricature of Hunter S. Thompson or Charles Bukowski. Everyone is attracted to the idea of being a writer until they realize that, like anything else, it all just comes down to a whole lot of hard work and maybe just as much luck.
And for the last year or so, the joy I got out of writing simply wasn’t worth the time and energy and work I was putting into it.
That’s what we call a negative ROI.
So I quit.
…to be continued…