Giving up is a quiet kind of thing. It’s surprising to recognise it can be so quiet – perhaps we’re led astray by noisy proclamations from friends leaving social media (only to return a few weeks later). In reality, you barely ever see someone publicly announce they’re giving up something to which they’ve been devoted. Retire, yes. That tends to have a different range of connotations – the sense that a practice has followed its course and reached its culmination (though it always seems a little strange when writers retire, like Philip Roth or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as though one should be writing all the way through to one’s deathbed). We have retirement parties, but not giving up parties. There’s no gold watch for the writer who quits, because nobody much knows it has happened. Maybe the writer doesn’t even know – giving up their artform can be a process, rather than a moment. Writers might find that one, two, five years have passed since they’ve sat down and created something. It’s less a conscious decision and more something that has happened to them.
Even so, the lack of recognition for writers who are quitting is kind of startling, because it’s something that happens all the time, and often for reasons just as practical and sensible as for those who are formally retiring. The novelist who has been dropped by their publisher and can’t find a home for their third book. The journalist who can’t make ends meet on a freelance income. The poet who has lost faith in what they’re doing. Look up a short story anthology from just a few years ago; try to find some of the writers, the talented, interesting writers, to read more of their work. They’ve gone. Chucked it in. Disappeared.
Honestly, I feel like I’m constantly on the edge of throwing up my hands and pressing a massive red button on my desk that sounds a final siren and calls an end to it. Time with my young family or mucking around in the bush seems much more worthwhile than slogging away at writing. I’ve often felt you need a kind of madness to keep creating well, even if you enjoy it, because the rewards are so few. It’s a madness of belief, of confidence; ambition, perhaps. A bloody-minded certainty that there’s value in your words, and that others will value them. That madness is mostly hidden in me these days, and quitting feels like a constant cloud looming.
I’m willing to bet that many of my contemporaries feel something similar. This can be really difficult to navigate, and perhaps it’s not so remarkable that writers tend to chuck it in silently. Writing is something we’ve spent years learning and refining, something that has formed our identities and how we understand ourselves; in giving up, we’re quitting before having the kind of success we might feel is warranted. In this, there seems little to celebrate. There can be shame attached; the shame of failure.
After winning the Man Booker Prize, Marlon James explained he had abandoned writing when his first manuscript was rejected 78 times. “I did give it up. I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends computers and erased it.” There can be encouragement in his story; we might recognise that giving up is not necessarily permanent, and that writers need to persist through rejection. But while there’s usefulness in the cliché that success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm, the truth is that most writers do fail enough times to lose enthusiasm and there’s no use in shaming them about it. It’s not unreasonable. The whole industry suffers from constant, quiet attrition.
These brief reflections are not intended as my own announcement. I seem to bumble on. Sometimes I get asked to write things and commit to a story or an essay. I still enjoy the practice itself, and there can be interesting ideas to pursue. Maybe I’ll emerge from the acute years with the kids and certain stresses will dissipate. There might be more time and energy to push and pull at text.
And yet, I do like the idea of recognising how many of us are somewhere on the quitting spectrum. To acknowledge that this is a really hard business and that we can keep going if we like, driven by whatever madness is kicking us along, and look to encourage each other gently. But also, that we are totally free to give up our identities as writers; that it’s something many, indeed most, have done before, and this in no way invalidates the fine work we have done up to now; that there should be some kind of recognition of the contributions we have made, even as we step away from the form. That the writing we have finished, our creative achievements, and our moving on to new interests, challenges and identities – maybe all of this is worth chucking some kind of party about after all.
Ben Walter’s poetry, essays, and experimental short stories have appeared in Lithub, Meanjin, Overland and a wide range of other publications. His latest book, Conglomerate, was published as part of the Lost Rocks series, and shortlisted in the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes. He is the fiction editor at Island.Copyright © 2020 Ben Walter.