The life of a writer is full of highs and lows, dashed hopes, lucky connections, brief elation, and, sometimes, unforeseen success. Maybe every career carries these elastic moments, but for a writer, these swings are painfully familiar.
The lowest point in my writing life came about a decade ago when I had to abandon a book I had been working quite hard on for six years. The point of abandonment might have been easier, or at least I like to think so, if the idea had been a poor one, or if my writing had been inferior. But the idea was solid, and there were a number of strong chapters in the first version of this book that I had labored over for three years, and even more strong moments, and pages, and chapters in the second complete version—almost a second book, really—that I stubbornly put together in the final three year period.
Six years is a long time— a serious investment—but despite the interest of two publishers, and the support of two excellent editors, the book posed a central storytelling problem that I simply could not solve, no matter how much effort I poured into it.
One July afternoon, I sat in my agent’s office in New York City, having driven into Manhattan just for the day, so we could discuss the next step with my stalled manuscript. “Why don’t you set it aside,” she suggested after some mutual hand-wringing. “Give the book a rest, and who knows, maybe you will come back to it in a few years. But put it aside for now. Let’s see what else you have to work on.”
I wanted to throttle my agent right then and there, and might have if I were not a believer in non-violence (or if the receptionist had not been in such close hearing range.) This had an incalculable amount of hard work, and she wanted me to set it aside just like that?
I sputtered, she patted me down with consoling words, I sputtered some more, and left her office in a state of suppressed rage, shock, despondency, and confusion.
Thirty minutes later, though, as I headed home across the George Washington Bridge, I felt an unexpected high—as if the proverbial load had been lifted from my shoulders. My agent was right after all. Despite the hard work, the soundness of my initial idea, the moments in the book that worked quite well (but not well enough to make the book complete or coherent), the project was making me unhappy, was likely to remain stalled for years to come, and my stubbornness to “finish what I had started” was sucking the life from my writing practice.
I was nearly whistling when I pulled into my Pennsylvania driveway four hours later, so sure that giving up on years of hard work was going to be the right action.
And it was. Within weeks, new doors had opened. By that autumn, I was writing a new book. The book was a modest success. So then I wrote another one. And another one since.
The moral of that story seems obvious enough, except that there are so many contradictory stories—stories of those who refused to throw in the towel, no matter what the obstacles, of those who found success seven, ten, or twenty years down the road. A friend of mine drinks his coffee from a mug with a picture of Winston Churchill aside his famous quote, “Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
So which is true: know when it is time to fold the tent, or never give in—never, never, never, never? How does one know which rule applies? How can anyone be sure of when to stubbornly move forward on a plan versus when it is wisest to shrug and call it quits?
This is a hard question for writers, myself included. I know from experience that it is wise to not give up on any project too early. The fruits of multiple revisions, of fresh eyes, of those wonderful breakthroughs where after months of struggle you suddenly see exactly what a manuscript needs, are real and they are part of the magic and joy of being a writer (or really a creative person of any sort). But sometimes you have to move on. Sometimes you have to say to yourself, “This is not a failure, because I’ve learned so much from trying, but at the same time it is never going to be the story I want it to be.”
In both instances, I think it is a matter of faith, and a matter of having that faith without what Buddhists call “attachment,” the insistence that only a particular outcome is acceptable. In one instance, you have to have the faith that dogged and determined work will get you to the goal, even as the goal seems to be moving further away rather than nearer. In the other instance, you have to have faith in yourself, believing that a major setback will not lead to an eternity of failure, that setting one idea aside will be rewarded by another idea coming in eventually to take its place.
Either outcome is an achievement; you move forward and succeed, or you succeed later, under different circumstances. But too often we cling—attach—to one outcome, and end up drowning ourselves in a sea of disappointment because we grow too tired to swim anymore. Well maybe we can’t swim, but often we can still pull ourselves over to the side of the pool, crawl out, and rest a while on the cool tiles.
I’m thinking this advice applies to much more than just writing and creativity, but I’m leaving it in that arena for the moment. It is important to reach your goal, but it is equally important to remind yourself that there is not just one way to arrive.
Even Churchill offers us an out: “Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small … except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
Good sense knows when to stay and fight, and good sense also knows when to duck, weave, smile, and stand unobtrusively aside.
Faith cannot be rigid. It has to breathe.
Dinty W. Moore is author of numerous books, including The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize. Moore has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and Crazyhorse, among numerous other venues. He lives in Athens, Ohio, where he grows heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions.