"Should I Just Give Up on My Writing?"
If your writing is just a means to an end, you'll struggle to stand out.
Brown and Tan Leaves (1928) by Georgia O’Keeffe
Last night I was talking to my husband about the pros and cons of newsletters, and I remembered this column about an almost-50-year-old writer who’s afraid she’ll never break through. When this letter originally ran on The Cut in September of 2015, I was finishing my final draft of How to Be a Person in the World. My daughters were still small - six and eight. I remember sitting at my desk early in the morning, before the kids were awake, relishing the thought of myself as an old nobody who loves her work.
In the six years since then, I’ve come to dislike the way women proclaim themselves old repeatedly while men rarely acknowledge their age at all, let alone treat it like a massive liability. So for a while, I saw this “I’m just an old nobody” stance as a way of divesting from the world’s view of me, keeping myself safe from my secret desire to feel vibrant, to have new adventures, to be out in the world interacting with new people without shame.
Just as trying to stay open means allowing the world to introduce you to new, unexpected sources of joy, it also means noticing that your ego might back off and let you live a grounded life for a long time, only to assert itself aggressively out of the blue, demanding more fun, more titillation, more acknowledgement. I love to read about other writers’ feelings around aging, but I hate this shadowy expectation that often haunts it, that the ideal is to let go of old things — vanities, frivolities, flirtations, silly indulgences — and become a more serious person, a humble martyr who gardens and reads books and mostly keeps her shaggy carcass out of the way so the youngs can have their fun.
Sometimes it feels good to disengage like that. But what’s with this weird assumption that we’re all meant to transform into higher beings who don’t crave a little pointless drama, some new music, some impractical shoes, a little gossip? Getting older doesn’t turn you into a cross between Mother Theresa and Martha Stewart. I mean, look, even Martha Stewart didn’t become Martha Stewart! Bitch is into edibles now.
Even so, this column feels like a good reminder that there’s no shiny, golden paradise lurking out there, just beyond your next arbitrary career finish line. And if you care too much about success as a marker of worth while losing your connection to the work itself, you wind up jittery and dissatisfied. Because your real job as a writer (and as a person) is to live right here, right now, without measuring your relative importance in the world.
There are so many new ways to count and measure and monitor your success these days, too, and you can see the detrimental effects it has on writers’ understanding of themselves and their work. The more you worry about how the world sees you, how your words land, whether or not you matter, the more neurotic and self-obsessed your writing gets.
But honestly, even that can be fun, if you embrace it without trying to pretend it’s not you! Things get weird when you expect yourself to skip over the messy parts, breeze past the work itself, disavow your truest desires, insult yourself just for being human (which means insulting others for being human, too), and play the role of the purest, truest, most idealistic human on the planet, the one who will eventually slough off all fears and flaws and become a cross between God and Einstein — serious, thoughtful, respected, irreplaceable!
Here’s a thing that’s true for writers and non-writers alike, and also true for very young people and very old people and everyone in between: People don’t need you to be better than you really are. They’ll take you exactly as you are right now. Your job is to get out of your own way, to stop trying to seem better and rediscover your curiosity instead, to stop grinding your gears and throwing off sparks and second-guessing everything you do while judging the way everyone else does everything, and just FIND NEW WAYS TO DELIGHT YOURSELF.
Your job is to learn how to love the work of writing, and the work of aging, and the work of being alive. It’s all work, but it’s sublime. There are no shortcuts. That’s what’s great about it, in fact. You have to show up for it completely. You have to surrender yourself to the project of slowing down, focusing, meditating almost, until you manage to make something that leaps off the page, straight into the arms of a stranger.
The world is a shit heap and we’re lucky to be alive right now. Both things can be true at once. Burrow into your work and find some joy in the excruciating, repetitive, laborious nuts and bolts of what you do. Slow down and notice how much you love it. Find the fun inside this dark puzzle. That’s your job. Do it.
I feel like you get lots of letters from folks either starting out pursuing their passion, or looking for a passion to begin with, but here I am, midlife, mid-career, full of passion but in a slump.
I’m a writer — a peer of yours, I guess, though age-wise, I’m staring straight at the big 5-0. And I’m stuck. I can’t seem to get to the next level and I’m frustrated. I do well enough that it’s a bona fide career — not “here’s my Brooklyn duplex” successful, but a humble income as a freelancer, which, combined with what my partner makes in a stable job, sets us up okay. There are books with my name on the spine on my shelf. Some good reviews (some truly awful). All assembled, I’m a “success.” But not really. I can’t talk about this with many people because as someone who is mid-career and mid-level, I’m not crying from the outfield here, and I can’t be picked up with a “Dust yourself off, kid, you’re young!” speech, either. It’s hard enough to make a profession of writing so I don’t want to sound ungrateful. Many, many people are trudging uphill, trying to get a toehold, so I know how good I’ve had it, relatively speaking. With so many earnest climbers on this Everest just trying to get to base camp, they can’t see you’re clinging to the side of the mountain, running out of oxygen and losing sight of the summit.
I came out of a deep years-long depression after my last book tanked, and I can’t seem to get into a groove. I’m trying to stay visible in the social-media realm, but can’t seem to gain Twitter followers. My book sales are beyond flat. One agent called me, charmingly, “declining track.” The only thing “going viral” in my world is the day-care crud the youngest kid brings home. Writing is about connecting with readers. Why can’t I connect? I’m honest in my work. I try hard.
What am I doing wrong? What am I missing? The New Age advice is walk confidently in the direction of your dreams, and the road will open up before you. Yeah, sort of. I’ve seen that work for some of my friends, including for some lovely odd ducks for whom you’d never predict bonkers mainstream success. Times best sellers. Emmys. Oscars. Oprah. But others are just walking into the void. I feel like I’m just walking in a circle. Polly, I’m tired of walking. What’s my future? Writing pieces for MORE about how much it sucks to be an aging female writer?
I almost feel like I’m asking you for permission to quit, but I remember trying to quit when our last kid was born and as I rocked the kid back to sleep in the dead of night, all I could think about was how I burned to keep writing, how I burned to keep trying to break through. I love the rest of my life. I don’t want to chuck it all to start over — partner, kids, home, friends. I wouldn’t trade any of it. Plus, I’m in the “oh shit” years, when friends are getting cancers of all kinds, getting sick with mystery ailments, and in some cases, dying. So time feels very precious and this drive feels very urgent.
But if I read one more “follow your dreams” platitude from someone lucky enough to be picked by Oprah, I may go out of my gourd. I’ve been walking in the direction of my dreams for the past 20 years, and now I’m fucking stalled, scared, and frustrated. I don’t even want to take meetings because I don’t want to be the middle-aged lady wandering into the midtown sushi place with her best-years-are-behind-me clips.
I feel like I’m running short on time and hope. What next?
Somewhere Between Panic and Dread
Dear Panic and Dread,
I love your letter so much. With your honesty, you opened up a million terrible doors at once. Every single freelance writer in the universe out there who isn’t a best-selling author understands what you’re saying. But the best-selling authors understand, too, because someone else is always bigger than them, and their next book needs to be a best seller, too, or it’s all over. The pressure never ends. Maybe Stephen King can’t relate, but he can still remember pushing the boulder up the hill for years. That’s writing. I know a few best-selling authors, too, and their lives have not been transformed beyond recognition. Writer brains will do their thing with any level of success under the sun.
So what do you imagine that “breaking through” will do for you? If “breaking through” means being “chosen by Oprah” and selling lots of books and having a lot of Twitter followers, then it’s clear enough why you’ll never be motivated by that vision. It’s an arbitrary, abstract vision that has nothing to do with how you want to live or what you actually want to express or bring to the world. I would submit that you’ve created this imaginary “finishing line” because you’re tired and you need a giant golden carrot to keep you moving forward.
If you’re a writer or artist or creative person and your work is an arbitrary means to an end, you will not bring enough raw magic to your work to stand out from the crowd. There’s a reason a lot of your successful friends are “lovely odd ducks for whom you’d never predict bonkers mainstream success.” Those are people who do the work they love passionately, who bring the full force of their personalities to every project, and the world embraces them with equal passion. Those are not people who are trying to “connect” with some imagined audience. They’re fucking weirdos who are foisting their weird creations on the world without apology.
I’m sure I’ve served up just as many “FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS, CHILDREN! DON’T STOP BELIEVING!” messages as the average soldier in Oprah’s soft-filter, Eileen Fisher separates–clad army. But I need you to understand that when I write “Stop comparing yourself to everyone else and do the work you love!” I’m not saying “Keep powering up that hill, Sisyphus!” I’m saying shut out all the noise of Facebook and Twitter and Oprah and the best-seller lists and figure out what you really believe in and like to do every day.
Writing can’t be a popularity contest, and popularity doesn’t add up to much anyway, beyond the ability to pay the bills. There are lots of really popular self-help and advice writers out there whose work is — Well, I would rather carve driftwood sculptures than adopt someone else’s winning strategy for connecting with readers. Advice without rage, advice without longing and despair in the mix, advice through a Vaseline-smeared lens, advice that sounds like ad copy or a douche commercial: NO. I have to do what I do, even if the world decides it’s worthless. I have to follow my own compass and give it my best and hope to connect. I have to carve messy emotions into a useful shape that feels inspired but not reductive.
I love that you’re asking about mid-career, midlife reckoning. And I don’t want you to think for a single second that I’m claiming to bestride the mortal world like a colossus on this front, ignoring other people’s successes left and right. I definitely know all about that “Here I am, middle-aged lady, showing up to draw the pity and ire of the youngs” feeling. I think just becoming a mother can make you feel like an awkward alien among the carefree and the hip.
But look, the whole idea of “breaking through” is such a crock of shit. If you do nothing else, build a religion around this one fact. Beyond the ability to feed yourself, it doesn’t fucking matter if a million people love you or five people do. It doesn’t matter if you’re 25 or 75. You cannot pollute your life with this fixation. You can feel relevant, you can imagine that you somehow matter in the larger scheme of things, you can commit to being a force in the world, without hitting some arbitrary high score or crossing some imaginary threshold of popularity. I am drawn to the flame of Twitter for some great reasons and for some reasons that spring from some slow, sick, sucking part of me, to quote Pavement like the old fucker I am. But you can’t construct your life around these equations. You can’t try to “reach” some imagined mob of dipshits, molding your work to match their dipshitty tastes. Be a lovely odd duck instead, one who hardly notices if people are booing or cheering.
Every day a writer starts over. No one breaks through permanently. The only person who’s arrived and proclaimed himself done is Philip Roth. Good for him. Now he can go around telling us which male authors matter and which male authors don’t. Great American authors inaugurating other great American authors into their club. Forget them! Let them toast each other to infinity and beyond.
We are a wild, weird species, complex and quizzical, fierce and fragile. Honor that. Stop pressing your face to the glass of someone else’s party. Enjoy the party unfolding around you.
What does the future hold for you or me or for any other writer? Uncertainty. Almost all books tank. Every freelance writer alive struggles to make ends meet and has dry spells. All editors ignore almost everyone. Let’s not sit around watching the same four or five authors talk about their enormous successes for the next four decades. Let’s not fear the brand-new dewy-faced ingenues making cool shit and then making big stacks of money. Let’s not let our initial enthusiasm for them curdle into envy. There are always more to envy, coming up behind the last batch.
If you remind yourself of the people who break through too much, you ignore the joy of writing. You ignore the reasons you do this for a living. Why do you do this for a living? Because other pursuits feel pointless! Because you’re fucking good at this! And if you remind yourself of just how many not-quite-famous writers are out there, doing exactly what you do every day and feeling frustrated by it, then you lump yourself in with a giant crowd of people, some of whom aren’t actually that great at what they do. It’s not good to pretend that you DESERVE rare success, and it’s also not good to tell yourself that you’re just another faceless member of the crowd. You can empathize and connect with other writers and still believe in some ineffable magic that wells up from deep inside of you. I sure as hell do. Sometimes! But that still doesn’t mean that you or I DESERVE SUCCESS.
We don’t deserve MORE, you and me. We’re lucky to be writing for a living. Hell, we’re lucky just to be here. That’s the lesson of the people getting sick and dying around you. I understand the darkness that brings; I’ve gone through it, too. It’s unspeakable. Every single day, as you grow older, you have to do the hard work it takes to pull away from that darkness and say: I am alive. I am lucky. I am grateful.
So what do we deserve? We deserve to work really hard at what we love. That’s a privilege. We deserve that.
But there’s more than just the work in the mix for a writer. Once you make something you really love, you have to push that thing out into the world. There are puzzles to solve about getting your work noticed. You have to put a little energy into solving those puzzles without taking any of it personally or even expecting it to work. You have to solve those puzzles in ways that feel completely true to who you are. You can’t change significantly for the sake of our dipshitty culture — which, by the way, still celebrates odd ducks in spite of itself.
Somehow, you have to commit to your work and commit to getting it exposed, but you also have to detach yourself from any given outcome. You have to work hard to get in editors’ and readers’ faces, but you also have to feel completely fine with being a nobody forever and ever. Personally, I find it much easier to invest in my work when I’m at peace with it never amounting to shit. I can focus on making it as good as it can be without getting distracted by things that don’t matter.
You have to support your lovely odd-duck friends who have made money from their creations, but you can’t compare yourself to them. You have to aim high but you also have to commit yourself to the work you love and believe in without any expectation that it will bring you success.
And when your hungry ego grabs the wheel and drives you off a cliff, forgive yourself. But then pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and repeat these words: I AM AN OLD NOBODY AND I LOVE WHAT I DO. I’m going to make an inspirational poster with those words on it. Dreaming about breaking through is like joining a fundamentalist religion fixated on the afterworld. There is no glistening golden castle in the sky waiting for any of us.
Instead of looking up at the best-selling writers climbing upward above you, look below, to the struggling, younger writers beneath you. Reach out a hand, and pull them up. Tell them what you know. Give them a little hope, a little focus, a few practical skills.
We are old nobodies who love what we do. We would be old nobodies even if Oprah and the New York Times best-seller list consecrated us, because we don’t want to create illusions around ourselves like so many others have done before. Instead, we make what we love and dress how we like and dance in our kitchens and breathe in the good moments because we know nothing lasts that long. We will never have everything we ever wanted. The world will not turn shiny and spotless and perfect one day. We aren’t rushing to some imaginary finish line. We are inching along slowly, smelling the flowers, playing with our dogs and cats, giving generously to those who need our help when we can.
We wake up very early in the morning, before the sun comes up, and we say to the world: I AM OLD AND I AM A NOBODY AND I LOVE WHAT I DO. You will be just like me someday. If you’re lucky.
Thank you for reading and supporting Ask Polly! Struggling to write, to create, to reinvent your life around your passions? Write to askpolly at protonmail.com.
Thank you so much for this letter I missed when it first came out, but which arrived today at the perfect time. I am a writer too and though I am younger than LW, I constantly struggle with this feeling/belief that there are some milestones I should reach by a certain point in my life. But to add to Heather's wonderful letter, I'd just like to mention that there are so many things in life that make us embrace, often unconsciously, the same goal-oriented mindset that comparing ourselves to successful writers does. I often struggle under the weight of the many non-writing-related expectations I have of myself: "I should have more money saved at my age," "I am too old to own a broken IKEA chest of drawers," "I should know better than to continuously put off exercise” and, the big one, "I am supposed to know what I want by now!" When I sit down at my desk to write, all these thoughts are there with me. But then, more often than not, something magical happens: in the process of writing, of trying things out, of letting my brain move freely in all directions, I get swept up in the process. I think this is what Heather is referring to when she writes: "Your job is to learn how to love the work of writing, and the work of aging, and the work of being alive. It’s all work, but it’s sublime." Writing helps me see beyond the hierarchical systems in my mind, where I always perceive myself as being not high enough on the accomplishment scale, not good enough. It helps me see the richness of my life where I am now, in the lower echelon, short of all my expectations. More than that, it erases the very idea of competition. Paradoxically, it makes the prospect of fixing the chest of drawers seem a lot less daunting, and even fun, because it isn’t tied up to my self-worth anymore — it’s just one of the many unexpected and exciting and novel things that one can be given to do in their lifetime. All of this may not apply so much to LW, who seems to have her life in very good order and no broken furniture, but this letter and Heather’s response inspired me to put into words just what a life-saver writing has been and continues to be for me.
My writing group is made up of 60+ women. The majority I would guess are 70+. They are the smartest people I’ve ever met with the most important and poignant things to say. As we age, we have more to say, and these women have taught me that I think it’s crucial that we say it.