When Creation for Creation’s Sake Isn’t Enough

How do you know when it’s time to quit writing?

When I first began writing this article, my lead-in was as follows:

How do you know when it’s time to quit writing? I wish this question was rhetorical. I wish I had an article full of answers, but I don’t.

Over the course of revising this piece, though, I think I’ve worked my way to something vaguely resembling an answer. It is not an inspiring answer, nor is it a particularly cheerful one, but it’s the best I’ve got to offer you, and, truthfully, it’s the best I’ve got to offer myself.

I wish I could personally assure you that writing with depression can get better. I wish I could pitch this whole thing as an ultimately inspiring tale, padded with anecdotes about how I’ve grown as an author and a storyteller, how I’ve overcome my struggles, how I now find myself with that blessed, insatiable need to scribble down ideas for new characters and new worlds at almost all hours of the day. I wish I could honestly say that after almost five years of writing daily (or trying to, anyways), writing with a clear purpose has returned me to the bastion of when I was nineteen, knew nothing of deadlines, and was more inspired than I had ever been before.

The sad truth of it, though, is that once I became serious about the craft, it became— and continues to be — much more of a constant challenge than anything else.

In lieu of some inspiring story with a blatantly inspirational end, I’m going to speak honestly about my experiences as a writer, to try and give a voice to the silent and disenchanted masses that are trying to hack it as storytellers (myself included).

This is not to say that I’m not grateful for what good experiences I have had while pursuing this dream, because there have been some fantastic moments along the way. What I am saying, however, is that, for me, writing has become a craft holistically caught up in a logical quagmire by which creating and not creating are equally as frustrating. That frustration is compounded by the fact that not only have I come too far to stop, but that there are days more often than not when I wish I’d never started pursuing this seriously in the first place.

Writing has been an uphill battle for years, though it began as something quite different. What started as a poorly executed hobby in childhood progressed to lazy weekends in middle school scribbling down the latest idea I had, none of which exceeded ten or twenty thousand words over the course of several months. In college, writing fiction became my favorite form of escapism, and when there was no deadline or obligation (even to myself and my own desire to feel like I’d accomplished something), the words flowed until my hands and wrists ached, and new ideas would keep me up at night. Potential arcs made their way into the margins of my class notebooks and into the note-keeping apps on my phone, and the trials and tribulations of everyday life were faced with the knowledge that, sooner or later, I would be able to get back home and write.

The moment I decided to try and make something of that hobby, it was just a matter of time until I began to resent the whole endeavor. Suddenly, my ideas had to be obsessively compared against timeworn clichés and publicly hated tropes to ensure a certain caliber of final product. Word counts became the ultimate goal. Deadlines that nobody but myself had created were suddenly to be obsessed over, inevitably missed, and obsessed over even more.

This is not to say that I don’t still love the idea of threading together arcs and themes; at the heart of it all, I do still passionately love storytelling, but that love has not been enough to keep the idea of quitting from crossing my mind at least a few times.

Condemning the Sufferers

Oftentimes, my lack of ideas or inspiration leads me to social media to scroll for cat videos, to share a writing meme or two, to check up on the progress of my mutuals and fellow indies. And, sure, being on social media isn’t going to get my four WIPs done anytime soon, but it has done more than just push my release dates back obscenely far; it has slowly introduced me to a new faction of the writing community. It has introduced me to those who are unabashedly bitter and cynical — and not in the cute, artsy, Hollywood way.

One of the reasons why social media can be so dangerous for our mental health is the fact that everyone is more or less always putting their best self forward, and it can often make the rest of us feel like we are either inadequate, falling behind, or just plain failing. Whether it be personal, academic, or financial success, social media can be (and often is) an echo chamber of success, with not a lot of room for the crestfallen.

It many ways, it is the same with writers and authors. I’ve read countless articles and blog posts recounting times when the author wanted to stop writing, when they took year-long breaks and steadfastly told themselves they were quitting “for good this time,” only to have the article end with an encouraging sentiment and the author talking about how their near loss of faith in the craft reaffirmed it more than ever. But what I’ve yet to find very many of, if any, are the ongoing questions of faith, the articles written by those who have accidentally stepped on their rose-colored glasses one time too many to repair the fractured frame with any more masking tape.

Sure, we all know that writing is an essentially thankless job. For the vast majority of those who write, the only way to achieve any sort of happiness is to be the kind of purist who believes, beyond a doubt, that creation is its own reward. In some ways, it is. In many ways, it is not. It all depends on who you are. Yet that lack of personal fulfillment is even worse within an echo chamber of success and achievement, where those who talk about the bitter aspects of it all are shamed and cast aside.

I’ve seen unapologetically negative tweets and threads pop up here and there, writers who have utterly fallen out of love with the craft, who have had horribly disappointing experiences with it, who don’t have it in them to keep thinking the glass is half full, and they are condemned for their attitudes. They are labeled as toxic, written off for being negative, deemed to be bitter and cynical, and used as a prime case of how not to think. They are dragged and made example of, and their own lack of success or recognition is blamed not on the odds but on the very attitudes that such struggles have cultivated.

And it’s a shame. It’s a shame because, in my own way, I understand their frustration. I understand the feeling of loss when you realize that one of the things that kept you sane has now become a thing that keeps you up at night in a humorless parody of the way it used to. I understand that oftentimes the ugly realities of artistic creation itself force you to reevaluate why you’re even writing in the first place. It’s an ugly mirror to look into, a bitter pill to swallow, and a whole host of other clichés that amount to the same kind of introspection not all of us are willing to do. For some of us, this introspection does reaffirm our faith in the craft, rekindles our love, helps us dust the cobwebs off our manuscripts and helps us recenter that focus. For others, it’s the final nail in the coffin, the thing that makes us finally walk away for good.

So, when is it time to stop writing?

When is it time to quit, once and for all, permanently, “for good this time”?

Maybe it’s time to quit when the idea of giving up completely is a thought that makes you sink into a relieved sleep at night, instead of being a thought that keeps you staring at the walls for hours because the unfulfilled potential of a manuscript is just too infuriatingly irksome to bear.

Maybe it’s time to quit when that nagging voice in the back of your head — the one that gives you new ideas and connects your plot points in the most ingeniously painful ways — goes silent.

Maybe it’s time to quit when you can honestly look inside yourself and say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that words no longer twist your heart or take your breath away.

Personally, I cannot say any of these things right now. I can’t say that one or all of these won’t be true in some close future, but for now, I cannot let my characters rest.

For now, I’m still writing.

Are you?