When Should You Admit Defeat, Give It Up, And Go Eat Worms?

by Brian on June 21, 2012

in The Writing Life

The doubts must cross everyone’s mind at some point:

This is just too much. I’m getting nowhere. Why bother continuing this ongoing exercise in masochism? It’ll only be more of the same. Why not pack it in and give this up.

Certainly it crossed reader FZA’s mind recently, when he posted this in the comments:

“Can I ask a delicate question? Do you agree that there is a concept that at a certain stage in somebody’s life, if you haven’t made it then you simply don’t have ‘it’?”

I do, yes. It’s that stage of life when you’re declared clinically dead.

Until then, the game is still on.

Of Course, It’s Easy To Say That

It’s easy for me, for anyone, to say don’t give up. Easy to say hang in there. Easy to quote Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss” line. That’s the easiest thing in the world. As David J. Schow once said somewhere, “Talk is cheap. Hell, talk is free.”

Doing, and enduring … that’s the hard part.

That’s the part that takes more than a skill set. It also takes defiance, and a tolerance for pain and disappointment, and the willingness to keep getting up after getting knocked down. It takes a long-term vision and commitment and belief in yourself. Most of which have come up in the last couple of posts.

But there’s a threshold where all those natural resources start to feel tapped out. There’s a point at which the pain of contemplating “It hasn’t happened yet” outweighs the pleasure of anticipating “But it might.” I’m not going to deny that.

But it’s not for me, for anyone, to tell a person when they’ve reached that stage. I’m just not in the habit of telling people to surrender. With the possible exception of that neighbor who fancies himself a singer, and hauls his guitar out onto his deck to serenade whoever’s in earshot, and never at a good time. Him, yeah, I’d consider squashing that dream like a rotten peach.

For everybody else…

Only you can say when you’ve hit the wall.

But before you finish sorting that out, be sure you’ll be making a truly informed decision.

The Myth Of “It”

As synchronicity would have it, a couple days before the above question was posted, I finished a book I’d recommend to anyone engaged in this kind of soul-searching: Talent Is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin. It’s undoubtedly going to make my 2012 list of the 5 most useful books I’ve read during the year. It’s influenced the way I approach practicing the piano, and I can already tell a difference.

The core premise is this: Whatever “it” you think there is to have, at least in the sense of some innate quality you were born with, “it” doesn’t exist. No research study has ever found a basis for inborn talent.

Rather, whatever “it” is, it’s been grown over a long time through an enormous amount of focused effort. “Deliberate practice” is Colvin’s term for it. Which means not merely sticking to your comfort zone and doing what already comes fairly easily — that’s just hanging out on a plateau, without climbing higher. It means, instead, working on what doesn’t come easily, on what’s hard. Which automatically means it’s not much fun. And unless you can be brutally honest and realistic with yourself, informed feedback is usually a necessary part of the process.

To bolster his case, Colvin argues that a couple of oft-cited yeah-but-what-about examples are just myths: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Tiger Woods. Both are widely viewed as prodigies who displayed preternatural abilities as children. In truth, they were both the products of passionately devoted fathers who were excellent teachers and started instructing them as toddlers.

Colvin doesn’t mention hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, but it’s the same story. His father had him in skates at age 2, and would flood the family’s back yard so he’d have a private skating rink right outside the door.

In my own instance, I started writing in second grade, and was winning or placing in contests by high school and college. Every so often, an influential teacher made a difference at a key point. By the time I was 22, a Harvard professor assured me I was ready to make the leap to novels … and she was right.

It sounds like an accelerated pace, but by then, I’d already been writing for 15 years. It was much less a matter of innate gifts — none of that juvenilia would I ever want to see the light of day now — than having a passion for putting in the necessary time and effort. And even then, I was still barely getting started.

Diagnosing Yourself

So if you and your writing (or any other endeavor) aren’t where you want to be, consider:

Maybe you haven’t spent enough time at it yet. And how long should that be? This brings us back to the 10,000-hour mark that comes up repeatedly: To become pro-grade good at something takes about 10,000 hours of focused effort, which is roughly equal to 3 hours/day for 10 years.

Or maybe you haven’t been getting the right kind of feedback.

Or maybe you haven’t been continually pushing yourself past your comfort zone.

This is all a double-edged sword, and may or may not be reassuring. On the one hand, it means that just about anything is potentially do-able. On the other hand, it lets the universe off the hook for what it has or hasn’t given you, and instead shifts the onus onto you.

So the question is no longer whether or not you have an innate talent or ability, but whether or not you’re willing to put yourself through the long, not-terribly-fun regimens of doing whatever it takes to cultivate it.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

Although he may not have conceived of it that way, FZA’s post was actually a two-parter. There’s also this:

“I’d like to bring your attention to a sickening story regarding talent and ability in regards to this.

“One of my favourite writers, Thom Jones, tried to place a couple of his stories with various magazines late on in his career when he resumed writing seriously after stints in the army. Joyce Carol Oates rejected ‘Rocket Man’, an absolutely amazing story.

“So in the following interview he describes what happened next:

“He approached a fellow writer for advise. This published writer said that he had to write a story that COULDN’T be rejected. So as he recalls in the interview above, he decided the write ‘The Pugilist at Rest’ which got picked out of the slush pile at The New Yorker and went on to win the O. Henry Award and then become the title story in his debut collection which was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Another story out of that collection, ‘I Want to Live’, was selected by Updike at one of the best stories of the 20th Century.

“How can anyone compete with that?”

And who told you you had to compete with that?

I certainly don’t have to. No writer I know would regard him- or herself as competing with that. It’s impressive, to be sure, but how is it in the way of whatever you want to do? And has Jones himself even duplicated the feat … and if he doesn’t, does that mean everything after is worthless?

The world’s most dismal spectator sport is using other people as the yardstick by which to measure yourself: what they’ve done, what they have, how they look. It’s one of the surest ways to make yourself miserable.

You can look at someone else’s exemplary achievement in one of 2 basic ways:

• An impossible standard to live up to, which fills you with despair, envy, or resentment.

• A confirmation of what is possible, which motivates you to work harder or smarter, or to just hang in there longer.

While there’s a lot we don’t have control over, how to frame an outlook is one of the things for which we do.

Third Alternatives

The choice doesn’t have to be as binary as quit/don’t quit. If you look for it, you might find a little wiggle room somewhere in between.

Focus only on the process awhile instead of the end goal. Sure, it’s a cliche, that line about how it’s all about the journey rather than the destination. It’s not even true. If the destination isn’t at least a little important, why set off in the first place?

Still, sometimes restricting your range of vision is necessary to keep your sanity, or hold off a sense of overwhelm.

As a part of Krav Maga practice, I also do a bit of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, just to round out my ground game a little better. Except BJJ is like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole. Where technique and its refinement are concerned, there’s no bottom. There’s always a deeper level. And when you’re grappling with more experienced training partners, you tend to get tied in knots a lot. After a while, this isn’t much fun, and can start to get demoralizing.

Here’s something the instructor recently told someone who was clearly frustrated: Forget about winning or losing. Just focus on one thing you want to do in the round. One sweep, one reversal, one technique, whatever it is. Get that, and there’s your victory for the round, no matter how the rest of it goes.

So take that same outlook to the page: Forget about publication or acclaim. Just write the story you’ve been dying to write, regardless of how marketable you think it is. Come up with the character you’ll find irresistible to work with. Craft a passage so exquisitely balanced that one errant word would throw it out of whack. Give some characters the sharpest dialogue they’ve ever spoken.

You’ll know when it’s time to raise your head and look to the distance again.

Redefine what constitutes success for you. Also around the same time FZA posted the question, links were popping up on Facebook to this brief essay by one-time screaming comedian and actor Bobcat Goldthwait, on the power of quitting to get to the happy part. Except what he’s been up to in recent years isn’t so much about quitting as recalibrating what he finds most satisfying.

People renegotiate with themselves all the time. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it’s a relief. Maybe the rarefied air of The New Yorker isn’t in your future. That doesn’t mean someplace else isn’t. It’s only the end of the world if you’ve made your world that constrained.

One Last Consideration

Walking away from something that, presumably, you once found satisfying … only you can tell yourself whether or not it’s the right thing to do. While it’s not a decision anyone is apt to make lightly, they might still forget about the responsibility they’re turning their back on.

Responsibility…? Yeah.

And to cover that, the last word goes to legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

[Photo by Gruenemann]

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris K June 25, 2012 at 6:22 am

Brian, you make a lot of terrific points in this article, least of which is “Keeping up with the Joneses” and defining success for each individual writer. Hell, we’d all like to write that next massively popular bestseller (I somehow think EL James had NO idea what a successful monster she was writing, at the time) but that is rare. As the old saying goes…shit happens. I struggle with this on and off at times–i.e.-at 44, why haven’t I been more successful at my writing–but there’s NO one to blame but me…but I also firmly believe that art imitates life and NO journey in life is the same. To be honest, I have thought about “giving it up” a few times…or more than a few, but ultimately I keep working on it…why? Because I’m a writer.

Reb MacRath June 27, 2012 at 5:28 am

The vast majority of those who Make It have one thing in common: Looking back, they realize, they could never have continued if anyone had warned them how long and hard the path would be. More than even hope or faith, the growing heat of their love of The Way kept them alive and whole. Rock on, everybody.

Brian June 28, 2012 at 7:29 pm

@Chris: Yeah, more often than not, the tag of ‘writer’ tends to be not just something you do, but something you are.

And no, I doubt that anybody who creates a bona fide phenomenon has much clue what’s about to happen. I mean, didn’t the 50 Shades stuff start out as Twilight-inspired fan fiction, something like that … and then, only later, did she strip away the vampire stuff?

@Reb: Or, by the same taken, even if so warned, they would’ve just looked at the person and said, “Yeah? What’s your point?”

Early on, when I was still working on the first couple of novels, Robert R. McCammon told me that after I met him and his wife, Sally, and they were back home, I came up in conversation. One of them said, “Ohhh, why does he want to do this to himself?” Easy: There was no choice!

Stance July 5, 2012 at 12:40 am

Well written and inspiring. Thank you for writing it.

Lacey Savage July 7, 2012 at 9:24 am

Wonderful post. I appreciate the reminder that we’re really the only ones who can take ourselves out of the game. I write full time, and I often wonder whether I have ‘it’ — that elusive thing that’s going to propel me from struggling artist to successful writer. I like the idea that there is no ‘it’; that it’s all up to me to make it happen. Control is empowering.

Brian July 10, 2012 at 8:18 am

@Stance: You’re very welcome. Glad you took something from it.

@Lacey: Thanks for your perspective. And, whether bestowed or self-chosen, you have a great name for book covers. A couple days ago I came across this BBC News op-ed on dealing with a goofy name, which also goes off on a tangent on the immortality of great names borne by various writers:


kayee March 27, 2014 at 9:17 am

another excellent post. Thanks Brian!

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