When Great Writers Vanish

GeezerBeing a geezer writer has its advantages. Decades in the business makes for a slice of clarity, a broader understanding of why some writers make it while others fail, or just choose to disappear. It’s usually a strange and toxic mixture of life ingredients.

It often doesn’t have anything to do with talent.

Some of the best writers I’ve known simply walked away from the trade. These were gifted people whose work I admired and thought was outstanding. But they gave it all up. They just vanished from the scene.

It’s not easy to wrap your head around this problem. Still, there are some common themes, scant threads that seem to surface with these individuals. Even though they disappeared as writers, a few of them stayed in touch, a few gave explanations. There are lessons.

Feedback fail. Many of the writers I’ve known needed a good deal of feedback. When you write for a living, especially at the start of your career, that just doesn’t happen. You are working in a vacuum, for the most part. Sure, you may get some feedback from friends or a trusted draft-reader, but many writers are looking for much more. They want reader feedback, the kind of notice given by those unknown but appreciated readers. Beginning writers can’t get that feedback, and some of them wither under the wish. They walk away before they’ve given themselves a chance. If you can’t stand lonliness, writing is the wrong path for you.

Life interferes. This is a rough one. It’s something that all beginning writers need to face. It takes a long time, if ever, for your writing to pay off. Throughout that stretch, life moves on. How can a writer balance it all? It’s not easy for anyone but it’s particularly gruesome for someone not yet established. You need the tenacity and drive to make your writing work itself into your life, to weave its place around the necessities of living. Sometimes, life just takes over and there’s nothing you can do about it. During those times, writing takes a second seat. It’s hard but you’ve got to tough it out. Reach deep and pull out the draft, even if it’s just to add a word or two, just to read a few lines. When the flame flickers low, don’t let it blow out. Patience helps, always.

Rejection

Rejection. Too many talented writers die on the words of rejection letters. It’s an understandable reaction. You work your butt off for nothing but the love of the word. You spend years perfecting your trade. Then, some editor blows you off with a tight rejection. Others follow. Suddenly, you’re drained. Too many rejections, too little reward. Wrong feedback. We’ve all been there. But rejections are nothing more than opinions. Editors and publishing houses have a long tradition of making stupendous blunders about writing talent. Opinions are free and common, and often offered by individuals who have never spent the time or effort to perfect their own art. Ignore them and move on. Mourn if you must, but only for a moment. It’s easy to say and hard to do. I understand that. But what choice do you have, if you truly want to be a writer?

Luck. This sounds silly but it’s a factor that’s brought many good writers to their knees. It really applies to traditionally-published work. In the world of publishing, there are limits to production. Publishers set an early and tight schedule for themselves. In other words, there are always more writers than there are slots in the publishing schedule. So, luck sometimes wins out, especially if a number of talented writers are working the same small market. There’s not much you can do about this. It’s best to remember that luck smiles without a winked eye, when it smiles. Your turn will come. The trick is to just accept this randomness and work around it. The best answer to luck is to improve your writing skill.

Timing. Hot genres come and go. If you’re writing for the short term, you need to get into the hot genre and get there quickly. It’s a mad rush toward a narrow doorway, though. Expect a lot of bumping and bruising. Personally, I don’t like this approach. It’s too chaotic, too nuts and too stressful. Why not consider looking ahead, working toward a genre that has more legs? Let the others rush. Take your time and make your work all it can be.

It’s not for you. Great writers don’t always want to be writers. I suppose that sounds strange to those who write for a living. I’ve met a few individuals who fit this category. They were brilliant writers, really good. But that wasn’t their life-ride. They enjoyed writing but also wanted to taste other life pleasures. They tried it, did a good job, and walked away. I have a lot of respect for these people. It’s not something I could do, just walk away from an obvious talent. They could. They had a bigger vision in life. Good for them.

Pain

The pain is too great. I get it. There is nothing simple or easy in a writer’s life. The rewards can be outstanding, no doubt about it. However, the journey is anything but comfortable. In fact, I think you need to be a little nuts to make it your life’s work. Writing can be miserable but also exhilarating. It’s like any other creative process. The ups and downs are extreme. The potential for a reasonable reward is small. The work is downright tough. It’s enough to drive anyone to find another way through life. It’s just too much for some people and they walk away, regardless of their talent. Only the word addict remains.

Art grows. I’ve know a few writers who have moved on to another art form. These people are truly interesting. It seems they can conquer very different arts, each with aplomb. I have no idea how they pull this off. I’m in awe of these people, probably because I have only a single art. I love these artists, the ones who walk away from writing and straight into another art form they easily conquer. Wow! If that’s the reason you walk away from the word, you’ve made a great decision. You are more than a writer, you are an artist. You are my hero.

I suppose there are all kinds of other reasons why these word masters walked away from it all. Back in the early years, I wanted to walk away. I just couldn’t do it. Like many of my writer friends, I had a major word addiction.

I still do, even though I’m old enough to know better.

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17 thoughts on “When Great Writers Vanish

  1. Michael – this post is brilliant and strangely inspirational.

    It’s sort of counter-intuitive advice and it makes me want to keep going despite the fact that many better writers than me have given up.

    On the face of it it would seem a depressing list of why writers fail to make an impact or walk away from their art so I have no idea why this piece should resonate so much with me … but I am going to reblog it on my blog in case it does the same with my readers.

  2. True in all professions, and especially the arts, which have no obvious utility. It’s easy to feel like a freeloader, and when you do, you get plenty of reinforcement. Take my word for it.

  3. A wonderful post, Michael πŸ™‚ I wonder if in some ways, self-publishing can answer that need for feedback in the early stages of a writer’s life. I think about my own situation. Very unlikely a traditional publisher would have looked at Disappearing in Plain Sight. I would have had feedback from a few and that’s that. Instead, I was able to get the book out there, learn a ton, get right to work on the next book and meanwhile get a lot of valuable feedback from readers. And now I feel like I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. This post is quite inspirational and I think I’ll re-blog on Disappearing in Plain Sight today. Thanks.

    • Thanks. You probably know that I encourage writers to self-publish and avoid the usual publishing sharks. I’ve written a number of articles about this very subject. I know this sounds strange coming from a traditionally published writer but I believe talent needs to be shared openly and as widely as possible. Anyway, I ramble . . .

  4. I found the advice given very profound. It was talking directly to me. We all think our words are nectar for the Gods and when we are not anointed with positive feedback, we feel like we have been abandoned and start to doubt ourselves. I guess if writing was easy, everyone would do it. Thanks for the post.

  5. I found your thoughts enlightening and encouraging (and a bit sad.) I hope you don’t mind I shared the link on my FB page for my writer friends. Thank you. πŸ™‚

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