How to Know When to Quit Writing

I started writing almost from the moment I knew how, wanting even as a little kid to give voice to the worlds that lived in my head, to emulate the stories I loved, and to actually see myself in print. My first finished manuscript still lives in a keepsake drawer, a remedially illustrated autobiography entitled “My book about Me, I Wrote It Myself” (I cringe at the comma splice), written on construction paper and bound with yarn and a three-hole punch.

Like a lot of us who grow up to love words and story and writing, I found a lot of pleasure in creating my own, making up whatever reality I wanted. Back then it was the doing of it that I loved—autobiography aside, I wasn’t writing to create a finished product; I wrote for the joy of it, the sheer delight of make-believe on the page. It was just another kid’s game, the way I entertained myself, just like my sister created elaborate working stables with Barbies and model horses, or my younger brother created cityscapes with LEGOs and blocks.

It was imagination and entertainment. It was fun. It was play.

I think most of us start our writing journeys this way—we pick up a pen (or sit at the keyboard) for the sheer enjoyment of loosing our imagination, of creating. It’s the process that’s the point—not the product.

But at some point that feeling of total freedom gives way. It gets crushed under self-consciousness, self-doubt, comparisons, the judgments of ourselves or others. It gets lost amid responsibilities—school and chores, work and family. It gets buried under an avalanche of stress, worry, fear, and uncertainty when the inevitable pressures of life bear down on it, like, oh, say, extreme social division and major civic unrest and a global pandemic that feels like it will NEVER END and upends every aspect of our lives.

Suddenly writing feels frivolous, or pointless, or like a chore. One more pressure, one more failure, one more expectation weighing us down. Craft books and articles exhort you to create a writing routine and stick to it no matter what. Self-pub gurus churn out a book a month and tell you that’s what’s needed for success in this field. Stephen King writes that in his decades-long career he’s written every single day of his life except maybe one Christmas and that time he was in a life-threatening accident.

And you slide further into self-castigation as you find yourself dreading sitting down at your computer to write, or feel more and more inadequate with every day you fail to.

This, my friends, is when you should quit writing.

Not forever—let me say that right out of the gate. Unless you want to, of course. And then by all means, put the pen down and never look back.

Because writing, no matter what anyone says, including the venerated, gifted Stephen King—whom I adore, let me just say, even as I tell him to STEP OFF, Mr. King—should be exactly what you felt it was when you first felt the urge to do it: it’s fun, a delightful pastime, a fun creative outlet. Even when it’s hard.

And it is hard—I won’t lie to you about that, and if you’ve written you already know it as well as anyone. But it’s hard in the way that most rewarding things are, like learning to ride a bike or drive a car. These aren’t product-oriented pursuits either—we don’t learn these skills so we can say, “CHECK! Done.” We learn them so we can open up our world beyond the borders of where we can travel with only our feet—just as writing widens our world beyond our own lived experiences.

And most of us probably aren’t beating ourselves up because we’re not using our wheels much at the moment. It’s not really the time, in this worldwide pause. What’s best for us and for the world right now is to mostly stay home, and we’ve got plenty on our plate right there coping with the added stresses and hardships the pandemic has laid on most of the world. Our vehicles will be there for us when we’re ready for them.

So will your writing.

I asked at the beginning of this post, how do you know when to quit writing? The answer is actually easy—when it feels right. When you need to.

The creative impulse is, to borrow a concept from entrepreneur Paul Jarvis, “like having an electric car. Sure, it can go super fucking fast, but it also needs to recharge. If you don’t charge it, it doesn’t go at all. Both things are useful (going fast is exhilarating, but charging is required).” 

For me the pandemic ran my battery down to the red zone. Since May I’ve had two book releases, launched two online courses (with five more in the works), created half a dozen presentations for writers’ groups hungry for programming during this enforced downtime at home, and organized an online editing summit for writers—all on top of my actual editing schedule, which has been bananas (and I’m grateful beyond measure to have steady work I can do from the safety of home).

All of this is my passion and my life’s work, and usually I get recharged from the doing of it just like the regenerative braking in our electric car while it’s in motion—but even then I have to take my foot off the accelerator to recharge.

But I forgot that, and the joy and passion and flow I usually take from all these pursuits started to seep away. I was feeling stressed, frustrated, inadequate, feelings made worse by the sense that my creative well had dried up.

So I took my foot off the pedal.

I eased off the punishing schedule I’d created for myself for the online courses; reclaimed the nights and weekends I’d slid into working because time has little meaning in this endless quarantine; deliberately sought out more of the things that charge my batteries: my husband and friends and dogs, nature, baking, painting, gardening. I gave myself permission to take time, literally—to take it back from the obligations and strictures I’d put on myself to CREATE, CREATE, CREATE that had robbed any sense of the joy I usually get from the doing of them.

Those projects will all be there when I’m ready. And I will bring more to them at that time not despite stepping away from them, but because of it. As I’ve created mental and psychic space for myself again, I’ve noticed the juice trickling back in. Ideas are coming back…along with the pleasure of noodling on them. This downtime will make me more effective.

So if you’re feeling drained, authors, take your foot off the accelerator and recharge. Put your WIP down—even mid-NaNo if that’s what you need. That’s another external pressure we put on ourselves—useful only if it helps you, not if it harms you. NaNo will be there next year if it’s too much in this unprecedented unrest we’re living through. Or you can create a writing challenge of your own when you’re ready, alone or with friends. Even if you’re a published author, lucky enough to have deadlines, those are still external pressures we create. They are fungible. Ask your publisher for more time if you need it. The world won’t end if you have to shift your production schedule or release date (trust me—it happens all the time…).

Remember Paul Jarvis: “Going fast is exhilarating, but charging is required.”

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