Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Retiring Writer

It's old news by now, but Margaret Drabble has decided to retire from writing. Yep. She says she's stopping completely because she is afraid of repeating herself.

I wonder how that's been working for her for the past few months.

I've spent more years of my life as a non-writing writer than otherwise, and I can tell you, it sucks. Characters float into your mind--and die. Settings prick at your awareness--then fade away. Conflicts beat at your breastbone, but your heart slows, your attention shifts and you're back to "reality." The pain of non-writing is subtle, and ever-present: That underlying itch of frustration (and depression) that you can't breathe away in yoga class, organize away in your latest "Rule The World In Seven Easy Steps" seminar, or buy away at the shoe store.

I've quit writing before, and I keep coming back. I think, as I stare down the maw of 40 years, I've finally accepted that I must write, always. They'll have to pry the word-processing software out of my cold, dead eyeball-socket-neuralnet connections when they shoot my body into deep space.

And as for repeating oneself--I've been doing that for years. I was once told, "There are only two stories--'A stranger comes to town' and 'the quest'." I think those are, in fact, the same story.

I already know which story I'll be telling for the rest of my life: Leap, and love will catch you.

What about you? What is your core story? And what would it take to make you "retire" from writing?


  1. Even if I never become published, I don't think I will ever retire. Even if I have a story that is only a few pages long in my head, I will write it.
    My biggest fear as I try to become published is having people tell me to stop because I can't write and do something I can.

  2. Keri,
    What a wonderful blog post. You said so well what only a writer can understand. I have experienced the same thing, but never been able to explain it to others.

    Years ago, my 8 year old son was hit by a car speeding through the school zone. I swore I would never write again. It seemed immoral to waste time on fiction when people were suffering all around me.

    So I went through the dark years of not writing. Of course the stories still formed and nagged in my brain. But I couldn't justify taking the time to write them down.

    Then my 2 year old got leukemia and we were put in an isolation room where nurses wore spacesuits to deliver her chemotherapy. She slept most the time while I went insane. Only I couldn't run screaming from the room. So I told myself I would write, just while we were in the hospital, just to cope until she got better.

    And like you, I realized I write because I have to. But I'm not able to explain it to non-writers. The next time someone asks, I'll refer them to this post.
    Gail Z.
    P.S. But I never went back to making them eat their dinner .LOL

  3. I've never quit, but my writing has changed. I've written everything from poems to term papers (I charged by the page, editing thrown in free), from ad copy to neighborhood news, from every kind of garden-related article you can imagine to my current high-dive into the world of fiction. I even used to have a number of pen pals, back before I got email.

    Wow, Gail, I don't know what I would do if faced with something as scary as leukemia in a child. I think I would write, because that's my default reaction to everything.

    Because it's wired into me, I'm pretty sure I will write as long as I'm physically able to. If I go senile, I'll probably keep writing -- the stories will just be weirder than usual. I just can't see NOT writing. But, of course, you never know.

  4. I've been telling stories in my head as long as I can remember. Like Becke, in some form or fashion I've been writing most of that time as well.

    I have note books and boxes full of story beginnings, things I promised I would one day finish. I'm not sure what happened two years ago that made me realize now was the time, I only know that I began getting the current story in my head down on paper and I didn't stop until it was finished. Book two followed and now three, and when the new stories dry up, if they do, well then I'll go back to all those beginnings and finish them.

  5. I believe once you start to write a story, the heroine/hero live in your head until you tell their story and evict them. Getting published is a challenge, but that's not why I write. I write b/c I have to for my sanity. Getting published is just a bonus which I wouldn't MIND!!
    It doesn't matter how much you write everyday, it's just important to write something, to keep you in that mode.
    I don't think I will ever stop writing. It keeps my head fresh, thinking and moving.

  6. Katiebabs, guess what: Someone at some point WILL tell you that. Simon Cowell is not unique--the world is full of dreamkillers. My wish for you is that you run into yours soon and get over that hump quickly (don't take YEARS to recover as some of us *cough, cough* did).

    Gail, oh, Gail. I have no words. Except that I think your kids should be able to live on ice cream (in moderate amounts).

    Becke, Tina and Tonya--yep, I think it's wiring. Dr. Stevens is wired to write science, but it's writing. I wonder how many "wired" writers are out there who don't recognize themselves yet.

  7. As you know, my core story is essentially the same as yours: happily ever afters are possible with courage, love, trust, and lots of work. I think that because I had a somewhat marred childhood (who didn't?), the draw of a lasting love story is impossible for me to ignore.

    I don't think I'll ever "retire" from writing. I discovered it at 15 and never looked back. First it was poetry, and poetry morphed into stories. My stories morphed into novels. While I've occasionally walked away from a story and left it dangling (OK, I've done that a lot), it really is how I bury my life frustrations. In that world of love and romance and adventure and ballrooms, I can forget that I have a life with stressors and unfortunate events.

    Writing has become so much a part of who I am and how I represent myself to the world that I believe I'd be cheating myself--and perhaps others--by "retiring."

  8. Very interesting. However because I'm a writer I don't have 2c to spare.

  9. Keri: People have tried to stomp on my dreams before and still I stand. :D I always keep that in mind.

  10. I've considered stopping writing before because of career issues. Being published doesn't always stop the doubts, and sometimes it can increase them. It has come up for me more in the last few years than any time before. Whenever I feel I'll stop writing, I have to maybe take a day or two to get over myself. I am a born writer, though it took me until 14 years of age to recognize. Been writing ever since then. Eric Maisel's books are an excellent source for understanding our writer brains. :) Because there are always plots and ideas in my head, I'm not sure I could stop writing one hundred percent. :)

  11. I will never stop writing. I've never not written and I can't imagine stopping. Writing is about me. How I make sense of the world.

    I COULD stop publishing though. Publishing is about readers. I've written full length novels that I didn't publish because they didn't add anything new or different to the genre.

    My core story is about belonging, about characters in isolation forming bonds with others.

  12. Jen: yes, yes and yes.
    Jag: Funny. I have noodles hanging from my ears now.
    Denise: I don't know Maisel's books, so thanks for the reference.
    KB: Well, I think you know how I feel about that!
    Kimber: You make an excellent point--writing doesn't necessarily equal publishing. I wonder if, after all, Margaret Drabble may have meant the same thing. I bet she gets sucked into the keyboard every so often.

  13. Quitting writing would be like slitting my wrists or slicing out my frontal lobe.

  14. I just found your blog and it is official: I love you. I feel the exact same way when I'm not writing, like I'm doing a disservice to all the characters inside my head. Sometimes snippets of their conversations will float by and I am crippled with guilt when I don't write them down immediately. It took me much too long to realize that the best way to avoid all that was to actually write. And now that I've set my intention, I doubt I could ever stop.

    Of course it helps that I'm unagented and unpublished and therefore unaccountable for anything I write. Perhaps if I had deadlines and whatnot I would feel differently. :)

  15. I feel the love, Jen! Thank you.

    You make a good point about those of us who are not yet accountable to The Industry. I hope that (in the very near future) when that changes for us, it won't destroy our compulsion (?)to write.