I feel like quitting writing

I've had some success at 60, but it seems downhill from here.

By Cary Tennis
Published May 19, 2009 10:35AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am at a crossroads, but any choice of road seems to lead somewhere I don't necessarily want to go. Here is my situation: I am 60. I have wanted to be a writer, specifically a novelist, since before I was a teenager. I struggled with this ambition because, I felt at least in the early days, I wasn't very good. I didn't sell a short story until I was in my 30s, and then to a "little magazine" for almost no money. Several years ago my "first novel" was published by a major house to good reviews and good local business; I learned just yesterday that 40 percent of the books remain unsold and the book will be remaindered at cost.

My career has not been entirely dour -- a film I wrote was nominated for a CableACE Best Picture award one year (you remember the CableACE Awards, don't you? It was discontinued in favor of the Emmys -- congratulations, CableACE winners!) and I had a spec screenplay sell to strangers that was produced by a cable channel several years ago.

My agent is marketing two of my novels, but she is not hopeful of placing them with a major house due in part to the economy, but also because of the lack of success of my first novel. I decided to publish my first novel, my real first novel, through CreateSpace/Amazon and it has received good reviews, what few reviews there have been as such books don't get reviewed much. Sales are tepid at best. No, that isn't true. If good sales is a stream, then my new book's sales is a drip heard irritatingly every hour or two.

I gave up working outside the house 10 years ago because my wife has muscular dystrophy and I needed to stay home and care for her. This had a hugely negative impact on our finances, obviously, a shortfall I'd hoped to remedy through writing and selling books. Then, a few months ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Oh, not the "settle your affairs" kind of cancer, but the "treatment is going to change you forever" type that is like an echoing voice proclaiming my mortality.

I don't know what to do. If I write more books, they will probably just line up behind the others with my agent, or worse, sit in my closet, where my most recent book is stored. I am strangely not motivated about the cancer thing. Yes, I am meandering toward treatment, but, well, with less enthusiasm than fear normally provides. I find my thoughts drifting toward suicide, not serious contemplation, mind you, but consideration nonetheless. This latter thing is about purpose. I have lived my life for purpose, and I have reached a point where that purpose is becoming meaningless in an external, rewards-for-your-work kind of way.

I am at times gratified by fan mail I've received from people who have liked my books. I find hope in holding something I've created in my hands. But, it isn't enough. The Black Dog chases me, barking. Ennui floats like a dark cloud around me, and worse. The question is not to be or not to be, but rather, to do or not to do, to find meaning in the last stages of my life.

My problems pale in comparison to others, even to the challenges of my wife who struggles each day to live, but my problem is real to me, and heavy.

You are the first advice columnist whose work I've enjoyed and whose commentary is often wise. Throw some wisdom at me, Cary.


Lost on the Boulevard of Dreams

Dear Lost,

I'm guessing that when you started out with dreams of being a writer, it wasn't unit sales that motivated you.

I say this because lifelong dreams arrive as dreams. That is their power. They have their own power and their own significance to us. It is the power and energy embodied in this vision that sustains us through the practical struggle that ensues. So when we feel, late in life, unable to summon the energy to pursue it any further, the place to look for that energy is in those original visions, desires and fantasies. That is where the motivational power is -- in the feeling we got when as a youth we set out to put our stamp on the world, to find our individual language, to paint our visions on freeway overpasses, to ignite passion in others, to blissfully hold suspended in our minds the worlds we envisioned, and to hear with unabated thrill the words that streamed through us like clear water streaming down the mountain.

The creative life is about such dreams. You now face serious medical and financial challenges, and increased unit sales would certainly help. But I wish to focus on your pursuit of writing as a personal quest. My hope is that by finding the strength to go on writing, you will also find hope and energy to conquer your other challenges.

In junior high we were given pamphlets on careers. I decided, based on the salary, that I ought to be an actuary. That seemed like a sensible job.

But the dream of being a writer arrived as a hallucination. It happened because I read Dylan Thomas at the age of 15. The poetry of Dylan Thomas seemed to be a secret language. It operated within English but was not English. It was like finding a door into a new and secret world of vision and feeling. I would later understand that this secret language was what people called "poetry."

This "poetry" people talked about had been fed to me and I had spit it out. Dylan Thomas, however, I lapped up, as I lapped up rock 'n' roll and jazz. Soon I realized that there were other secret languages and other people who could read these secret languages. That was the vision that excited me and made me want to be a writer: I wanted to find a secret voice within myself like the one Dylan Thomas had found, and begin speaking it and see if anyone could understand me. To this day, when I grow weak and tired, I seek that primary thrill of adolescence; I try to re-create for myself my own strange, secret language.

There are other, less idiosyncratic ways to express the same idea -- you might look at "The Midnight Disease" by Alice Flaherty, as well as "Motivate Your Writing!" by Stephen Kelner for more scientific and practical approaches to this.

But basically I believe your salvation lies in rediscovering the roots of your passion for writing. I suggest you begin a journey back to your creative roots. That is where your true, strong voice is. And that is what you need -- more than unit sales, more than awards, more than publishing contracts, what you need is your voice back. You need that fearless, questing voice of the adolescent in love with language and vision and story. Go back there. Do you have any of the first paperbacks you read? What might they be? James Bond? Sherlock Holmes? What comics did you cherish? Fantastic Four? Iron Man? Whatever those sources were, go back to them and try to re-create that wonderful, innocent thrill. Go back to them and reread them. Copy out passages longhand and feel their cadence again through your hand, through your pen. Let those early visions of heroes and villains fill your head again. Allow yourself the luxury of fantasizing again about being a famous writer. Write out these fantasies. Draw them. Make yourself a collage of images that represent your most cherished dreams. Use primary-process creativity to rekindle your excitement.

Remember the thrill of your own voice.

Have you perhaps judged that early stuff as too juvenile now? If so, you may have inadvertently cut yourself off from very rich sources of vision and drive. Lately everything I write has guns and Corvettes in it! I am writing about dreaming pirates! Where did that come from? Am I regressing?  Who cares? My soul was forged in the smithy of a boy's adolescent dreams of power, lust for speed, intrigue with hidden worlds, a lust for drama and gunplay and beauty, a world where everyone drove Aston Martins and Corvettes!

As an adolescent, I also felt in permanent opposition to the world and everything in it. Thus what I dreamed of producing would be antithetical to everything! It would be a hammer to shatter the glass; it would be a song to disorient the masses; it would be a sound heard above the shouting and gunfire and beeping of horns. It would be a cry of freedom.

Hey, I was only 15! What did I know?

But at the age of 55 I now believe that my adolescent insight was essentially correct: As creative people, we do exist in fundamental opposition to the dominant culture. Knowing this, we do not wait to be chosen. Rather, we fight to be heard.

So remember that as a writer you must find your motivation internally, not in external rewards, and you work in opposition to the system, not as a supplicant to the system. Whatever contingent truces you have maintained with the system in order to participate in its orderly orgies of consumption and distribution, good for you. But you are not a part of the system. You are a free creative worker. You do not need the system to do your creating. You only need it as a utility to reach your audience, and increasingly not even for that.

On the other hand, the system cannot create anything on its own. It can only manage and distribute. So it needs you.

It needs you but it is not on your side. Remember that.

Perhaps all this sounds a bit too abstract and ideological. Basically, I think if you follow the good, common sense that every 15-year-old kid has, you'll do fine.

Just know this: Somehow you have to get back to the joy of writing. Perhaps you do this by revisiting your earliest sources of creative excitement. Perhaps you do it by joining a group and writing with other people who have the courage to honestly pursue their dreams together, in public, in the moment, writing and reading together. This is a powerful experience, especially for somebody like me who once believed that only in feverish solitude could the imagination function. Since embarking on this remarkable journey into collective imaginative work, I have thought back to the earliest sources and methods of imaginative play and realized that, well, of course, as children, we made up our imaginary worlds together! Duh!

If we enliven our core creative process, technical mastery will follow. This core creative process remains mysterious and beyond our control; it is also beyond criticism, beyond method, beyond ideology, beyond theory. It is the assertion of pure being.

So forget your career. Plunge into your ecstatic sources. Write what you love, and write it loud.

Stymied in your creative life? Check this out!

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Comic Books Since You Asked Writers And Writing