Advice for the Invariable Moment when You Decide to Quit

by Filip Wiltgren

I’m a quitter.

I’ve quit school five times, quit jobs, quit my freelancing career, quit clubs, sports, diets, pretty much everything except relationships, which get quit for me. In short, I’m an expert at quitting.

I’ve also quit writing, many times. The longest was for almost ten years. Fortunately, I’ve always bounced back, but many of my writing buddies have not. Unlike me, they weren’t experts at quitting.

I never thought I’d say this, but my 30+ years of quitting has prepared me for a writing career. Not by making me persistent, but by making me resilient. And by letting me see the points at which giving up is most likely, and avert them. Like:

The Plateau

The plateau is when you pass beyond the rapid learning stage. It happens multiple times in any acquired skill set, but the first one is the worst. Often it feels like you’re not making any progress at all, that you’re writing and writing, and it’s all crap.

That’s because your appreciation of the techniques is expanding, but your visible mastery of them is not. You’ve entered the part of the skill acquisition stairwell where you need to let the techniques soak, to go from conscious effort to unconscious. The part where they start to become automatic.

The best way through a plateau is practice, especially deliberate practice. I try to focus on one aspect of the craft, which makes me feel that I’m improving again, and gives me the mental boost I need to fight through.

The Burnout

This one is insidious. Often it comes right as everything is going great, and suddenly you’re no longer able to create, and everything becomes a chore. I’ve gone through burnout twice, both work related, and unfortunately there’s nothing you can do except rest and get external support (I got professional help through my work health benefit program.)

Recuperating is no fun. Better to spot approaching burnout, and slow down.

For me, that’s when I can’t sleep, and worry instead. My brain keeps revving all night long. At that point I need to give up whatever it’s revving about, and do something else until I bounce back.

Other symptoms of approaching burnout are feeling constantly tired, eating significantly more or less than normal, losing your short-term memory and ability to focus, and getting sick more often than you’ve used to. If any of these start to happen to you, sit down and take stock. Do you have too much on your plate? If so, stop, rest, and when you’re back to normal, slowly start adding things until you find a balance.

Real Life(TM)

Real Life interferes, that’s just how it is. Sometimes you need to quit and handle whatever’s being flung at you.

The key here is to schedule a recurring moment to take stock and see whether you’re able to get back to your writing. For me, about once a month is enough to keep me remembering what I really want to do. I put it on my calendar as “Life Evaluation” and then I can focus on the problems at hand without feeling (too much) resentment.

Just remember that when you set aside things which are important to only you, others will try to impose on that time. You’ll need to fight to get your writing time back. Be prepared for it.

The Jealousy

Yes, humans are mean, jealous creatures. Sometimes. It happens.

Psychologically, jealousy is closely related to materialism, and it is triggered by a lot of the same causes. There is some debate, but the general consensus among psychologists seems to be that materialism and jealousy stem from a mixture of situation-based insecurity and long-term self-esteem issues, and it can be addressed by confronting those.

I often notice going into jealous periods when I start to yearn for the rewards rather than the process. The writing becomes a chore, but I still want to be published in Clarkesworld. The second warning sign is when I start to begrudge my friends their successes. Instead of feeling good for them, I feel bad for myself.

Jealousy feeds my insecurities, making my infernal editor powerful. Then I start to think that I’ve lost “it”, and will never be a “real” writer. And then I quit.

Combating jealousy is a two-step process. First you need to recognize it as a problem (everyone is jealousy now and then, it becomes a problem when it starts interfering with your life or your ability to create), and then work to remove its underpinnings.

For me, once I recognize that I’m going through a jealous period, the most effective way to combat it is to remember that everyone has got strengths and weaknesses. I’ve tried listing my strengths, but that doesn’t work for me (works for others, though, try it.) Instead, I read about the difficulties of other writers, especially ones I look up to. This makes me feel less alone, and less of an outlier. Seeing proof that everyone goes through these kinds of self-esteem pitfalls is often enough to get me writing again, especially if I spot the problem early.

•••

So, the next time you feel about to give up, take a hint from an expert quitter, and see whether you can weather the shoals!

By day, Filip Wiltgren is a mild-mannered communication officer at Linköping University, where he also teaches communication and presentation skills at a post-graduate level. But by night, he turns into a frenzied ten-fingered typist, clawing out jagged stories of fantasy and science fiction, which have found lairs in places such as Analog, IGMS, Grimdark, Daily SF, and Nature Futures.

Filip roams the Swedish highlands, kept in check by his wife and kids. He can be found at www.wiltgren.com

2 Responses

  1. Kevin L. O'Brien

    You left one out: failure. Like writing for 40 years and still not being published anywhere, and having no hope of ever being published.

  2. HL

    Filip: Great article and motivation. I will share with my students who often find themselves in various stages, as described here. You never know if you saved a future book or author with this essay. So thank you. Keep on. HL

Leave a Reply