Stephen King argues you need to know when to give up as a writer.
The biggest part of writing successfully is being talented, and in the context of marketing, the only bad writer is one who doesn't get paid. If you're not talented, you won't succeed. And if you're not succeeding, you should know when to quit.
When is that? I don't know. It's different for each writer. Not after six rejection slips, certainly, nor after sixty. But after six hundred? Maybe. After six thousand? My friend, after six thousand pinks, it's time you tried painting or computer programming.
Further, almost every aspiring writer knows when he is getting warmer - you start getting little jotted notes on your rejection slips, or personal letters . . . maybe a commiserating phone call. It's lonely out there in the cold, but there are encouraging voices ... unless there is nothing in your words which warrants encouragement. I think you owe it to yourself to skip as much of the self-illusion as possible. If your eyes are open, you'll know which way to go ... or when to turn back.
Then again, economist David Galenson has studied creative output and found there are different paths for successful artists. If you judge by the current value of their artwork, some artists burn bright early and then fade away (Andy Warhol peaked at 33, Frank Stella at 24, Jasper Johns at 27), while others grow over the long-term and do their best work later in life (Willem de Kooning at 43, Mark Rothko at 54, Robert Motherwell at 72). The same split is seen in writers too.
Conceptual poets like T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Sylvia Plath, each of whom made sudden breaks from convention and emphasized abstract ideas over visual observations, were early achievers. Eliot wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” at 23 and “The Wasteland” at 34. Pound published five volumes of poetry before he turned 30. On the other hand, experimental poets like Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams, whose work is grounded in concrete images and everyday language, took years to mature. For example, both Pound and Frost lived into their eighties. But by the time Pound turned 40, he had essentially exhausted his creative output. Of his anthologized poems, 85 percent are from his twenties and thirties. By comparison, Frost got a late start. He has more poems in anthologies than any other American poet, but he wrote 92 percent of them after his 40th birthday.
On and on it goes. Conceptualist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby – light on character development, heavy on symbolism – when he was 29. Experimentalist Mark Twain frobbed around with different writing styles and formats and wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at 50. Conceptualist Maya Lin redefined our notion of national monuments while still a college student; experimentalist Frank Lloyd Wright created Fallingwater when he was 70...
We should also leave room for those of us who have, er, avoided peaking too early, whose most innovative days may lie ahead. Nobody would have heard of Jackson Pollock had he died at 31. But the same would be true had Pollock given up at 31. He didn’t. He kept at it. We need to look at that more halting, less certain fellow and perhaps not write him off too early, give him a chance to ride the upward curve of middle age.
So even if you suck now, maybe you're a comedy Rothko who will bloom later in life. Maybe.
Permalink | 12/13/2010