Philip Roth recently advised a newly published author, Julian Tepper, to “quit while you’re ahead.” A few weeks later Philip Roth announced he was retiring from writing. He suggested he felt he didn’t have the stamina to continue to fail, could no longer face the extensive rewriting and editing that comes with writing.
Philip Roth isn’t the first writer to announce a retirement. In 2002 Stephen King made a similar announcement. His decision was motivated by frustration in a slow recovery from serious injuries and also because he felt he was writing at a slower pace than previously. It would seem in both cases that writing was leaving the writer.
However, it is fair to advise newly published or unpublished writers to stop?
There is a school of thought that if a tutor advises a pupil to stop doing something and the pupil’s reaction is to redouble their efforts and determination to succeed in whatever they’ve been advised to stop, then the teaching is successful as the pupil has made a marked improvement. The problem with this theory is that it relies on the pupil being confident enough to directly disobey a tutor’s instruction. It might work in technical subjects where a result can be right or wrong, but isn’t an appropriate approach where the results are reliant on a subjective judgment. If an engineer is building a cog to fit an engine, that cog can only be one shape and size otherwise it won’t work and the engine fails. A fourteen line poem may fail as a sonnet but it could still be a successful poem, if not forced to fit a sonnet’s requirements.
Success itself can be subjective. One writer may view success as completing a piece of writing, another will only regard a piece of writing as successful once it’s been published, another may not think a piece of writing is successful until they see favourable reviews. Not all good, polished pieces of writing will be published. Editors and publishers aren’t just looking for brilliant writing but also writing that will sell so won’t accept a piece similar to a piece recently accepted or that they can’t see a market for. So if you’re meeting your criteria for success, keep going.
If you’re not meeting your criteria for success, it is worth taking a break. In a previous blog post, I wrote about there being two elements to writing: the getting words onto paper and creativity, the planning, getting to know characters and exploring themes and issues. It may be time to look at what you’ve achieved, what you want to achieve and whether you’re taking the right path. Perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on getting words on paper and neglecting the creative side of writing.
Retirement from writing isn’t a bad thing. When writing feels like a chore or becomes frustrating, your writing will become a frustrating chore to read. Better to acknowledge that than plough on and lose readers. It’s also worth pointing out that neither Philip Roth nor Stephen King actually stopped writing. Stephen King now has the freedom to do things alongside writing and reject the pressure to churn out novels. Philip Roth has been writing notes for a biographer and collaborating on a novella.
Stop writing may not be such bad advice after all. What you do think?
By Emma Lee