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What might have been; what might still be

“Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream — of becoming an artist, a doctor, an engineer, an athlete — lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs.”

– Glenn Kurtz in “Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music,” quoted in “The Pleasure of Practicing: A Musician’s Assuring Account of Creative Homecoming and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome” by Maria Popova

writergraphicIf I were to give up writing, I would, to borrow an idea from Kurtz, feel the loss more strongly than the greatest lovers I have lost.

Childhood dreams of becoming something–a poet, a novelist, a playwright–often nurtured by well-meaning parents who tell their sons and daughters they have what it takes to be great, often fade as interlocking realities about earning a living with creative writing as part of the equation.

Even before Amazon and e-books and free books and cheap books turned publishing upside down, few writers stepped out of college with a manuscript in their briefcases that was ready to become a critical and/or a commercial success on Broadway, in Hollywood or in a major publisher’s newly released book list.

Life as they say, got in the way. And it still does.

It’s easy to find oneself suddenly middle aged with a drawer filled with rejection slips for manuscripts actually submitted and another drawer filled with manuscripts that stalled somewhere between once upon a time and happily ever after.

How easy it is to stop trying, perhaps to ponder on dark and stormy nights what might have been if one hadn’t gotten married too soon, if the baby hadn’t forced one to take a second job, if aged parents hadn’t needed time-consuming care, if somebody somewhere had provided an ounce more of encouragement and support and/or a way for the amateur to get his or her foot inside the golden door to professional status.

It’s also easy to wonder what kind of youthful vanity or arrogance led one to believe s/he would be one of the appallingly small percentage of writers who earns all or a substantial percentage of his/her yearly income as a poet, novelist or playwright/screenwriter.

The dream seemed so right, how could it be wrong?

Quitting the dream makes sense because, with the list of failures in mind between then and now, it has injured a lot of people: spouses and lovers led from hope to hope and from pillar to post while the writer promised year after year that “this” was “the” book, while schedules and expenses and work spaces were arranged to accommodate the writer’s holy mission, while books and manuscripts turned the house into a warehouse of faded paper and faded hopes.

It’s hard to quit and easy to quit. It’s hard because, like the lottery player who thinks this week’s number will win the jackpot, the writer thinks “this time my work in progress will find an agent and then a publisher who believes in it.”

It’s easy to quit because writing, after a long while, becomes not only an expensive and time-consuming hobby, but a rather sad thing like the habits of inventors who think they’re on the verge of creating  something the world needs or aging models who think “I still have it” or various other delusions that verge (at best) on hobbies and avocations when the stars and planets align.

When you quit, you stop growing and you feel the way you felt when the person you wanted to marry somehow slipped away. When you quit, you stop growing because you’re not practicing the craft your childhood or young adult self said it loved, said was a mission, said was like breathing, said was more important than sex, said was a life’s purpose, said was destiny.

If you’re lucky, so you don’t quit because practicing your craft is who you are and you realize when you’re not writing, you’re somebody you don’t recognize in the mirror.

Maybe Hollywood and Random House will never call, though you still dream that they might, and you understand that as some people like creating lists of all the birds they’ve spotted or the places they’ve been or the languages they’ve learnt, that you’re writing because it’s you and you love it and you cannot abide the death of part of yourself if you didn’t keep typing one word after another.

Loving it is where we need to be for those of us who aren’t Hillary Mantel and Stephen King or Nora Roberts, and so we keep writing for what might still be, the satisfaction of reading what we’ve written whether anyone else reads what we’ve written and finds any satisfaction from it, much less pays for the opportunity.

Perhaps we will one day be discovered. Meanwhile, we’re continually discovering ourselves through the words we put on the page.


thesailorcoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Emily’s Stories” and “The Sailor.”

  1. I was relieved to read the last few paragraphs, because the first few scared me. 🙂

    January 18, 2015
  2. Seth #

    This is a pretty eloquent summation of a road I’ve traveled for many years – as I know you have, too.

    January 19, 2015
    • Hi, Seth, and thank you. Right, a lot of us have seen this road.

      January 19, 2015
  3. Hi Malcolm. Thanks for the wonderful musing on the vocation of writing. It reminded me that quite a few now-famous writers, artists, etc. were under-appreciated and weren’t actually ‘discovered’ in their own lifetimes. Here are a couple of online articles that list a few:

    I’m sure there are more than a few others as well. Good they all kept at it despite their lack of celebrity in their own time. I’d guess there are many, too, that do all right during their own time; maybe not celebrity or fame, but a living. 🙂

    Thanks again; I enjoyed the post.

    January 19, 2015
    • One of the old jokes about writers whom the public suddenly discovered is “s/he was an over-night sensation 25 years in the making.” It’s nice to see writers come into their own–preferably while they’re still around to enjoy it. Thanks for the links and your kind words.


      January 19, 2015

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