On Quitting Writing | Margaret McDonald
I’m writing an email to my creative writing tutor. It says, I think I might quit writing.
I’m not exactly sure what the purpose of the email is. I’m not sure what I want to receive back, either. Maybe I’m asking, Do you think I should quit writing? Maybe I’m asking, Have you ever wanted to quit writing? Or more probably, Tell me not to quit writing.
When I realised that even if I got any of those replies it would never satisfy the creature slowly taking over me, I realised the email would be pointless. My writing tutor is very intelligent and lovely, but a little obscure and grandiose in speeches, never really inclined to give praise unless it includes at least a grain of critique, and less inclined to give praise if it’s asked for.
I of course don’t send the email.
I’m self-aware enough to know that, even indirectly, that’s what a reply would require. Because I knew my tutor wouldn’t exactly reply go ahead. There would be some well-intentioned but ultimately cryptic advice about taking breaks, writer burnout, and something about the nature and craft of writing itself. I could hear all the possible replies so clearly, and none of them were in reply to the email I was writing.
The core of my email was: why do I want to quit writing?
And that’s something my tutor can’t answer. Unfortunately this one is on me.
It’s taken a little evaluation but I think I’m closer to understanding now. Part of the answer lies in the fact I took every single creative writing course available in my final year including a creative writing dissertation. But dreams of a creative writing masters soon evaporated as I slowly discovered I don’t have enough steam in me for it.
Every assignment felt like drawing teeth, none of them were enjoyable, and my dissertation changed so thoroughly to meet my supervisors suggestions it no longer felt like mine. Of course, this is the point of a supervisor and I submitted a piece that did well and I can be proud of. I also submitted a story that was vastly better than the first draft because of my supervisor.
But I do hold regrets over the project that I haven’t heard from any of my friends. I regret that I played it safe with the story, that I didn’t push myself to write something a little out of my comfort zone – narratively, structurally, in any way. I wasn’t bold or brave but rather tried to tailor a story to what I thought would succeed, or what I thought was wanted, despite having ideas at the time I would have liked to explore. And my supervisor and I had invested so much in the story already, it felt wrong to change direction so far down the road.
But speaking to others afterwards, I soon found out that’s exactly what they did. They took risks and listened to their own gut over anyone else. Of course they’ve expressed different regrets – they would have liked more feedback from other people before submission, they would have liked more time to edit their stories. But my problem is specific to me.
It’s helped me figure out the crux of the issue from it: I don’t write well with people breathing down my neck.
Somewhere along the line I started writing with the imagined eyes of all my tutors peering over my shoulder. Every sentence I wrote I would imagine their voices: What are you setting up here? Where are we going with this? Would that character really think that? How realistic, how original, how good is this story?
In the end I agonised over every word and it took the joy right out of writing. Especially with a dissertation, which becomes something of a team effort, the writing doesn’t really belong to you anymore. You realise you’re writing for someone else, not that before all your writing had been stashed away and kept in a cupboard. But sharing your work with people and creating your work for them is different.
So I’m writing this piece in the hopes that the distinction between those two is made a little more distinctive, that writers know writing for other people isn’t the answer to pleasing them. Writing for other people is stifling and draining and limiting and in the end, your writing is curbed by you.
It just took me a massively long time to realise that.
When I say I don’t have enough steam to do a masters, what I mean is I don’t have the steam to study writing anymore. After finishing an undergrad in Journalism and Creative Writing with English Literature (a mouthful, I know), I think it’s where my relationship with studying creative writing ends.
This is not to disregard creative writing courses, classes, workshops, and anyone who does them. I was one of those people, and I’m an astronomically better writer now because of the four years I spent studying how to write.
But now I’m stuck. I can’t escape the mindset I fell into during my final year that everything I write needs to be something my tutors – and the population in general – would like. This is even after I’ve finished the degree. Because writing used to be joyful, fun, therapeutic. I want to find the place where writing feels that way again.
I know the vast majority of my friends who studied creative writing don’t feel this way. They found it an enjoyable, positive experience and want to continue. This is just my own experience. And I realise the issue isn’t an academic problem, it’s a mindset problem.
Because I know that I still want to write, but I want the words to be mine, and to be for me, before I consider putting them out there to be judged. I don’t want to be judged during the process of writing them, even mentally, because it’s exhausting.
I guess I just wrote a reply to my own email. And it’s essentially: you don’t need to quit writing, you just need to quit your approach to it, and then you’ll be able to quit how it’s making you feel.
I’m Margaret, I’m a recent graduate of a BA in Journalism & Creative Writing with English Literature! I love reading and writing, of course, but also because I’m not much good at anything else.