You Should Quit (including a translation of “Catullus 85”)

Every once in a while, people complain to me that they just cannot get their writing done. They feel they have too many other commitments. They feel blocked. They feel uninspired. They feel depressed as a result, or anxious.

I tell them they should quit.

They should quit. I have too many commitments. I feel blocked. I feel uninspired. I almost always feel (sub-clinically) depressed or anxious. What’s the difference between us?

It isn’t that I am any better than them. I’m not. I just can’t quit.

There is not a moral difference. This is not a Puritan screed on the ethics of work. If I could quit, I probably would. If you can, you probably should. Why? Because nobody wants you to write.

No one wants you to write

Your family doesn’t. You friends don’t. They might talk a lot about how they love your writing, or how they support you, and they might even be telling their version of the truth. But really, everyone loves what you have written — not your process of writing — and would probably prefer that you quit, whether they recognize or admit this or not.

Everyone that loves you supports your happiness, when your writing probably makes you miserable on some level, at least some of the time. Of course, most people don’t love us. Your boss doesn’t want you to write (even if your boss tells you to write, s/he wants you to get it over with, now). Your bank certainly doesn’t. Your lover, however much s/he loves your writing, would love you more if you quit and made a gift of that time.

Writing is a bad career choice (except when it is a part of a non-writing career — in which case, it often elevates you and gains you glory in that other field). Even writers who claim to love writing will admit that it is often a source of constant frustration and mental strife. Writing takes physical tolls on your body due to the inactivity it requires in long stretches, in poor positions. Writing isolates you socially. Writing isn’t respected culturally.

So why don’t people quit writing?

Most writers, of course, do quit. We all know writers who quit, either one-book wonders that claim to be writers but never really seem to write anything, or who actually admit to having quit, or (more commonly, perhaps) secret writers that secretly harboured ambitions we aren’t aware of, and that secretly quit. Often, in your family, if you dig you will turn over a relative who at one point “tried to write” but quit.

One of the standard questions I ask in my 8-Ball interviews is “Why don’t you quit?” Almost every answer to the question is a variation of “I can’t” due to either stubbornness or compulsion. In the minority are answers that express actual pleasure in writing, or that see writing as useful in some way.

My favourite response is by Sina Queyras: “Why would I quit? I don’t understand that question.” Although Queyras is negating and turning against the question, in a sense she sums up the idea that I’m trying to express here: there is something in some writers that doesn’t understand quitting as a viable option. Is it strength of character, or a character flaw?

If I could quit, I might. But here’s what happens when I don’t write. I can’t sleep. I can’t focus. Ideas for writing jam up in my head. I hate whatever I’m engaged in doing (with very few exceptions, like spending time with certain people), because I feel like there’s something more important I should be doing. I feel like I’m wasting my time and I can’t enjoy anything. When I write, even a little, then I feel better and I can enjoy myself again in my off time.

Despite this, of course, I still harbour some “(lapsed) Catholic guilt” about writing — either I feel bad for not writing or I feel bad for writing. Under these circumstances, quitting makes sense.

Is the writing more important than other things? I would like to think so, but I’m a nihilist at heart. Even without being nihilistic, you could argue that clearly, in many cases, it’s not. If anything has value, it’s clear that in various ways writing has value — which doesn’t mean it is more valuable than other things you could be doing.

I don’t even like writing that much! This is a trend I’ve noticed among writers. Many often enjoy having written but hate the process. Personally, I am process-oriented, and find the process fascinating and rewarding. But that’s not the same as liking it. It’s hard work and it isn’t fun. But if I don’t do it, then it throws my life into chaos and disorder and fills me with anxiety. (Probably, I should seek out a psychiatrist rather than a pen.)

So why write? Again, I find writing and the writing process rewarding, even if I don’t enjoy it. Not everything that is important and valuable is fun. But how important and how valuable is it? Why write? This isn’t an easy question to answer, and I don’t have a good answer.

My Best Answer

My best answer takes the form of a poem by Catullus. Let’s misread it (in my own, loose translation) to imagine he is writing about writing itself:

I hate and love. You may ask why.
I ask also. Then it happens and destroys me.

What I like about this misreading of “Catullus 85” is that writing is typified as an event — in a sense close to how I like to read philosopher Alain Badiou’s conception of an event: as an intervention that disrupts and alters being, which creates some (provisional, temporary) truth.

This isn’t the moment for arguments about Badiou, but simply to note that the destructiveness of the “event of writing,” the disruptive potential of art (its conceptual violence), is the thing that attracts me to writing in the first place. At its best, I see writing as a method of destroying ideas in and about the world. I would be worried if I started to enjoy it more fully. I would suspect my motives or suspect the work.

You might be different. What happens when you don’t write? How do you feel? If you can get through life without writing, then maybe you should quit. There are no great rewards from writing unless the process itself rewards you, holds value for you, and creates its own meaning.

If you aren’t getting any writing done, then there’s nothing wrong with you. And if there’s nothing wrong with you, then you should probably quit while you still can. On the other hand, if you want to become a monster, you should write.

You might do well to become a monster. A monster threatens normality. A monster therefore has radical potential, as does a writer. If you are looking for a great way to destroy your life, then writing is for you! Destroying your life might be the very value of the process. Turning yourself over to the work, to its event, which demands transformation in fidelity to its truth.

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