What happens to a dream derailed?
May 3, 2010 8:57 AM   Subscribe

My lifelong dream and driving force has turned into a source of bitterness and disappointment for me. Not sure what happened, how to fix it, or if I should even bother.

From the time I was about nine to the time I was about 38, all I wanted to do was write fiction. Then all of a sudden I got sick of it and gave up, feeling like I had wasted my life and fucked myself over by sacrificing everything to this dream. I didn't have a backup career. I didn't have a family. I thought all that would get in the way. Now I'm older, financially unstable and in a relationship with someone who will only commit to me up to a point -- and is happily living their dream while I wonder who the hell I am anymore.

I ended up questioning the origin of this dream in the first place and wondering if it started out dysfunctionally. As a child, I was the family scapegoat, punished for things I didn't even know I was doing wrong. My family was stingy with praise and held me and my sister to perfectionistic standards of intellectual accomplishment. My father would often scream at me when I did chores around the house that I couldn't do anything right and I would become paralyzed under his glare, angering him even more.

I was highly gifted in language arts, though, and eventually my teachers called my parents' attention to that, and they finally praised me for something. I was a Writer! And that meant I was allowed to breathe the air and take up space. I hung every hope on writing fulfilling all my needs. But was this even really my own dream? My father also wanted to be a writer, and when I showed that talent he was thrilled. How do I know I ever really wanted to write? Maybe all I wanted was his love and acceptance. Sometimes it feels more like his dream than mine.

Then I hit college and my teachers stopped praising me. What was wrong? Wasn't it my destiny to be a great writer, to make up for being rejected by my family and bullied at school? When I look back, it was almost like I had a nervous breakdown at that point. I started getting involved in overly enmeshed relationships, which made me feel loved, and my writing became a struggle with writer's block, perfectionism, and self-doubt. I started several novels I never finished. When I finished short stories, I never sent them out because I thought they weren't good enough. I began to derive more self-esteem from being loved by others and less by what I could accomplish. I didn't realize this was happening to me.

I had no problems with academic writing, poetry or journalism. Eventually I went into the newspaper field and continued struggling with fiction. But every year I just got more and more disappointed with myself for not being able to finish a novel. I got so I couldn't trust myself to even start another one because I didn't think I would finish. The act of fiction writing itself seemed to be a trigger, which is easier to see now than it was when I was actually doing it. Instead of triggering memories of getting praise for how good a writer I was, writing fiction would trigger a host of insecurities borne on a sinking feeling that was all too familiar to me from childhood. I constantly got sucked into an abyss of self-referentialism, where I would end up writing about my childhood and then feeling ashamed of the verbal abuse I endured and sure that my father would disown me after seeing how I portrayed his fictional counterpart, especially after he was so into me being a writer.

After a few years of journalism and struggling to write a semi-autobiographical literary novel, I burned out. I just couldn't make myself write anymore -- not journalism or fiction.

Now I am a never-was who invested the best years of life in something that never came to be. (Cue the little tiny violins). I have a very ordinary job and no real career goals. Part of me wants to try again, and can't believe the thing my identity hinged on is no longer a part of me. Another side of me is glad to be released from all the pressure even though it looks like I just flaked on something I invested my entire life in at great cost.

I have turned to songwriting, but I'm scared my creative well is simply a poisoned one and that eventually I'll have the same thing happen with this new dream. However, so far it's been going well. My father has nothing to do with my songwriting. He doesn't care and is barely interested. If I write songs about him (which I have) he'll never have occasion to hear them. This makes me wonder if I could return to fiction if I used a pseudonym and never allowed him to find out. I have never even considered a life that isn't dedicated to some art form. I don't think I could be fulfilled in life without a creative outlet.

He's made it clear he's baffled and disappointed in the fact that I've given up writing. I feel it's none of his business. I've been in heavy therapy for years dealing with this Oedipal shit and am only now starting to let go of being afraid of him. The therapists I've seen have been great with family issues but not in working with people in the arts. (I anticipate the "get therapy" answer. I'm doing my best there).

I love to read, but there are certain novels -- certain dust jacket pictures, certain author bios -- that awaken the sinking feeling, that "why isn't that me?" feeling.

Do I love to write? I don't know. I used to. I have had moments of flow with it, and I've even won a fiction award for a particularly easy-flowing story, an experience I've never been able to replicate. I think I might have loved to write if writing hadn't been weighted down with so much baggage. That's another thing that keeps me wondering if I should keep trying. That maybe my father poisoned something good and should try to get what's rightfully mine back.

How can I find out? Time won't stop while I work on this.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
You have to do what makes you happy; your life is yours alone and it's up to you to fill it with what pleases you. Good news is, it's never too late to add more happy. I'm in a very similar place (was going to be a WRITER YAY, did some writing, burned out, not sure about it anymore) and, after a long time of trying to be what other people thought I should be, I'm only now trying to find out what I want to be. You sound like you need one of those Voyages Of Self Discovery. Get back in touch with yourself. A good way to do this is to start fresh; uproot yourself and replant in a place where no one knows you, and see how you grow. Maybe you'll write. Maybe you'll discover that what really gives you joy is running marathons, or your relationship, or some new hobby. But what matters is finding that joy.

And FORGET ABOUT YOUR DAD. Do whatever it takes to do so; therapy, cutting off contact, whatever. I know it's hard. My Dad's been dead for almost ten years and I still feel him looking over my shoulder. Therapy helps; keep with it.

And Memail me if you want to talk.
posted by The otter lady at 9:20 AM on May 3, 2010

Wow. This question hits such a chord that I have to take a deep breath and limit my answer to this:

I felt much like you. By a fluke, a relic of my sacrificed dream (and self -- because that's what we're talking about here, right? you built your entire self-image around being a writer) ended up getting published. By a fluke, suddenly I was offered a chance to publish more. And all at once, with deadlines, I could no longer afford to wait for the joy to come back. I was forced to produce without any inspiration or any self-confidence. And what I produced, although I loathed it, was...good.

Realizing that dream was not at all what I had imagined it to be. You will not feel more true to yourself, less of a fraud, or more of a fully realized human being, if you become a fiction writer.

That said, being forced to abandon ego, doubt, fear, and get the novels written opened up a new perspective for me. It destroyed blocks that had been many years in the making. And the realization I came to was this:

Your perfectionism has poisoned your creative well.
Your perfectionism has poisoned your life.
It has warped and narrowed your view of who you are and what you have accomplished and what you still have the ability and time to accomplish.
It is crippling your imagination and your capacity for joy.

Therapy is good, I'm sure. And so is discipline. Talent and skill will function without inspiration. Tell yourself you are now going to write shit for an hour each day and you are not going to enjoy it. Keep your promise and ignore it if you do happen to end up kind-of-maybe-for-a-second enjoying it.

Meanwhile, work on expanding your idea of who and what you can be. Take up something, a hobby, an activity -- hell, take up "screaming in the yard at midnight" if you like -- so long as this hobby is something that you have always KNOWN was NOT something YOU would do. Reclaim your sense of possibility and wonder forcibly, by pushing yourself into unexplored territory, even if you're rolling your eyes all the way through the process. Sometimes the virtue lies not in wanting, enjoying, or believing in doing something, but simply in doing it. All the rest follows.

There will be other excellent answers to this, and I'll be watching out for them. This is simply my off-the-cuff and deeply felt response, late at night, in my current part of the world.
posted by artemisia at 9:24 AM on May 3, 2010 [30 favorites]

Oh, meant to say; by all means try a pseudonym. I lived under an entirely false online identity for several years and had a great time with writing (it was a play-by-post RPG forum), and discovered a lot about myself; who I was when I wasn't burdened with my own history.
posted by The otter lady at 9:25 AM on May 3, 2010

I made the mistake when I was young of thinking that a facility with language and a love of writing meant I would be a fiction writer. I struggled hard in my twenties with feeling like the kind of personal essays I wrote weren't "real" writing and I should be doing something else. I also had childhood stuff where I got praise and support (not from my parents, but from teachers and other adults in my life) for my writing, and had great things predicted for me, and then got out into the wider world and found I was a small fish after all. It was hard.

I stopped writing after some big life changes, and that was OK. Over time, I started writing again, just because I like to do it and I felt the urge. I eventually found myself happily writing the kinds of things I just can't not write, mostly personal writing, sort of a very enhanced diary. I write a lot, I'm not burdened by thinking I have to be a "success" at it or a professional. I'm not always thinking "I should be writing!" But I do write regularly, when I'm moved to. It's very satisfying.

Time doesn't stop, but life is long. You don't have to figure out right now whether you're going to be a fiction writer or not write at all for the rest of your life. It sounds like you've experienced a lot of failing to live up to your own hopes and expectations; maybe take a break for awhile and let yourself experience what most people already know: it's perfectly possible to have a happy and good life without writing a novel.

Don't think so much in terms of having a "dream." It's so much pressure! It might help to think, "I'm kind of taking a break from writing fiction, messing around a little bit with songwriting to see what that's like."

Remind yourself that you're not those authors for various reasons, some of them perfectly good. For instance, I have not published a book-length work of fiction because a) it turns out I'm not a fiction writer, and b) I work in very short pieces. I might someday publish a book-length work of non-fiction; I might someday publish a collection of pieces; I might do none of those things. Any of those options is actually OK.

Remind yourself, too, that publishing a book isn't a magic ticket to happiness. Writers of successful first books have foundered on the rocks of their failure to repeat that feat; writers of perfectly good books have been disappointed by sales, or by their publisher's failure to promote it as they ought to.

Leave your dad out of it. Don't talk to him about any decisions you make. If he asks if you're writing (as people often asked me during the years I wasn't), if you don't want to go into it, just say vaguely, "Oh, I've always got something going on." If it's none of his business, don't tell him diddly squat. If he pushes, just keep blandly not answering.
posted by not that girl at 9:25 AM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm scared my creative well is simply a poisoned one

maybe my father poisoned something good

This is the language that strikes me as the most destructive, reading your story. All writers, successful and unsuccessful, despair -- almost all of them quit writing, for shorter or longer periods -- most of them question their choices to pursue what they do (and probably all of them should).

What I see you doing by creating a physical 'well' metaphor and a 'poison' metaphor is trying to tell yourself a story in which it is not a conscious decision, and actually not under your control, whether you keep writing or not. In truth, regardless of what narrative you make for yourself, you are the person who decides whether or not you will write in a given day. You are the person who gives up or not. Every time you sit down at the desk is a potential moment of progress; every time you go for a walk and decide to take a notebook in case something happens is a potential moment of art. You don't have to do any of it, and if it's not worth it for you, you shouldn't do it. But it's you making that decision, not poison, and certainly not your father.

Are you a great writer? Nobody's going to know until well after you die. Are you going to keep writing? That's for you to decide.

If I were in your shoes and feeling negative about what I've accomplished and what the future held for me (ok ok I am in your shoes), I'd take a break, focus on my well-being, and maybe start a reading project that looks entertaining -- not one from my own field (i.e. if you write literary fiction, read _Dune_. If you write fantasy novels, read Donne). It often seems that the important thing is one's attitude towards one's work -- plenty of objectively bad writers are perfectly content with themselves -- rather than accolades and such.
posted by Valet at 9:35 AM on May 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

It's hard to give up on a dream that's become part of your identity. Maybe you need some distance from writing to determine whether you really want to give up on it. Try taking a break to see if you miss it, and in the meantime, dip your toes into any other creative pursuits that interest you. Which ones make you feel most creatively fulfilled, since you say that's important to you? Also bear in mind that you don't have to pick one thing. Life is fluid, and so is passion, sometimes.
posted by spinto at 9:38 AM on May 3, 2010

There is nothing worth doing that does not entail a risk of failure. Nothing. That means some people fail, even when they are talented and hard-working. Of all the things that fit that description, making a living writing fiction is way up the list of unlikely-to-succeed endeavors. I'll bet there aren't 100 people in the US who make a decent full time living only writing fiction. Most fiction writers also have to teach and edit, just as most musicians and painters have to do day jobs or teach to maintain their artistic craft.

Life gets much brighter when you decide to commit your talents and drives to serving other people, and make that the height of your ambition. Wherever you are, that's where you are. You have something to offer, so stop stewing in despair that will get you nowhere but waste precious time in the process.

The world needs people who can write well. It may not need more fiction, or your fiction, but you are not just your dreams. You are what you do.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:39 AM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Writing validated you to him as a Meaningful Adult. As long as you're looking for validation (and it sounds like you are) you're going to either be actively having or narrowly avoiding emotional pitfalls.

I say you change the character of your relationship with him and your writing, once and for all. Write him a letter directing the content of this post at him. Make it as well-written as you can. Pour everything you want him to see about you into it, do everything in your power to make him see your side of the situation; explain yourself, explain how his actions have harmed you, and tell him you're no longer looking for his approval.

And let that end, once and for all, the negative power he holds over you. Stand one last time for him as a shining example of a writer, and then close that chapter of your life. If you choose to write again--if you want to write again--do it on your own terms, for your own reasons, and without your father's approval in mind.
posted by Phyltre at 9:48 AM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing keeps leaping out at me as I read through this: the only reasons you give for wanting to write boil down to seeking approval from others -- you keep coming back to the fact that people praised your writing skills, or that it's hard because people stopped praising your skills, or that you want the act of writing to trigger memories of being praised for how good a writer you are.

You don't ever mention being proud of what you've created, or of enjoying the creative process, or even of having anything in particular you want to express through your writing.

So what is your dream, really? Is it to be a writer, or is it to be approved of for being a writer? Who are you writing for?

Basing your sense of self-worth on other people's approval isn't a great strategy, because it's not something you have much control over. Basing it on your career or achievements is equally shaky ground. Discovering why you have value independent of those things -- and you do -- is well beyond the scope of what strangers on the internet can help you with, other than to say: I feel you. I've been there. This is a hard one. Keep working at it.

Whatever you decide about writing or other creative pursuits, please stop thinking that you've "wasted your life". You haven't "fucked yourself over," or "sacrificed everything," and I'm not seeing what "great cost" you say you've incurred by trying to write. Your life is your life. You're trying to tie all sorts of unrelated things to your writing -- your relationship or family status is not caused by whether or not you are a writer. Your journalism job shouldn't necessarily fall apart even if you decide to stop writing fiction, if you don't want it to. Publishing the great American novel would not fix your relationship with your father. Or with anyone else.

I'm 38 years old too. 38 is not at all too late to start over with something new if you choose to. And doing so wouldn't invalidate the past 38 years. Your life is your life.
posted by ook at 9:50 AM on May 3, 2010 [11 favorites]

Now I am a never-was who invested the best years of life in something that never came to be.

I am not a writer, but I am seasoned professional at failure (which I don't think you are). The best years of your life are the ones you are living now because they are the only ones you have. Picture yourself 5 years in the future. What does that 43 year old version of you want the 38 year old version to do today, this week, this year? Do that.
posted by milarepa at 9:53 AM on May 3, 2010 [15 favorites]

I had a college friend who transferred out midway through our first year because she wanted to be a writer. She'd won numerous awards at her high school, and had generally always been praised for her ability. She went to all kinds of expensive-sounding special camps and programs, was published in some kind of magazine, petitioned to get into a special seminar, and transferred because our college wasn't literary or arts-focused enough.

She complained that everyone at her new college thought of themselves as writers. A couple of people she met during her college years had actually published books as high schoolers. This was a huge blow to her sense of self. But all I learned about her was through gossip, and when my colleague said her teen daughter who is applying to colleges is looking for a school with a top creative writing program because she's supposed to be a talented writer, it makes me think of Kasha.

Now, I'm not an expert in the least about this area, but it seems to me that "I want to be a writer" is a lot like "I want to be an actress." There's tons of talent out there, and you have to define success on your own terms. And you should stop blaming your parents for feeling inadequate and making it a huge part of your identity.

And don't ever submit anything to the Modern Love colum of the NYTimes. Please.
posted by anniecat at 10:05 AM on May 3, 2010

I don't think I could be fulfilled in life without a creative outlet.

Well, that's what it boils down to, doesn't it?

You've already gotten some great answers here--I particularly like what artemisia wrote. I was going to come in and suggest something like NaNoWriMo. If I were in your position, I'd forgot about the dreams to write the Great American SemiAutobiographical Literary Novel--for now. Immerse yourself in writing something that's fun. Write a little bit each day. If you stick with it--and I mean really stick with it, writing between 500 and 1500 words a day--you could have a novel in a month or two.

It took me three tries at novel writing to realize that. Suddenly, I wasn't a person who wanted to write a novel--I was a person who had written one. Then, in fairly quick succession, two more. I'm now working on my fourth. That's not to say that they're good (my attitude towards them varies between affection and cringing), but they're there. That's an amazing feeling.

You write a novel by continuing to write even when no one cares. You write a novel by continuing to write even when you doubt yourself. You write a novel by continuing to write even when the blank page makes you want to curl up and die. Know that those moments will come--but there will be other moments, too, times when your characters will walk around and live and breathe without you, times when you'll call up your friends and cancel on them, claiming a headache, because you just need to finish this chapter. Because you just want to stay in the story and the universe that you've created a little while longer. Even on the bad days, remember that feeling. Remember that you are the only person who can tell the story you're telling. Remember that there are universes inside of you--and that the only way to get them out there is to write them down.

Oh, and I know how it feels to have parents who don't get it. My mother is actually overly critical about my writing, rather than uncomfortably supportive. I've learned not to show her my writing most of the time. The amazing thing is, your writing life can go on even without your mom or dad's approval. They could know nothing about it. Hell, you could tell no one about it at all--and I might encourage you to do so until you're at a place again where writing is sometimes a joy and not always a chore. Your dreams (and I think it's fine to dream big and brave) belong to no one but you. It's okay to keep them close to your heart while they're still nascent--and until you've written your novel, they are--little baby dreams, seeds of dreams. But that doesn't mean that someday they might not grow.

Anyway, it's time for me to go write. But then I suspect it's time for you, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:05 AM on May 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

posted by anniecat at 10:05 AM on May 3, 2010

There is nothing wrong with deriving your self esteem from loving and being loved rather than by some objective accomplishment, anyway. I have gone this route and, surprise surprise, my analytical and creative brain is actually coming back, due to increased happiness.

Life is not a contest, there are no stakes, your life itself is the most important art project :)
posted by By The Grace of God at 10:28 AM on May 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Time won't stop while I work on this.

Indeed, time won't stop if you stop working on this entirely, nor if you work on it and suddenly, uncharacteristically succeed and finally end up with a self-conception you accept as valid and meaningful. No matter what happens or what you do you will proceed inexorably towards death and in a thousand years there is virtually zero chance that anyone will attach any significance to your name.

Maybe it's time to give up this idea that you've sacrificed your life to being a writer, because it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to think that you've given up the chance for all this stuff for 29 years and yet in all that time you would not sacrifice enduring a bad feeling for a few months to finish the damn book, which every single writer who holds forth on the topic (and I know you've read them) will tell you is the first and most necessary thing: that you finish it, even when you're convinced it's the most terrible thing in the world (William Gibson has written to the effect that he knows he is reaching the turning point with each new book when he is convinced not only that it is the worst book he's ever written but that it is the worst book written by anyone, ever), even when it is not a pleasure to do the work (a great many authors I've read routinely describe the work - particularly the first draft - as harrowing). Whatever made you sacrifice whatever you have actually sacrificed - my guess would be that fear would sum it up pretty well - it was not being a writer. Because you haven't been a writer for 29 years. Writers finish books. Writers submit their short stories, however inadequate they feel them, trying to get published to raise a little capital to allow them the space to write more because they've got to write. Writers do not persist in writing because they lack personal baggage or daddy issues, I mean seriously, are you kidding me? Or so it appears to me, anyway, having read a good deal of what they have written on the topic of themselves and their work, not to mention having taken a good few stabs at failing at it myself. I want to be clear on that, I'm giving you this advice from very much your side of the fence. One failure to another.

What are you looking for, a the odds? I would think it vanishingly unlikely that you have enough invested in writing to succeed, given your track record. You aren't destined to be a great writer because nobody is destined to be anything. Probably you are not going to be anything special in that peculiar world of people who are known by name to strangers for that thing that they do. Welcome to the club, it's not that bad. It is not your problem. Your problem is not the time you spent cherishing the idea that you would be a writer, it is the time you've spent and continued to spend investing so much in the opinion of an asshole who's alternative to being a writer was fucking up the one important job he had which was being a dad. Never soliciting or entertaining his opinion on what success in life might mean might be a real good place to start. Go volunteer at a food shelf and spend some time observing people with real problems. Stop using your poor poor little shriveled raisin dream as an excuse for things like the fact that you want more commitment in your relationship but the person you are with won't give it. Ask shrewd questions like "why am I really staying in this relationship?" instead.

In all likelihood the day you gave up on being a writer was honesty, was living in the moment, was the best day of your life so far. If this assertion feels to you like relief maybe you can go ahead and get on with it, walk past the inevitable waffling stage. If it feels like loss and dread then pull up my profile, take a good second to say "nice try, you asshole," then come back and re-read all the positive advice from all the aspiring and accomplished writers who chimed in here, and then go start your first novel and finish it no matter what. And come back to this when you're done and make them all read it and give you advice about it, as is their responsibility, for encouraging you in the dreadful pursuit. But my money remains that your best chance at greater fulfillment rests on focusing on accepting the validity and value of being you, insert your name here, no title.
posted by nanojath at 11:12 AM on May 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

I've got a shelf of books with my name on them. They're nonfiction. The child/adolescent writer in my head says they don't count because only fiction writers are WRITERS.

So I wrote some fiction. It was genre romance. The college writer in my head said it didn't count because only non-genre fiction writers are WRITERS.

So I wrote a few short stories and some poems. The MFA writer in my head grudgingly accepted those as appropriate output to prime the pump but pointed out I wouldn't really be writing until I wrote a magical realism novel that was poignant but never funny, which is what WRITERS do.

So I was bitching about this in therapy one day, when my therapist asked about the first piece of writing for which I was ever praised. It was magical realist fiction and I was seven. I've spent 36 years chasing the high and the boundaries I got from a story about witches that I wrote in second grade, because the teacher and my mom said "this story means you are a good WRITER."

The funny thing is that I kept writing all those years, even though I only thought of myself as a WRITER when I was working on fiction. Academic publishing, trade books, editing: even though it was words-on-paper, it wasn't somehow allowed to count. One of the best things I ever did for myself as a creative being was to sit quietly with the voice that Julia Cameron calls The Censor, let it speak, thank it for its input, and start typing anyway - because here's the thing about censors. They aren't WRITERS, and I've realized neither am I. I'm just a person making words visible within my own small dream.

So are you.
posted by catlet at 11:15 AM on May 3, 2010 [11 favorites]

As a child, I was the family scapegoat, punished for things I didn't even know I was doing wrong.

You are doing this now, to yourself. Stop being so mean to yourself. Please. You're beating yourself up and you haven't done anything wrong.

Practice kindness toward yourself. Set small goals that are about exploring what you want to do with yourself, and be gentle and modest in praising yourself for achieving those small goals. Stop punishing yourself for not being Shakespeare or whoever your image of perfection is.
posted by jasper411 at 11:42 AM on May 3, 2010

To get unblocked maybe you could try writing a very bad short book under an alias. Something flawed and cheesy, possibly with bodices being ripped and prancing stallions in the moonlight. Try to bring back the fun in writing, the glee, the sense of creation and joy. Maybe read some Terry Pratchett - he said writing is the most fun you can have alone.
posted by meepmeow at 12:35 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

How about this - spend some time writing things you're never going to share with anyone else. Explicitly set anything you write during this period as off-limits to publication or even to sharing with friends.

Because the thing that strikes me most about your post is that it's all about other people, about having your name on things, about awards, about publication. But all of that is tangential to writing, and maybe it'll be easier for you to discover whether you truly love writing if you try doing it for its own sake.

For what it's worth, I consider myself a writer, but I have never published anything, and I think it's highly unlikely that I ever will. Writing for me is a hobby, not a job, and there's no goal other than enjoying myself.
posted by marginaliana at 1:26 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm fifty one years old. I'm a songwriter. I have been paid for exactly ONE song I have written.

But I am a songwriter. I don't actually NEED anyone to validate what I am. I know I am decent at what I do, people like what I write, but no, I am not rich, not famous, and doubt that would ever happen (and that's really okay with me. )

Because I am a songwriter.

Let me tell you something about creativity. It helps to have a deep well to draw from. The main deep well you draw from is life. And it takes time to live some life before you have anything approaching a deep enough well to really have something to say. You are almost there.

The life you have lived so far is prologue. Take a deep breath. Think about the things you have learned about life. About people. About existence on this planet. About pain. Pain is one thing that digs your well really, really deep. Don't despise it.

I am telling you your best days are ahead of you. Your dream is only dead if you suffocate it in its cradle. I am telling you not to do that. It doesn't matter if it is fiction or songwriting or nonfiction or essays or philosophical treatises or poetry. You are just now barely old enough to really have something worthwhile to say. Don't look to your left or your right. Do NOT compare yourself to others. That kills dreams. And you are not them. You are YOU. With a unique voice. A unique deep well.

Now, it's okay to lay it down for a time, to rest it. But pick it back up again when you are ready, because YOU ARE NOWHERE NEAR DONE.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:21 PM on May 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

great answers above. i would add: is there a story you really want to tell? that's what i always ask the writers i work with (i'm an editor).
posted by sdn at 6:26 PM on May 3, 2010

Do you want to be a writer, or do you want to write? Cause there's nothing stopping you from the latter, and the former is just a job description no more or less romantic or fulfilling than a million other jobs out there like firefighter, executive, real estate agent, mechanic, and like any job, there's a whole lot more to a person than how they get some dough - and I say this having been, and having wanted to be, both.

Focus less on what you think will make you happy, and more on BEING happy. Comparing yourself to others (or magical perfect people in your head) is a surefire way to disappointment. Guess what, there are a squillion idiots out there you are miles ahead of, and there's also a squillion you couldn't hold a candle to. Stop worrying about them, about who you think you "should" be, measuring up, being a loser, not trying hard enough, giving up, failing, succeeding.

Focus on being happy. Doing what you enjoy. There's no scorecard to life that you are dropping behind on; there's no such thing as wasted potential because potential means different things to everyone. Focus on your potential to be happy.

Anecdote: There's a Robert Louis Stevenson quote I've known for many years. When I was younger, I used to think it was a horrible sentiment and completely viciously wrong; the quailing excuse of the fearful. With age, however, I more than accepted it, I have embraced it, and I think it's not only an accurate description for many of us, but a sound one, too:

"Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, failed much: — surely that may be his epitaph of which he need not be ashamed"

Stop feeling ashamed.
posted by smoke at 9:37 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

[I'm not your therapist but , etc.]

You call your problem Oedipal.

The implication is, if you wrote the way you wanted to (or did anything the way you want to, probably) you'd be killing your father. So you have to kill yourself instead, right? (every single day).

MUST you stay in this version of a father-son relationship? why? Because it's what you think your father wants? How come he gets to have what he wants at your expense? How come that's better than you getting what you want at his expense? (oh wait, I know! because the latter would mean that you are a horrible person, an ungrateful child, and now you will live in shame for the rest of your life. Yeah, that's it.)

And you can't face that. Understandably. But that's why you can't finish anything. Because if you did, it (your point of view, the point of view of the Horrible) would then be "out there"
like a loaded missile and War would ensue and either you'd lose and die or your father would lose and die. And we can't have either of those, right? (e.g. TOTEM AND TABOO) Therefore you CAN'T finish your novel. I mean, come on, who would finish a novel if they knew it would cause a war? (Norman Mailer?)

So how do you resolve this?

well, I'm not your therapist, but this is a common conflict, so I'm speaking in general. The way to resolve it is to understand that you have to face your true horribleness (As You Imagine It <>
It seems that a project here is for you to "work on" accepting that, in your head, you ARE a shameful, ungrateful child who thinks more about how he's been wronged than about how wonderful your father is. You're working SO hard in an attempt to hide your feelings (i.e., your words) because you can't really face that. It's too painful. At this point it's not about hurting your father, not really. (not to mention your mother. It's interesting that you use the term "Oedipal" without once using the word Mother. Only Father is here. Where'd your mother go? I hope she shows up in your therapy sessions!) That's secondary. What I think you need to remember is that this conflict is really about maintaining *your* self-regard, your own narcissistic attachment to an idea of yourself (that you're really a good person, a victim of others, not a boy who would voluntarily hurt his father!).

So I think this is key: to remind yourself that writing takes courage! even if your novel weren't referencing your family. No matter what it's about, a novel is always about taking major emotional risks. It's always about the writer, because it comes out of the writer.

And maybe it turned out that, instead of the deep, sensitive brooding novelist you want to be, you're actually one of those sons-of-bitches narcissistic full-of-themselves novelists who turn on their families and use them as material. You selfish creep! Or -- maybe you're somewhere in the middle. Not a killer, but not a little puppy either. Oh wait, somewhere in the middle? that's so bourgeois, so bland.

Who knows who you are? Because you don't do the writing, you never find out. The project is to let the words come out and let yourself find out who you are. This takes COURAGE.

You talk about being 38 as so old because it feels old, because you're experiencing yourself in that timeless stuckness, where another 50 years of this could go by and nothing will have changed. It's not chronology that's your problem, it's that you feel yourself in emotional quicksand.

I think you should try to write every day, whatever comes out, unedited. Later, you edit. Then, when it's time to try to get published, you can use a pseudonym-- or not. You're not there yet. You're at the first stage, of just allowing yourself to let it out. Just take it one step at a time. Stop envisioning this "novel" with all its problems. You're not only stuck in the past, you're stuck in the imagined future, too. You need to allow yourself to live in your own personal present (Ommmmmmm shanti whatever Zen be here now blah blah blah)

And one more thing about having your feelings exposed in your novel: lucky for you, it is almost impossible to get a novel published these days, so maybe you won't even have to worry about that!
posted by DMelanogaster at 5:08 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

You do realize that all of those reactions, including inability to keep doing what you used to love for money 40+ hours a week, are incredibly common and not usually considered any sort of failure?

I work in software. Most of the people I've known in my field burn out terribly after about a decade, and then do something else, either by trying to make it to management, trying to find a job that doesn't require much of them, or by switching to a different career entirely.

I've seen a phenomenal number of folks switch careers in their 30's and 40's. Your best years are still ahead of you, silly. Unless, of course, you think they aren't, in which case, that's pretty self-enforcing.
posted by talldean at 5:40 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

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