Failing Versus Quitting (Or, “Your Lack Of Confidence Is Neither Interesting Nor Unique”)

I have, as of late, been trying to beam shining waves of positivity, bathing you in the golden light of rah-rah-you-can-do-it vibes, hugging you in the enveloping arms of cheerleadery awesomeness, making out with you and using my ovipositor tongue to plant in your esophagus seed warts of raw confidence.

But the time for such kindness is over.

The time for my boot to destroy your rectum has begun.

Don’t think I don’t see you over there. Trembling in the corner. Moping. Sniffling. Your pants bottom soggy from the cooling urine beneath you. You’re a writer. Or you “want to be” a writer. And you’re staring off at an unfixed point in space, and in that unfixed point is a gravity well that draws forward your motivation, your confidence, your authorial hopes and dreams.

And then you get on Twitter. Or Facebook. Or the NaNoWriMo forums. Or you grab your cat. And you tell them all how you’re not going to be able to do it. How you’re not good enough. Or you make up some other excuse: kids, time, wife, life. And everybody nods and smiles and tells you it’s okay, and they pat your hand while condemning you with a single thought: Pfah. Writers. Or worse, they put quotation marks around that word — “writers” — because in their hearts they know you’re not the real deal.

And so, you plan to quit. Just this book, of course. You’ll quit this one. Start another some day.

You begin a doubt circuit, a loop of explanation that explains it all away, that fills the holes, a medicated ring of self-made gauze that eases the sting and comforts the blow of quitting. This book was never going to be good enough. I haven’t learned enough! I haven’t been enough places. I haven’t hob-nobbed. I don’t know the right people. This computer is too slow. I need a better word processor. Scrivener sounds good, but that’ll take me time to learn. I need to read more writing advice. I’m just gonna get rejected. Publishing is cannibalizing itself anyway — just last week all the Big Six publishers got together to form a giant space arcology and when it’s complete they’ll leave Earth with all the writers and nuke us from orbit. Agents are going extinct. Novelists can’t make a living. Who cares? This book was stupid.

The whole thing is stupid.

I’m stupid.

I’m giving up.

Yeah, no.

Shut up.

Seriously. Shut the fuck up for a minute.

Take that voice — the jabbering jaw inside your head, the one spouting excuses and explanations, the one barfing up a septic toilet-bowl of toxic reasons, the one attempting to ascribe value to your shame, to your lack of confidence, to normalize all your fears and make them acceptable — and choke it off. Close its windpipe. Crush its trachea. Cram a brick in its throat if you must.

It’s not okay to shellac over your failure with excuses.

Failure is necessary. But quitting is not the same as failing.

Failure provides powerful lessons. It affords insight. It allows you to have a whole picture that you can one day hold before you and say, “I see what’s wrong with this picture, now.” Quitting is standing there with a half-a-picture. An incomplete image. And more to the point: an incomplete lesson.

Failure is stepping into the street with a gun at your hip and standing across from your foe — clock strikes noon, she draws, you draw, bang bang, gunpowder haze, smoke clears, and you drop while she keeps standing. That’s failure. You drew. You fell. Maybe you live to fight another day. Maybe you learned something about the next time you need to draw that gun. And everybody knows you fought with honor.

You did the deed. And the deed is done.

Quitting is you hiding in a fucking rain barrel while the gunslinger passes you by.

Failure is brave. Quitting is a coward’s game.

What, you think you’re the first writer who doesn’t think he can do it?

Uh, hello, please to meet every writer ever. We’re all fucking headcases. We all hit a point in every piece of work where we hate it, hate ourselves, hate publishing, hate the very nature of words (“Marriage? What a stupid word what’s that goddamn little ‘i’ doing in there FUCK THIS HOO-HA LANGUAGE IS STUPID I QUIT”). We all bang our heads against our own presumed inadequacies and uncertainties. Writing and storytelling isn’t a math problem with a guaranteed solution. It’s threading a needle inside our heart with an invisible string strung with dreams and nightmares.  We are afforded zero guarantees.

You got… what, you got writer’s block? A crisis of confidence? I have good and bad news for you, hoss: you’re not alone. Good thing is, others have gone through it. Bad news is, others have gone through it and they’ve come out the other side of the shit tunnel with a completed manuscript in their trembling hands. Some writer has inevitably had it far worse than you do and they still managed to spin straw into gold and get the job done. They had less time than you. They felt worse than you. Their crisis-of-confidence was more profound than yours. And they still managed.

I mean, sure, a lot didn’t manage. And now they’re piles of smoking wreckage by the side of the road as faster cars pass them by. Fuck them, we’re not talking about them. We’re talking about you. And you’re going to keep on keepin’ on. You’re not just gonna pull over, turn off the car and starve to death. You’re gonna push that pedal to the floor. You’re gonna make the rubber hit the road. You’re going to finish this goddamn motherfucking sonofabitching journey even if you end up in a different place than you planned.

You can feel good about failure. Failure means you did something. You finished the story even if it wasn’t what you’d hoped. Failure means you’re learning. Growing. Doing.

But quitting — man, you don’t get that with quitting. With quitting all you get is a box full of puzzle pieces that don’t connect. You get a shattered mirror. You get a handful of dirt even the earthworms don’t want.

In storytelling, we say we want characters who are active over passive.

That’s you. You are the character in this story.

Quitting is passive. It’s letting go of the steering wheel.

Hell with that. Be active. Grab hold. White-knuckled.

Here’s what you’re going to do:

You’re going to suck in your gut. You’re going to lift your chin. You’re going to put on a big pair of shit-stompy boots and you’re gonna stomp on all the shit that’s in your way. The only thing you’re quitting today is the idea of quitting.

Repeat after me: It’s not okay to give up.

Again: It’s not okay to give up.

In all caps, now: IT’S NOT OKAY TO GIVE UP.

With more profanity: FUCK QUITTING.

With more incoherent rage: GNAARRRGHBLARG QUITFUCK KYAAAAAHH

I don’t want to hear about you quitting anymore. If I hear about you giving up, I’m going to modify a laser pointer to increase its intensity and I am going to laser shut your pee-hole. And then you’ll just urinate inside yourself and all you’ll be is a big ol’ roly-poly rumbly-tumbly sloshing skin-bag of wee-wee. Like that girl from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, except filled with her own urine instead of blueberry juice.

It’s time to take it to the limit.

1980s montage style.

Punch beef. Tear a car battery in half. Jog in lava. Lift a John Deere tractor.

Because you can do this.

Maybe you’ll fail. Maybe you’ll succeed.

But at least you know you never quit.

Now, shut up and get back to work. Miles to go before you sleep.

76 comments

  • Dear Chuck: Read your screed. Loved it. Was gonna quit on my manuscript for various jabbering toilet-bowl reasons, but decided to take your advice cum threats to heart and do it 1908s montage style. Gonna go all Tunguska on its ass, stand up to it like Butch & Sundance to the Bolivian army, reach my goal like Cook reaching the North pole, and stand on my fucking 1908 Olympic pedestal.

    Man, 1908 was a hell of a year.

    • I should make it clear that, while this is timed with NaNoWriMo, it isn’t a proclamation to specifically finish *that.*

      It’s to finish your story, your manuscript, your novel or script or whatever it is you need to finish. That may take you three months, or six, or two years — if NaNoWriMo is giving you agita, if it’s filling you head with static, fuck it. Move past it. Adopt your own schedule to get shit done.

      – c.

  • You forgot the wreck-riddled median between the ‘Quit’ and ‘Fail’ exits: ‘Postpone’

    The “I can finish this another time”-abandonment, where you can tell yourself you’re not quitting, or failing…and you can keep telling yourself that because, hey–there’s always tomorrow…

    I wonder how many stories are left in idle until they run out of gas, rust, and die slow painful unnatural deaths…

  • That’s so weird. That totally works for something else that is happening in my life at the moment. Tomorrow I advance triumphantly into possible failure/possible success. Which one is scarier?

  • I liked all of this, I did, especially this:

    Uh, hello, please to meet every writer ever. We’re all fucking headcases. We all hit a point in every piece of work where we hate it, hate ourselves, hate publishing, hate the very nature of words (“Marriage? What a stupid word what’s that goddamn little ‘i’ doing in there FUCK THIS HOO-HA LANGUAGE IS STUPID I QUIT”). We all bang our heads against our own presumed inadequacies and uncertainties. Writing and storytelling isn’t a math problem with a guaranteed solution. It’s threading a needle inside our heart with an invisible string strung with dreams and nightmares. We are afforded zero guarantees.

    which almost made me cry with recognition and reassurance. I need to hear that I’m not the only headcase.

    But far and away my favourite bit was the mental image created by ’1908′s montage”

    Love you Chuck!

  • “The time for such kindness is over. The time for my boot to destroy your rectum has begun.” is quite possibly the most bad-ass start to one of these rants I’ve ever seen.

    Also, thanks. After having managed to sprint through about 80% of my story I’ve been starting to feel the drag trying to cross the last hump before the big climax/ending begins. As always your timing for the harsh motivation is perfect.

  • I bury my self-doubt in paper. Mounds and mounds of paper. Paper with inky scribbles on it, some of which I can actually read after I’ve written it. That’s my favorite kind.

  • “Writing & storytelling isn’t a math problem with a guaranteed solution. It’s threading a needle inside our heart with an invisible string strung with dreams and nightmares”

    That was beautiful. Like, it should be on the back of a T-Shirt or made into a giant sign that Iron Man flies over New York beautiful.

  • All of your posts always get me so pumped up to write. Of course, they always get me pumped up to kick my characters in the ass and write torture scenes and craft from my devilish fingers the most incredible suffering for my poor peons- and I’m writing a lit fic novel.
    Too bad I have to go expound upon this lunar moth metaphor instead.

  • Wow, Chuck. This is epic.

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a great post, and it does — as Ashley Austrew said — apply to so much more than writing. (This is so great, in fact, that I plan to share it on my site in the coming days when I find a few moments, and I hope the message just spreads and spreads across the web. We all need to be fiercer and tougher.)

  • I wasn’t even thinking about quitting but this post has still got me all fired up and read y to attack my WIP as soon as I have my little girls to bed. Many thanks for the pep talk. ;o)

  • One of the best motivational rants I’ve ever seen. I’m not doing Nano–I’m procrastinating about revisions. I needed that, and I’m going to share this on my blog, for the three people who read it.

  • So what you are saying is that it is best to go pee, then get back to writing. Got it. Though a thought comes to mind. Can they be done at the same time? Willing to experiment.

    Great kick in the tail again Chuck.

    Tank You.

  • Chuck, do you ever get tired of people telling you how awesome you are? Just checking. I need to work this theme into my regional email (on NaNo, none the less) tomorrow. Thank you for the swift kick.

  • Love you Chuck for the kick in the ass! Sometimes, though, quitting is the only option. I recently quit something that was making me miserable AND that I was failing at. I could have kept beating my head against the wall but decided that my mental health was more important than winning in this specific case.
    Now, that said, I attempted. I learned a lot more and I came out of it with a completed manuscript. But at the end of it, I did quit and at least five times a day I go from WTF have I done to whew I’m really glad that shit is over.

  • Is it okay for you to know that you don’t really exist> Nope, you are just part of my subconscious, created by myself in order to smack me around for a while. ~ Think Fight Club. And when it all explodes at the end, you may no longer exist. But while you are here, you do create quite a stir.

  • @Brian Engard

    Just to add on to that, from the words of Shigeru Miyamoto himself:

    “A delayed game will eventually be good, but a rushed game will forever be bad.”

    The father of Mario and Zelda’s words can easily translate into other media. Just because a project is delayed doesn’t mean you failed, actually quite the contrary. You have more time to analyze and have your ideas slosh around in your head, so usually that may lead to new ideas and story improvements. It doesn’t always turn out that way, but just because your project is delayed does not mean that the golden hand of god has decreed your work to be total crap. There’s leeway.

  • Love this. And I reckon if I can do it – I finished my first MS after my ex walked out, leaving me with a one year old and a huge mortgage – anyone can. (It may yet still be a failure, but fuck quitting!)

  • Thank you – not quitting, not even close – but at least I now feel like I’m not crazy and stupid for refusing to quit in the face of ‘common sense’. Believing in myself is like trusting – sheer act of will – at least I know I’m not alone in that… and just as neurotic as everyone else who does this crazy thing called writing – Thank you.

  • Thank you, Chuck. I signed up for NaNoWriMo this year in my first real attempt to write a novel. Haven’t got a sweet f–king clue what I’m doing but am determined to keep at it and see what comes out the other end. 35,000 words and counting as of today. Mostly crap so far, but who the hell cares? I turned 50 this year and I’m finally doing what I’ve always dreamt of doing. If I fail, so be it. At least, I’ll know I tried. Thanks again for the good swift kick!

  • LOL – I just last night finished the goal I set for myself in the August Camp NaNoWriMo. You are so right – I doesn’t matter how shitty you feel or how down you are, the important thing is to not give up.

    Oh – and some day, I am so making a character for the express purpose of giving life to that nasty voice in my head, and killing it off gruesomely.

  • This is my favorite so far. That other one I said was my favorite? Nope, not any more. It’s this post. These words. This knowledge.

    I think I just had a motivational orgasm.

    Thank you.

  • “With more incoherent rage: GNAARRRGHBLARG QUITFUCK KYAAAAAHH.”

    So infused with the rage of the Wendig-o, I cannot lose. Back to the trenches with renewed vigor. Thanks Chuck!

  • Thanks for that! I love how you kick us around, or, rather, kick that little voice in our heads around. My current whine over this Thanksgiving weekend has been, “oh boo hoo, a writer’s job is lonely, I have to sequester myself in here and get that last 1/3 of this novel written.”

    We writers do love to whine.

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