Children’s book veteran Kelly Bennett has been publishing picture books and children’s nonfiction for a quarter century. She joins the long haul series today to discuss something many writers think about: when (and how) to quit–and when (and why) not to.
ReTIRED and Better for It!
I’m honored Janni invited me to discuss Writing for the Long Haul. It’s an interesting topic, especially as I recently quit.
Someone asked me once. “What made you think anyone would want to read what you write?”
Snarky as the question sounds, it wasn’t intended to be an insult. It was posed as a query, more of a “Why did you become a writer?”
The idea that I could . . . should . . . must be a WRITER struck me like a tractor trailer on an empty New Mexico highway. I was driving Route 66 from California back to Oklahoma, in a metallic green Cadillac with my two children—then 2 and 4—when it smacked me upside the head. (We were listening to kiddie music on an 8 track.) Unlike many authors I know, I had never before considered becoming a writer. While I had earned high marks on school writing assignments, I was not a writer. I didn’t even keep grocery lists, let alone a journal. Nevertheless, I answered the call.
At the first opportunity, I enrolled in a writing class. Along with introducing me to the business of publishing, that first class also brought me together with Ronnie Davidson, a kindred spirit who soon became my writing partner. Within that first year we’d sold our first book. However, as our co-writing career took off, my personal life crashed. Frankly, as passionate as I was about writing, if it had not been for Ronnie, and the support and accountability that comes from being part of a team, I probably would have quit.
By writing team, I mean Ronnie and I sat side-by-side every school day for as many hours as our schedules allowed, with Ronnie at the computer keyboard (one of the earliest home systems) and me scribbling on a legal pad, bouncing ideas, plotting, creating, and finishing each other’s sentences . . . As a team we set goals—primarily to publish—and set our course of action. What we wrote—poems, puzzles, How-To, Travel, parenting magazine and newspaper articles, memoir, True Confessions, fiction, non-fiction—didn’t matter. The fun was writing and publishing, and being paid (no matter how small the check; every dollar was one less I had to make waitressing.)
Being part of a writing team came naturally to me. As a kid, I preferred team sports—volleyball, kick ball, badminton—over individual sports. Even in Tennis, I preferred doubles. So, when after more than 12 years, 6 books and a binder-full of articles to our credit, we dissolved our writing partnership, I floundered. For the first time, I questioned the call. Was I really meant to be a writer? Or, was I only a writing partner? Could I even write by myself? Did I want to?
Fast forwarding through the ensuing agonizing self-appraisal, I determined, partner or not, I was a writer. I plunged into a new writing life. Partly out of fear, partly loneliness, this included becoming active in writing organizations I had only been vaguely connected to while team writing, including a critique group. Through them I found the supportive community I craved and began realizing success in my solo career.
Odd as it sounds, publishing can wreak havoc on our writing lives. It did mine. Having a “career” requires us to split ourselves in two: part creative writer, part business-minded author. Whether it’s true, or it’s just my excuse, the last few years I’ve been so busy moving, marrying off children, caring for aging parents, traveling, etc. etc., I haven’t had much time for anything else. Of necessity, what time I did have went to “must dos” and “should dos”—promotions &; marketing, presentations, social media—author stuff. As a result, the “want tos”—everything I enjoyed about writing, including writing and fellowship—went by the wayside. I came to one day and realized my writing life was no longer a joy. It was a job. And, judging by my actions—splitting with my agent, neglecting revisions, not sitting my butt in the chair—a job I might not want.
I was wallowing somewhere between miserable and pathetic when it dawned on me that, called or not, I did not have to be a writer. There were a zillion other careers out there, a zillion other things I could be doing besides writing. So I quit. Being free from the publish-and-promote-or-perish pressure felt grrrrrreat! . . . Honest.
While on hiatus, I attended a retirement dinner for a colleague of my husband’s. After the dinner was over one of the young, non-native English speaking attendees approached him. “Mr. Michael,” he said. “After you get your new tires, what will you do?”
New tires! We all enjoyed his naiveté, and some among us filled him in on the “real” meaning of retirement. (Although I’m not sure we should have.) In a Chauncy Gardnerish way, he was correct. In retiring, Michael was replacing a worn set of work tires with a comfy new set for rolling into the sunset. Yes, retirement is an end. But it’s also an opportunity for new beginnings.
I didn’t want to quit. Writing is my chess, my Suduko, my Candy Crush. Even when the writing isn’t going well, I’m happier writing than not writing. I had been called to writing. And not heeding that call was driving me from crazy to cranky. I wanted to retire so I could begin a new, fulfilling writing life.
Just as there are different kinds of tires—on road, off road, snow, etc.—there are different ways to approach our writing lives. After deciding that I wanted—want—to be a writer, I visualized what I wanted that new writing life to be. Next, I set goals to ensure I don’t forget or ignore my “want tos” again! These include:
- Staying connected to my team by attending one writing retreat, workshop or conference (as a participant, not a speaker) bi-annually chosen to inspire and energize me.
- Interacting with my readers regularly (preschoolers and elementary students) at paid events, and as a volunteer.
- Challenging myself to try new things (by taking classes and group study).
- Scheduling quarterly check-ups to evaluate my professional life with an eye to maintaining balance between author duties and writing—with prime time going to writing.
Writing for the long haul is no different than other professions, harder perhaps considering the paychecks may not be as plump or regular. It’s easy to stay busy attending to the “must dos” and the “should dos” while ignoring the “want tos.” But, attending to those “want tos” is what brings us joy. And while I don’t recommend doing anything as dramatic as calling it quits, I do suggest doing what I should have: in the same way you take your car in for servicing, schedule regular career check-ups. Ask and answer those defining questions:
- Why did you become a writer?
- What kind of writing life do you want?
Depending on your responses, make necessary adjustments to your writing life. Could be it’s time for you to re-tire, too. Oh, the places we can go on a brand new set of tires!
Kelly Bennett started telling stories when she was two, using her mother’s mascara to write on her neighbor’s car. She’s gone on to publish more than a dozen picture books and nonfiction children’s books under her name, as well as several books co-authored with Ronnie Davidson under the pen name Jill Max. Her most recent titles include Vampire Baby, the Writer’s League of Texas Book Award Winner One Day I Went Rambling, Your Mommy Was Just Like You, and Your Daddy Was Just Like You. She’s a graduate of the Vermont College Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Visit her online at Kelly’s Fishbowl.
Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts
- Pete Hautman on the book that will save us
- Elena Acoba on touching reader lives
- Steve Miller on building a writing life
- Sharon Lee on remembering we’re not alone
- Betty G. Birney on always challenging ourselves
- Nora Raleigh Baskin on making deals with the writing gods
- Sean Williams on unpredictability and luck
- Deborah J. Ross on writing through crisis
- Sharon Shinn on managing time
- Marge Pellegrino on feeding the restless yearning to write
- Sarah Zettel on embracing ignorance and writing your passions
- Uma Krishnaswami on honoring unreasonable exuberance
- Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
- Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
- Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
- Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
- Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
- Kathi Appelt on the power of story
- Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity