I Give Up I’m No Longer Chasing “Literary Success”
Who doesn’t yearn to be read and recognized?
Several months ago, as winter crawled toward the hope of spring, I decided to quit my administrative job at a college. When I first accepted the position in February of 2020, Covid-19 was an uncertain threat. By what would have been my first day in office, New York City was under a stay-at-home order. My hours were cut in half as the official job I’d been hired for was indefinitely eliminated. I floated between duties at the behest of a boss who assured me that he was fighting to secure my position, though there were no guarantees.
For two years I was grateful for a consistent paycheck and the ability to work from home, which, accompanied by the part-time hours, afforded me time to write. Prior to the pandemic, I’d spent just over a year as a receptionist at a law firm where, in between greeting guests and making coffee, I also had long periods of time to sit at my desk largely unbothered. While in that role, I started writing regularly again, which I had mostly foregone since undergrad. I read the essays of writers I admired and crafted my own work without much thought as to where or how they could exist outside of my Google Drive.
With my downtime at the college-admin job, I focused on pitching outlets and getting comfortable working with editors—experiences that were usually collaborative and fruitful but that could be sparse and limited. Historically, my writing skewed toward longer meditations, often rooted in personal narrative, but I was starting to write shorter and faster for online publications and was learning the compromise of merging one’s voice with an outlet’s. But then a shift back to in-person work, with irregular hours and a loss of pandemic unemployment pay, made my job—and balancing it with my writing—more difficult to manage.
Returning my attention to an essay attempt felt difficult after answering a student’s or professor’s question. Every time I successfully delved back into a piece with focus, I was pulled away again. Though my boss encouraged me to write at my desk when I could, I soon realized his enthusiasm was based on his own notions of what I could do in my downtime and not what was actually possible. I began to dread each shift, which were only three hours each during night classes, and I spent the majority of the evenings waiting to leave.
A full-time career in writing had never been my aim, despite a general assumption from family and peers alike that getting close to any realm of writing was the goal. But in practice, I’ve failed to feel much difference between answering phones at reception, coordinating the calendars of corporate execs, or writing ads—all require communication skills, and none of them are things I went to school for. While copywriting is considered “in my field,” my stints with it were no more satisfying than clerical jobs, and it didn’t feed the work of my own writing.
I daydreamed about larger checks that came on time and wider acknowledgement within the literary world.
I’ve more often found professional triumph in simple transitions, like a change of industry from food service to office settings when the physical strain of serving became too exhaustive. Or switching offices when a previous boss became too comfortable with rattling off proto-QAnon theories. I fashioned slight maneuvers that made each job a little more bearable than the last with the hope they would culminate into work that aligned more with me, not necessarily as a writer but as a person. Witnessing from afar the cycles of layoffs, publication closures, and sometimes ruthless behavior between colleagues, it seemed that the world of media could not ensure comfort and respect any more than most jobs.
Yet to incur a few bylines and be paid, even if not much, was (and always is) rewarding. Who doesn’t yearn to be read and recognized? To take myself and my writing seriously gave me permission to leave my college-administration role. With a small savings, I calculated that I could stay afloat as long as I created and maintained momentum in freelance work. I daydreamed about larger checks that came on time and wider acknowledgement within the literary world. I had never quit a job without another lined up. But if ever there was a time to jump first and think later, why not during what headlines were heralding as the Great Resignation ?
I put in my notice. My last day was two days before my twenty-eighth birthday, on which there was a new moon, a symbol of fresh beginnings. What’s more, the tarot cards were reassuring! I was kissing new boys! My favorite wig was miraculously back in stock after months of being unavailable at online beauty-supply stores! If my fantasies of a new writing life didn’t materialize, I expected finding new long-term employment to take no more than two months. I was mistaken. What I found instead was the constant reminder that confidence in one’s writing can’t be rooted solely in professional validation. There may be no official council of writers dictating who is most legitimate, but there are pressures to attain an appearance of career advancement—where one is published, who is sharing one’s work, how much one is getting paid, and how one balances being funny but intellectually rigorous but not morally inept and hot, obviously (especially if one is a woman).
Much of the performance is done in vain and, increasingly it seems, without adequate systems of support. Instead of working hard to find a proverbial seat at the table, or to ensure I would be seen as a writer—a feeling that is really one’s own, anyway—I gave up.
When I first began writing this essay, I was preparing to speak in a class at my alma mater about pitching. As the day of the discussion neared, my insecurities induced a sense of apprehension. The summer that had followed my departure from the workforce had been drenched in disappointment. Automatic replies were frequently the only responses I received to numerous applications. Pitches were either rejected or ignored. After months of unanswered follow-ups on a commissioned essay, I sent an invoice to the editor, who got back to me in a timely fashion to notify me that she was killing the piece.
Elsewhere, money dwindled and all romantic and sexual prospects fizzled. The main event of some days was a walk to Rite Aid to wander under the fluorescent lights, pulling items I felt I needed off the shelves, only to place them back. As I gathered snacks, music blasted in my headphones like FKA Twigs’s 2022 mixtape, Caprisongs .
“I had a good job and I left. I had a good job and I left,” she asserts on “Which Way.” “I left because I thought it was right. Left, right, left, right.” I simultaneously felt consoled and mocked.
The exhilaration of quitting morphed into shame about prolonged unemployment. As the days and weeks stretched into months, the numbers on the price stickers at the Rite Aid, like most stores, increased. The articles about the Great Resignation were replaced by stories of inflation and the possibility of a recession. Gradually, items went behind cases that only employees could unlock. First makeup, then bath products, toothpaste, and then, most surprisingly, ice cream.
I drowned in the vastness of unlimited time and admonished myself for not structuring it productively to write and to pitch. But as I sat at my vanity that also serves as my desk, my worries of making rent engulfed any flares of creativity. Who cares what you want to say about a book that came out two years ago—how are you going to buy groceries?
I was too tuned in to social media, scrolling timelines for possible stories that would compel an editor to give me a couple hundred dollars. The occult-enthusiast-to-“Catholic”-tradwife pipeline. The teenager I thought was unfairly dogpiled for being a less-than-avid reader is a forty-year-old employed by a defense-contracting company. What does a twenty-four-year-old New York Times critic’s TikTok feud with the star of a movie I haven’t seen say about culture? They often weren’t ideas I was truly excited about.
Five months into my unemployment, I received an email inviting me to an interview for a part-time admin position at a music nonprofit I had applied to. I was out of practice with professional formalities and worried that I was more honest than a job interview warranted. Yet I made it to a second round of interviews, then a third. Our conversations weren’t just focused on my work history or my five-year plan (a question I abhor), but also my relationship to writing. I was candid about the stress that would be alleviated if I had steady work not just for money but also for the container it would grant me to take my time with writing. I got an offer a few days later.
But I was still rebuilding both financial and emotional security, and I griped at the thought of speaking to the class. What advice could I offer when I have yet to feel like I’ve found my own footing in this precarious industry? I wanted to extend a pragmatism to students that was absent during my time in undergrad, but I was also cautious of approaching the discussion with a scoffing cynicism.
“There is a contradiction here of both scorning a system that’s shallow and rigged and also feeling bitter about not being able to succeed within such a system in order to get our remuneration,” writes Apoorva Tadepalli in her essay on, and titled, “ Careerism .” Like many writers, I’ve contended with the dilemma Tadepalli articulates. I roll my eyes at what I assume to be clout cultivation (though of course, if it were my friends, it’d be different). I’m exasperated by the time put in to create versus its return, but, still, I go on. Hand-wringing and pacing, searching for the most cogent sentence, I continue. Which is to say I don’t disavow writing as work but rather that I resist the tendency to be defined by work, creative or otherwise.
Of course, having jobs unrelated to one’s creative practice isn’t novel, but I decided what I wanted to impart to the class were things I wish I’d heard in undergrad: No, you don’t need to dedicate unpaid hours to an internship to write. No, you are not behind. You are at school to learn; utilize it to its fullest advantage. Work can be a drag and is destined to be imperfect. At times, I resent the feeling that I’m forced to choose between more freedom and more security, such as the salaried benefits a full-time job may offer. But my part-time schedule with the nonprofit has given me both structure and flexibility while working within an interest of mine, among kind colleagues. In that way, I’ve secured yet another small triumph in being comfortable with my current trajectory.
During the class discussion, a student asked about having authority to write on certain subjects. If you’re an authority on a subject, it allows you to better sell yourself, and therefore your work, in a competitive market. But I posited that sometimes our fixation on cultivating authority stems from the myth of lack—that only a finite number of people can cover a subject or that there is limited room within freelancing. Of course, this myth of lack is what structures much of society—that there aren’t enough resources to sustain all people. We comfort ourselves with the difficult stories of overcoming rejection to soothe our own hardships. But in Toni Morrison’s 1991 keynote speech at the American Congress , she noted that horror stories of writers’ despair indicate that “solitude, competitiveness, and grief are the inevitable lot of a writer only when there is no organization or network to which he can turn.”
If years of labor put into maintaining a public persona can suddenly become valueless, then we must question the emphasis placed on self-branding.
A site like Twitter has, at times, functioned like such a network. Because it allowed people to self-market and write short screeds that could become longer pieces, Twitter became a way to launch careers, especially in the 2010s with the blogging boom and the explosion of internet personal essays. The trend allowed for more young people, women, people of color, and queer people to get work. But it also ushered in an excess of confessional stories vying for virality that weren’t always treated with editorial care, which in turn often subjected marginalized people to online harassment and degradation.
In a 2020 talk from Haymarket Books , Naomi Klein cautioned that “we cannot rely on corporate platforms for the ways in which we organize true resistance.” I’ve thought of her words as I’ve witnessed writers lament the muscle they put into building platforms, only for that effort to be rendered insignificant by the platforms’ potential dissolution. I can’t deny the damaging effects of Twitter going under, particularly on independent magazines. I too have relied on tweets to find calls for pitches, to publish my work and connect with new people. The impact of Black Twitter on culture could never be understated. Yet I can’t forget the undue harm it has also inflicted, campaigns of harassment for minimal offenses, and the way it has the feel of a catty high school lunchroom even on a neutral day. While writers have long had public personas, the advent of social media not only demanded that everyone have an explicit persona but also has tasked us with coveting each other’s brands.
If years of labor put into creating and maintaining a public persona can suddenly become valueless, then we must question the emphasis placed on self-branding. That Twitter’s dissolution could bring ruin to so many entities should force us to confront how unsupported we really are. The equation of follower count to meaningful success and opportunities will always shut people out. Maybe reenvisioning what freelance writing will look like in the future will even require publishing to go beyond self-reporting on its whiteness problem .
I suppose this is all easier to pose when I don’t have a mass following and am not leading a company that relies on social media engagement. Admittedly, to give up on being seen as an occupational writer is hyperbolic—I can’t actually control others’ perception of me or my output. But I can invest less of myself into the image, a sort of soft quitting. If there is truly to be an end, I’ll try as much as I can to make that death be on my own terms.