I have a confession to make: I’m in a bit of a midcareer crisis. Or maybe crisis is a bit strong—examination, assessment, reevaluation. It is…unsettling.
When I imagined being a writer before I ever took up the mantle, the vision was painted in watercolor softness, me and a cottage and the genteel pursuit of my stories. I imagined writing novels into ancient age, puttering in my garden, writing letters to my readers. I think it came out of some novel I read as a young teen, because the specifics are nothing like my own world of the mountain west—instead, that cottage is by the sea, maybe in England. Which I wouldn’t mind, but it’s a long way from my reality of a small city tossed at the skirts of the Front Range.
The reality of my writing life has taken a different turn than what I imagined, and therein lies some of the re-evaluation. Instead of writing a steady, reliable number of novels in a particular genre or format, I’ve written everything, starting with news, features, and a popular column in my student newspaper, then the local daily. I studied journalism because my father insisted it would be good training for a fiction career, but while I was in the midst of it, I fell a lot in love with non-fiction, the power of the word to expose wrongs, change things, inform and shape. It turned out I was pretty good at it. I won some awards and an audience. I imagined that I’d be a foreign correspondent and write about the world.
Instead, I started writing novels. It wasn’t quite a straight leap, but the details don’t matter. I wanted to write novels and found a way to write them. For nearly a decade, I wrote contemporary and historical romance novels and earned a nice living. Not huge, but decent. I was pretty good at it—found an audience and some acclaim. But I started to get restless and wanted to write about the other loves in a woman’s life—work, mainly, it turned out. I wrote ten novels about that, and I’m still writing them, but that restlessness set in again about three years ago. I’d written a lot about women at midlife finding themselves. What else might I want to write about?
My travels had given me some intriguing ideas about the 18th century, and I thought going to do some kind of hip historical romance. I’d always loved it. Instead, I was ambushed by a particular character who said, “Get up and let me tell you this story.” I wrote a series of new adult novels centered around a single couple and self-published it. Turned out it was pretty good. I found an audience and made some money.
All through these longer works, I’ve had a love of essays. I’ve written hundreds of them, here and elsewhere, about writing and life and the ordinary. I write articles. I like non-fiction quite a lot and have been building my resume in that arena with more focus lately. I’ve spent the fall and winter mainly immersed in a historical serial called Whitehall, which will start releasing in mid-May.
But it’s nearly finished. The novels that have been waiting for me are both solid, but they’re very different and I need to choose one. I’m writing a bunch of essays. A shiny new idea has seized me and I’m passionate about the research, but it would be me turning in a new direction. Again.
Which is what is leading to the crisis. A friend is having a rather dramatic health problem, my partner is changing careers, and I am suddenly questioning everything about my own life and career. For a few days, I gave in to a sort of existential panic—now what? Has it all been for naught? When I looked around at the people I started out with, most of them have stayed more or less within the same sort of work, gradually growing, expanding, but writing the same kind of things over time. It tends to work very, very well. Accumulating readers a few and a few more and a few more over time, is a great way to build that readership.
That has never been my way of doing things. This suddenly seemed like a giant, idiotic misstep. Not that I’ve failed—I am quite lucky to have sustained a long-term writing career that continues to go very well.
But as I told my partner when he began to consider leaving a job he has begun to hate, this kind of questioning is good for us. Better to do it in a positive, healthy way rather than indulging in that famous mid-life crisis that can be so destructive. Artists go through stages of work, and I am experiencing growing pains right now. It’s not easy. It feels uncomfortable. I like having a good reputation and have worked hard to earn it.
And yet, I am not a creative person in order to earn a reputation. That’s the thing. I’m driven to explore the books and ideas and themes that present themselves to me, and as I live my life, moving through various stages, my passions shift and change. This is normal for many artists. Picasso moved through many stages of his artistic life, including the African stage and the Blue period. Musicians shift and grow and explore new forms, build on old ones.
The thing is, some of their followers did not like the new work. It’s not a maybe, it’s a definite. Some readers don’t follow me when I shift gears. If I keep my focus on pleasing readers, however, I will never find out what the next thing is. I’ll never see what else I can do.
I’ll never see what else I can do.
My task has always been to follow my passion, follow the work where it leads. Right now, it’s taking me way out of my comfort zone, presenting me with projects that might take a bit more time to bring to fruition, and with no guarantee that I’ll find success. I’ve been afraid to take that leap, and it’s the fear, not the midcareer shift itself, that’s led to my crisis. I want to leap. I want to see if I can.
It is quite possible I will never amass even a small fortune as a writer. (That was something else I thought would happen when I was starting out. Nothing huge, you know, just a right-size little fortune.) It is quite possible I’ll never make a big splash and spend a year on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s quite possible I’ll go along through my own African Periods and Blue Periods and it will just be the path of an ordinary writer in the early part of the 21st century. There is nothing I can do to control that. But for this ordinary writer, the directive has always been clear: follow the passion. Follow the passion. Follow the passion.
I guess I’m not really having a crisis. I’m just standing on the edge of the diving board, the high dive, bouncing a little before I take a leap. One, two…..
Have you gone through your own creative stages or periods? Can you identify a moment you wanted to switch, or found yourself being shoved in a new direction?
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Steven Worster
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