The End of History Problem in Planning a Writing Career
The End of History Illusion is the common assumption that, wherever we are in life, we have become who we were meant to be, that we made mistakes in the past–dated the wrong person, got a dubious tattoo, made dumb investments, whatever–but NOW we’re grown up, we’re smarter, we know what we’re doing, and we know who we are.
The problem is, time passes and the End of History moves with us, and that time ten years ago when we thought we knew it all, knew exactly how the rest of our lives were going to go, knew who we were forever? Yeah, we changed and now that’s part of our history, we’re not like that anymore but THIS time, THIS is the End of History.
I think for a lot of people, that’s just an amusing tic, something you look back on and think, “How could I have been so wrong?” laugh, and move on. But if your career is tangled up in who you are, the End of History Illusion can be a huge problem. Take writers, for example.
We tell the stories we have to tell in the beginning, the stories of our hearts. Then some of us get published, and when we get published we get marketed, aka branded, because that’s the best way to sell books and everybody involved wants to sell books.
So let’s say for example, you start writing romance, and people think you’re funny, and bam, you’re a romantic comedy writer. That’s okay, you like writing what you like, so it’s not a problem. Then ten years go by, you write a romantic comedy novel that gets rave reviews, you’re poised for super-stardom, all you have to do is write another romantic comedy and . . .
You’ve changed. You’re not the person you were ten years ago. It’s not that you like romantic comedy any less, it’s that that’s not where your head is anymore. You started writing at 41, which was certainly The End of Your History, everything after that would play out as planned, but now you’re 51, and History moved, and now romantic comedy is who you used to be, not who you are now. That’s not a problem unless the world has slotted you as a romantic comedy writer, you’ve been branded as a romantic comedy writer, and now you have to choose:
Are you going to try to drag yourself back to where you were ten years ago to fit your very successful brand? Or are you going to say, “I’m sorry, that’s just not me any more,” and try to figure out who the hell you are now and what you’re going to write now?
A lot of people take Option A and keep writing the same thing, and if they can do it, more power to them, it’s clearly the financially smart thing to do. Others take Option A and try to slowly morph it, moving away by increments, although that usually doesn’t work since readers usually aren’t reading non-series books in the order in which they were written. Others are stuck with Option B because they can’t pretend to be who they were; they change, readers object, things fall apart unless the leap they’ve made gets them different readers, readers who will be very upset at the end of the next decade when The End of History moves again, and the writer has to reinvent herself.
An even bigger problem: What if she can’t reinvent herself? What if she’s written all the books she was supposed to write, and now it’s time for something different? Painting, music, water-skiing, welding . . . anything but writing. What happens then?
I think one of the most important aspects of career planning is taking into consideration the End of History Illusion; that is, I think any writer making a career plan has to assume that she’s going to change, possible radically, and factor in the evolution. You can probably with some degree of certainty what you’re going to feel like in six months, maybe a year. Five years? Nope. Ten years? Not a chance. And that’s why I think the best advice for writers planning careers is “Stay fluid and unpredictable.” Branding, the marketing tactic that everyone is so crazy about, is a trap and an illusion because once you’re branded, you’re stuck. That’s who you are, even if it isn’t.
I wrote a pretty good ghost story that got some pretty bad reviews on Amazon because it wasn’t a romantic comedy. I knew it wasn’t a romantic comedy. We didn’t promote as a romantic comedy. It doesn’t have a romantic comedy cover. And yet . . . I wrote a paranormal fantasy in collaboration with a guy; people complained that it wasn’t a romantic comedy. We knew it wasn’t a romantic comedy. We didn’t promote it as a romantic comedy. It didn’t have a romantic comedy cover. It didn’t matter, I was branded as a romantic comedy writer and people were disappointed because the books weren’t what my name implied to them. (Of course some people didn’t like the books just because they didn’t like the books. Can’t blame everything on branding.)
That’s why I think it’s a good idea to signal early and often that who you are is who you are; that is, if I’d established that I wrote Crusies instead of romantic comedies, I might not have had such a hard time when my End of History moved forward a decade, just as its moving now. At 64, I’m pretty confident that this is the real End of My History, except that my mother just celebrated her 88th birthday. If I get the same deal that Jo is getting, will I be the same person then? Not a chance. In fact, now that I think about it, I’m not sure I’m going to be the same person tomorrow.
The key, as always, is to write the stories you have to write, not write to market, but I think that’s not enough. I think that we have to remember to challenge ourselves, move outside our comfort zones, break whatever natural branding is growing up around us. The bigger the gap between who we are and what we write, the more likely we’re going to hit writer’s block and creative exhaustion. Maybe the question we need to ask is not “What should I write next?” but “Where can I go next?” And then remember that wherever we go, eventually we’re going to end up some place else.