On Giving Up the Dream

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Matt sends me this heartbreaking email (I trimmed it down to the important pieces):

Like you, I’ve always dreamed of being a writer. I also majored in a completely different discipline in order to earn a strong income. Well, after several years of working, scrimping, and saving, I decided to quit that job and spend a year getting my dreams of writing off the ground. I had the money in the bank to do this and realized that if I didn’t give it a shot, I’d regret it.

Well, that year passed, and I was unable to publish a single thing. So I’m giving up that dream and going back to work with my previous employer.

You know, when I read this, I can’t help but think that this could easily be my story if only a few little things were different. I spent my college years and early professional years thinking off and on about being a writer, writing things in my spare time, sending things off to publishers and occasionally getting a nibble, and dreaming big. In the end, I did end up making a move like Matt, except that I already had a lot of writing opportunities in place before making the leap.

There were four words in Matt’s email that really broke my heart, though. Giving up that dream. Matt is walking away from something he’s wanted all of his life because he’s not seeing a high level of success from it.

One might think that perhaps Matt doesn’t “have what it takes” to be a writer, but I’d argue that even a whole year of focusing on writing full time isn’t nearly long enough to answer that question. I’d argue that Matt likely did not spend every working hour of that year simply writing, and even if he did, he still likely hasn’t had quite enough practice to be sure he’s actually found his writing voice and mastered his technique.

To Matt, and to anyone else who is thinking of giving up their dreams, I offer the following food for thought.

Following a dream doesn’t have to simply be an on-and-off switch. I followed my writing dream in my spare time for years before finally finding the opportunity – and building up the courage – to take it on full time.

So, if you’re thinking of taking the money and walking away from your dream, remember that it’s not such a dramatic choice. Work hard and earn a good income, but instead of just idling during your spare time, use that spare time to chase your dream.

Matt, consider this: when you go back to work, agree to devote at least an hour a day out of your spare time to keeping up with your dream. Put aside an hour in the evening when you might otherwise be watching television or idling and just simply write. Don’t worry about selling anything you write – just write and focus on getting better.

Instead of focusing on making money from your dream, focus instead on getting people interested in what you do. Take The Simple Dollar, for example. I can think of hundreds of ways that I could earn more money from the site – more aggressive advertising, content partnerships, and so on. If my focus were solely on squeezing money out of the site, I’d be following a lot of these opportunities.

But that’s not my focus. My focus is on the writing. My focus is on trying to reach as many people as possible with a positive message about turning around their financial lives. That often means saying no to opportunities for earning money.

What do I have instead? I have tens of thousands of visitors to my website each day. I have 44,000 people subscribed by RSS and email who receive the stuff I write each day. In other words, I have my dream right there. As a writer, I don’t dream of getting rich. I dream of reaching thousands of people with the written word.

By focusing on the writing first above all else, I’ve found readers, enough so that I can do what I want to do and only put up an ad or two to pay the bills. Once you connect with people, the money follows. The key is connecting first.

Reach out to people who are living your dream. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet several writers. Most of them were quite happy to talk to me, answer my questions, offer encouragement, and give me a few pointers. All it took was a respectful query (along with a realization that I had to set my sights on a realistic target – Stephen King isn’t going to answer those letters if he gets a thousand a day).

If you have an opportunity to build a friendship with a person who is doing what you dream of doing, put effort into building that relationship. Surrounding yourself with people who are actually doing interesting and amazing things creates an environment where it’s much easier for you to chase your dreams. You naturally begin to keep your eye on the ball more and begin to see what you need to do in a new light.

Even if things never work, don’t believe that you are a failure. One of my friends dreamed for years of being a comic book artist. He spent all of his spare time drawing amazing comic book-style art – stuff that, in my opinion, was superior to much of the art in mainstream comics.

After spending ten years trying to break in, he gave up. He convinced himself he was a failure, tossed out all of his art supplies, and spent years in something of a depressed haze, believing he was worthless.

He isn’t worthless. You’re not worthless. Quite often, when you’re chasing a dream, you do have your finger on the pulse of your natural talent. The only problem is that sometimes that talent isn’t being directed in the right way. Perhaps Matt has the perfect skill set for being a great technical writer. My friend (I believe) has an amazing skill set for being a scientific illustrator.

Getting knocked down doesn’t mean you are a failure. You only fail when you refuse to get back up, when you refuse to try something new, or when you stop reaching out and growing in what you do.

Good luck, Matt. Don’t give up the dream.

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48 thoughts on “On Giving Up the Dream

  1. I had read a book called ‘Finding your sweet spot” and it said something like this, “The intersection of things you like to do, with things that you are good at, is your sweet spot”.(You could probably substitute dream in there) I have struggled with this because I have always been a “Jack of all trades, master of none”, kind of guy. Rather than giving up these areas, I have found that volunteering to use them allows me to enjoy using those “talents” without the pressure of getting a paycheck from them. As time passes I will suspect I will see which ones are truly “Dream Jobs” and which ones are hobbies I enjoy

  2. I would also add the point of practice. You must take it very serious and practice daily, learning and improving. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers he says 10,000 hours of practice makes the master.

    So just write, write, write, and remember you don’t have to chase the dream the old-fashioned way, just do it yourself online… setup a blog to market your writing and getting followers… good luck!

    Marko
    http://www.howtomakemyblog.com

  3. Also, Matt, realize that Trent is a bit of an anomaly to be able to write full-time. The vast, vast majority of working writers have day jobs.

  4. Great post. I think that Matt should consider the market. Many newspapers are laying off their writers, which means there are a whole slew of writers on the freelance market. It could also be considered an opportunity. Many newspapers and magazine have cut whole beats and departments, so they will need people to write stories on those cut topics and it’s much cheaper to hire a freelance.
    As you said, it takes time to develop a niche. I think he needs to give it more of a shot. I think If he still has savings, maybe he could work part time and pursue the writer thing further.

  5. @Matt–I’m a freelance writer. I majored in journalism, and I’ve been published in a few magazines. But I have a full-time job.

    My feature writing professor told us that it’s rare to make a living solely off of freelance writing. It can be done, some certainly have done it, but they are the exception, rather than the rule. The majority of writers, even those with published books, still have jobs or side businesses or other ways to make money.

    It’s not what anyone wants to hear who is a writer at heart, but it is fact. If you love writing, write every single day. Take courses in the type of writing you want to do. It’s not at all as simple as sitting at the MAC and typing away…there’s a lot behind it.

    Two books I highly recommend are On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. When you read the number of rejections Stephen King received, you’ll see you are not alone. It takes a lot of dedication, especially if it’s not something you’ve studied, though even those of us who did study it in school have to continue learning, reading, and practicing.

    Writing is sort of a miserable process for me. In the middle of trying to structure something out of the jumble of thoughts, it’s very hard. But it’s rewarding when it comes together.

  6. Great post. Yes, making a permanent decision to give up on something you enjoy doing is not good. Just find another way to do it, as others said, even if you might not be making a living at it for now. You never know when an opportunity will present itself and when the stuff you’ve been doing “in the background” suddenly becomes valuable.

  7. Also, if possible, try to do something in your day job related to writing. Try writing for niche magazines in your field. Take on extra assignments related to writing/editing.

    I’m a communications consultant by trade, which is a writer/editor/project manager. I left a job in marketing to do what I do now so that I would have opportunities to write more, to edit others’ work, and to have editors (my coworkers, all fabulous editors) do second reads on my work. I see it as getting paid to improve my skills.

  8. I think the post makes some good points. However, I think it is important to be realistic about one’s abilities and chances of turning a dream into a real career. Otherwise, it is possible to ruin one’s life.

    Or one can end up a laughing stock of millions long after one’s death like this lady: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtf2Q4yyuJ0
    I suppose, she lived her dream – she is famous, but not quite in the way she intended.

  9. This is a great post Trent. I don’t think a person should ever give up on a dream. You may not always be living that dream, but you should do whatever you can to keep it a part of your daily life. It may never be your career, but at least it will always be there.

  10. I think all of these posts sum it up quite well, but I’d like to add that one year is absolutely not enough to try out writing & then immediately give up. Get another job & keep at it!

  11. What Amanda said.

    Many people take three or four or even more novel attempts to get published — and each one of those novels might take a year to write. (I’m most familiar with novels, as that’s what I write in my spare time. No, I’m not published yet, and maybe I never will be, but that’s beside the point to the enjoyment I get from writing, isn’t it?)

    Lawrence Watt-Evans, a (published) science fiction novelist, said that he looked at writing and the attempt to get published as separate pursuits. Sound advice, I think, for anyone attempting a career in the arts.

  12. Great advice, Trent. It took me years to get published. I used to joke that I was going to write a book called Rejection Slips From Around the World. I had enough of them to do it. (And that will give you an idea of how long I’ve been writing–when I started there were no email submissions.)

    Matt, please don’t give up. Keep writing and keep working on your dream, even if it’s just a few hours a week. Read as much as you can. Study the technique of writers you like and of writers who bore you. Try to work out how they do what they do. Talk to other writers, even if it’s only via email. It can happen for you.

  13. Speaking as someone who has been a professional reporter & got an MFA in creative writing, I want to echo Trent’s post. People with publications and degrees often don’t make enough money just writing, so it’s always the muse AND something else that you do. The other stuff actually feeds the writing…

    I can’t find the article reference but it was Harpers, The New Yorker or Poets and Writers (all 3 good publications for writers to read at some point) where they interviewed a novelist who just had his first commercial success.

    He quit his job over a decade ago and his high powered wife supported him as he sat at the kitchen table getting rejection slip after rejection slip. It took an enormous and enduring faith to get him to that success. He was supremely grateful that he had the partner that could enable him to do this crazy thing. So it’s not just one year that will make or break you.

    If this is the dream, the writing will nag you. You may think you can leave it for something practical, and you will feel itchy, guilty, twitchy and have to come back to it. :) Having a year of practice is better than many many people get and you have saved yourself a bunch of time in the long run by doing that focused stint. Keep going, don’t give up.

    I also recommend writing conferences, pursuing a long distance MFA or writing extension programs if you want to keep your hand in, get workshops/critiques to keep your writing continually improving. Good luck, don’t give up!

  14. There are so many ways of making writing part of your life and a potential career that I don’t think that should be something to be given up, unless it feels good to let that go and move on to something else.

    I can’t imagine ever just giving myself a year. I’m still not completely published. However I am online with a lot of sites that I write all the content for. I never thought that is how I would become a writer but I am making money from them. Not as much as I’d like or enough to live on but the hobby pays for itself… some day it might not be a hobby. Someday all that writing might bring me a lot of readers when I do write the book.

    Keep working and realize that as times change the opportunities change and nowhere is that more true than in writing. I mean 10 years ago Trent could never have made a living doing what he does now. Who knows what the future brings?

    Think of all the technical writers there are. That will really hone your skills and you’ll make money doing something you love — even if it isn’t exactly how you dreamed it. It might be fun, will really work those communication skills and gives you something important to put on a cover letter for why someone should publish YOUR novel.

  15. The most practical thing to do is get your wife to work full time so you can pursue your dream. Its even better if you can put your kids into daycare so you won’t have interruptions.

  16. I just finished reading the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, which Trent reviewed here on December 7. I stayed up until 2:00 a.m. to finish it, even though I was very tired from a long walk yesterday. Gladwell’s central theme is that excellence requires 10,000 hours of regular, concentrated effort, no matter what it is you want to be good at. One year of effort at full-time writing can’t add up to 10,000 hours – ten years is more like it, depending on how many hours you can give it EVERY DAY.

    I, too, want to be a full-time writer; I will grant myself 1,000 hours for my efforts so far, and now I have to get serious about the next 9,000. Is it possible to get published at under 10,000 hours? Sure, but I’m looking for mastery of the craft, as well as more tangible rewards. Matt, read Trent’s review, then check out the book. And then get back on your butt and back to work!

    As others here have said, there is a difference between being a writer and being published. I live in L.A. – I know half a dozen professional actors you have never heard of. They all have lengthy resumes; they all have day jobs. They are waiters, bartenders, yoga teachers, office temps – oh, and one golf instructor. The uncertainty goes with the territory. If you ask them what they do they will tell you they are actors. You want to be a writer? Write. Make sure you have a “day job.” Keep writing. Start tracking your hours – next year we can compare. 9,000 to go – ready, set, write!

  17. Such an inpirational post!
    “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho has this intro: “…There are four obstacles to follow our dresm (personal calling, or you may call it, dream)…feeling of impossible, love that deter the path, fear of the defeats, and finally the fear of realizing the dream we fought all our lives…”

    Also quote from this book: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

    I’m inspired by this book, and his best-seller came after many unsuccessful attempts until age 38. I’m thankful that he didn’t given up.

  18. I hope Matt doesn’t give up. I wanted to write the definitive musician’s advice book. I wrote for three years. In Jan of this year, due to a series of what I can only describe as divine coincidences, I decided to break apart my writing and publish booklets. I’ve completed three and sell them at my website. Sometimes we complicate a dream. We think we have to be a million seller. Or we think we have to have fame and fortune. Do it, Matt, because you LOVE it. Use your job as a bridge to your dreams!
    DO NOT GIVE UP

    Trent, great post!

  19. I enjoyed this and your other recent post about writing. So many of us have this desire to write, although It’s hard for me to know if this is truly my dream or not. Do I love to write, or do I just love to fantasize about the life of a writer?

    I look forward to more posts like this. You’re very encouraging. My finances are in good order right now but I still find a lot of good stuff here, and I admire you for realizing your own writing dream.

    (As it happens, I just completed a post on writing resistance and avoidance, included as my home page link for this comment. Any visitors would be welcome!) :-)

  20. I’ve been trying to get published in book length form for about 4 years now. Does that mean I’m a struggling writer? No. I write, therefore I am a writer. I’m not struggling to be one, I am one. I have many friends who are in the same position and they’ll all tell you the same thing. They’re already writers. Published or not, you either are a writer or you’re not.

    And of all the published authors I know (which are many) none of them got published in that first year. It’s just not a reasonable amount of time for such a thing to happen.

    Matt, don’t give up. Write in your spare time. No spare time? Make time. That’s what writers do.

  21. Remember, Matt, you don’t have to be a professional writer to write. Many, many people these days write for pleasure and circulate their work online. It’s a way to hone your skills–but it can also be a joy in itself if you never get published. Some people never even try.

  22. Trent, thanks for reiterating a very important concept that I’ve discovered as well: “Following a dream doesn’t have to simply be an on-and-off switch.”

    I have several big plans for my life; I’m currently in college working towards two B.A. degrees in 4 1/2 years, and the dreams related to this are definitely not an all-or-nothing thing.

    I think, if anything, this is the most important idea for Matt and anyone else to take away from this post.

  23. I hope Matt does not give up on his dream. Cause if you have a true passion on life you need to follow it but I also understand he has bills to pay. But as you have suggested he should continue to pursue his dream and work at the same time. Here are two books I have read by Dan Miller that Matt will find helpful: 48 days to the Work You Love and No More Mondays. He also may want to check out 48days.net its a free site to help people pursue their dreams. GOOD LUCK MATT

  24. The most satisfying things are usually not done professionally. If anything professionalizing an activity tends to corrupt it somewhat.

    Keep on writing … and indeed, one year is not a long time. If anyone spent a year trying to become a hockey player (yeah I know), they might be able to score a goal or two for a local team, but I’m sure nobody was going to pay them to pay them to play yet.

    BTW check out “Martin Eden” by Jack London.

  25. I found this a very moving post and very relevant to my situation. My childhood dream was to be a writer, when I got a little older I decided that I was going to be an English professor by day and write novels on the side.

    I got all the way into grad school but academia didn’t work out for me. I’m now contemplating what to do next. Besides writing, I have one other hobby that have been neglected in my academic pursuits. However, I know that it would take a lot of money, effort and work on the side(besides a dayjob) to prepare things before I can make it my profession.

  26. My advice to Matt? Keep trying because that’s usually what separates a writer that “makes it” from one that doesn’t. Talent has something to do with it, sure, but it doesn’t seem to be the end all, be all. There are writers out there who have talent, send out good stories to be published, and are simply turned down. The ones that do get published are the determined ones that keep sending stuff out, over and over and over. They have spreadsheets to map out where they’ve submitted, when to submit again, and they just crank out an unbelievable amount of submissions. It sounds unfair, but those are the people that typically get published.

  27. Eliza @ comment 3 speaks the truth: MOST writers, even ones with several published books, have day jobs. I’ve been fitting my writing dream around my day job for the past 8 years. Over those 8 years, I’ve made a total of $2500 from my non-fiction articles and $1000 from my short stories. I’m now working on my first novel, and I know that if (and that’s a big IF) it sells, it will be well over a year before I see a dime from it. If I make $5000 from it, I’ll be thrilled. Writing is not for the impatient. Keep writing, polishing, and submitting. Most importantly, keep learning. And keep the day job.

  28. I would add not to give up on life or your dreams, life has real funny way of working out, I for one never thought I’d escape the factory job and end up living in Europe. Nor did my wife ever think she’d be anything more than a waitress.

  29. Wow, this post is a wonderful service to everyone who needs encouragement — that’s pretty much all of us who are bombarded with so much gloom and doom in the media.

    You’ve certainly found your voice, Trent, and it’s amazing to see how your writing just keeps getting better and better. Thank you for sharing vivid words of hope with all of us, because we need to be reminded that a dream gives us hope.

    A dream helps us put up with the crappy job, or the demands of school, or the weight of sacrifices. A dream makes it all worth it.

    I’ve learned that I can endure any condition in life as long as I have my dream. But I’ve also learned that I need to be reassured that I’m not crazy, that I’m not the only who finds the pursuit of a dream sometimes excruciating, so thanks for this post! I’ve fought off doubts to keep me going a while longer.

  30. @Darlene: display the slips in an online gallery!

    @Juliska: yep, Chicago actors are the same (though we make less money than our LA counterparts, since our work tends to be more stage and less screen). :-)

  31. I plan on saving up one year’s expenses too, but instead of quitting completely, I will still contract part time.
    This way, I can try to live ‘my dream’, but at the same time, make extra money and not have to completely tap into my savings.
    Currently, I’ve started part-time with my dream, while still working full time – it’s exhausting sometimes, but it’s a great way to get started.

  32. Yes, it’s heartbreaking when someone gives up on their dream. But it’s even more heartbreaking when someone devotes their heart and soul and life to a dream that’s totally unrealistic. If the sort of things you want to write are bestselling novels or screenplays for blockbuster movies, that’s probably not going to happen. There’s nothing wrong with trying anyway, but make sure you’re doing other fulfilling things in the meantime so that you’re not putting all your eggs in that one basket.

    There are all sorts of writing, and you may be better at some sorts than other sorts. Me, I don’t have a creative bone in my body, so I would never even try to write fiction because I’d be terrible at it. But I’m good at taking complex information and distilling out the essence in a way that people can understand. So that’s the sort of writing that I do.

  33. Self-publishing or print-on-demand is always an option. I wrote a book that way. I quit my job to live my dream to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Then I wrote a book about it and self-published it using an online POD services. It cost me only the price of a single copy of my book to do it.

    I get a lot of satisfaction knowing that someone has read my book, and my mother tells stories of the copy she has lent out that seems to be making the rounds to friends-of-friends, telling me how much my writing has been enjoyed.

    Now I am faced with a similar feeling of defeat as Matt. I quit my job to live my dream. Now I have to figure out anew how to earn a living, and thus far have no dreams to chase for how to do it.

  34. Matt, Eliza is right–it’s the very rare writer who doesn’t also have a day job. Don’t give up! But do make sure you carve out time to write each day (preferably at the same time, so that it will become a habit).

    Another piece of advice–when you look for an agent for your completed work, don’t go to anyone who requires a payment. (I apologize if this sounds like basic stuff, but a lot of people don’t realize that agents don’t actually charge you upfront–they will take a percentage of the royalties of your book’s sales.)

  35. Ditto what PChan said. The two most important things to remember: (1) money always flows TO the writer and (2) the only place a writer should sign a check is on the BACK.

  36. Trent,

    One other thing that struck me when reading this article is a difference in personalities between two people that chase a dream. For instance, I’d characterize you as pretty conservative, so you spent a lot of time getting comfortable with the idea before jumping. On the other hand, I know people that couldn’t do that. They have to throw their 100% effort into something the moment it enters their minds. The ones that succeed we call amazing, visionary, etc, the ones that fail, we don’t talk about so much. It’s interesting that it’s the same trait, discipline, that determines whether one has the wherewithal to stick with something through obstacles and also the patience to wait until the time is right.

    Great post and good advice. The on/off switch thing stuck with me, it reminds me of exercise programs, dieting and the like. Too many people fall off after a couple bad days and act like you can’t just start again today.

  37. John Scalzi. Look him up – he’s written tons about, well, being a writer. He started out working as a newspaper writer, then a copy writer for advertising for *years*, and wrote on the side on his blog for free. (He’s adamant that you not give up the day job until your writing career is off the ground, because your first years will involve mostly rejection.) His first sci-fi novel was picked up after he posted the first chapters on his blog.

    It took him a LONG time to become the fiction author he always wanted to be, and he spent a LOT of time working up to that point by writing as much as he could – both paid and unpaid. Here’s some links:

    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2004/12/17/john-scalzis-utterly-useless-writing-advice/
    http://scalzi.com/whatever/002697.html
    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2008/02/11/unasked-for-advice-to-writers-about-money/

  38. Just remember that you don’t have to just completely give up on one thing to pursue another. Why not write in your spare time while continuing your career and making ends meet? Just keep at it, keep practicing, and keep improving, things will look up.

  39. This is such a depressing story. Matt shouldn’t ever give up on a dream. The best successes come after countless failures and through those failures we learn and grow. I route for Matt to not only continue but to persevere. There are going to be obstacles to reaching ones fullest potential.

    It goes back to an old expression, “Can’t Never Could.”

    The moment can’t enters the equation is the moment your opportunity to succeed is lost. Never give up hope.

    Where there is a will, there is always a way.

  40. I felt like crying when I read this. I’m am an illustrator who has spent the last ten years at home raising my three kids – and wouldn’t have done it any other way. But, also during this past decade I’ve tried out all sorts of creative pursuits in a search for someting fulfilling and profitable that I could combine with my role as a mom that wouldn’t necessitate my having to stay up regularly until three am. (been there, done that, it’s awful). I sometimes feel like a failure because I haven’t yet “made it”. Thank you for reminding me not to use earnings as the only benchmark of success. Feeling better now. Merry Christmas, Trent.

  41. Trollope and Kafka both worked full time in ‘day jobs’ most of their lives. Are they ‘failures’ did they ‘give up’?

    More recently , Louis Auchincloss – 58 novels – his latest published at age 92 – worked full time as a lawyer AND raised a family most of his life.

  42. This post made me sad. I wish we knew just a little bit more about Matt’s background (what was his other area of expertise?)

    Okay, I also wanted to write and also had such a vision (freelance writer). However, I also carefully looked at the marketplace, odds of breaking in (fiction writer? 1 in a billion), and my background. I had informational interviews with people that had a similar background to me (training in the sciences). Subsequent to this I found out that there were areas that would pay you $ to write about science or medical topics, and how much each area tended to pay.

    So the next step was to get a job in this area, a job that allowed me to write about topic X. I did this for a couple years (and I so hate the soul sucking 9-to-5 job; basically I acquired writing samples, saved up 5 months of savings, made connections with coworkers, and studied the industry more (eg, how much did my industry pay freelancers? how much did a pharma company pay for the writing sample? what do blogs for freelancers suggest, etc).

    Anyway, so I quit my job last week and just got a project to be completed in the next 2 weeks for $5000. Now this may be a bit preliminary (I may get nothing again for the next 6 months), but — my point is that I am sure Matt has a unique background and he may need to do a little research into areas he can break into and how much they pay. Do the background work and then jump.

    I’d also say that although I would love to have a fiction piece published, that is just a hobby because it doesn’t pay — but I will keep on trying. The dream is never over. My plan is that the other type of writing, medical and science writing, will pay for my fiction writing hobby.

    Finally, I’d love to point out how well Trent has done on this blog. A couple years ago (?) I popped in and– didn’t see much content. However, what he has done since then is incredible — he now does have a unique perspective, voice, and info to provide. As an outside observer, it seems that Trent acquired these skills over time.

    Please try again Matt.

  43. Trollope and Kafka both worked full time in ‘day jobs’ most of their lives. Are they ‘failures’ did they ‘give up’?

    More recently , Louis Auchincloss – 58 novels – his latest published at age 92 – worked full time as a lawyer AND raised a family most of his life.

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