The first year of writing -- really dedicating yourself -- the returns on your investment of time are hugely rewarded. You go from writing your weakness (sentimentality? superficiality? overly ornate language?) to beginning to overcome it and writing toward your strength. You get better very quickly -- faster still if you're working with someone who knows a bit more and is farther down the path, faster even still if you've found the great writers you, as a writer, need to read.
It's like your first six months in a foreign country. You can learn the language to the point of fluidity pretty quickly. But to become truly bilingual? Well, that might take another ten years -- and it might never happen at all. There are no guarantees.
It's like when I went to the orthodontist as a teenager to fix the little unevenness of my two front teeth. He said, "It'd be easier if you had buck teeth out to here than to try to perfectly and permanently allign those two teeth." Still, there was a retainer and it pushed one forward until it was a little farther out than the other and then it slid back and was pushed forward ... and I gave up. (Now, by the way, that one tooth is much farther back than it was before and when I'm pregnant and my lips get fattened up and I smile, it sometimes disappears completely in the photo and I look partially toothless.)
Basically, you take these huge leaps the first year, an occasional leap the next. By the third year, you continue to grow but the advances are less apparent. And years go by... Have you made it another millimeter of progress? Are you getting better at all? Have you started writing knock offs of your own work? (Sometimes I fear that I'm just Baggott, being Baggott again.)
(In case you're a little shaken -- don't worry. I'll have suggestions... But first...)
The Law of Diminishing Returns might apply here because you can actually start getting worse.
"The law of diminishing returns ... states that in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant, will at some point yield lower per-unit returns."
Their example? Perhaps fittingly, fertilizer.
"... the use of fertilizer improves crop production on farms and in gardens; but at some point, adding more and more fertilizer improves the yield less and less, and excessive quantities can even reduce the yield."
The writing example? Maybe you get better and better at finessing the page and the inner workings of your human heart remain constant (maybe you even hold back some?) and you reduce your yield.
And at this point, you might no longer have the ebullience and (necessary) arrogance and fiery desire to keep pushing forward or you might have built up so much arrogance that you aren't humble enough to approach the page with honesty. At a Richard Ford reading a few years ago, he confessed that writing required a lot of "heavy lifting" for him these days.
So, first off, I want to say that writing is a trickster. It cons us into the craft by offering the rewards of early long-legged leaps and slowly steals those back. It's cruel.
But -- sorry -- it's the same in most if not all fields. So you can keep bouncing from one to the next just reaping the great early leaps but if you don't dig in you won't ever get deep.
And there are rewards as you go along. Whatever you think of Bruce Sprintsteen's oeuvre, he said in an interview -- in the past few years -- something about his young writing as having been full of words, and that he's lost that frenetic relationship with language but, in return, he's gained insight.
The truth is that the older a writer gets the more life experience the writer's digested and can offer -- hopefully with some depth, clarity, and insight.
Now, I happen to have a trick to offer that I think helps combat all of this trickery.
Go muck around in a different genre.
1. All of your skills with words will still apply so you're not starting from scratch but ...
2. You'll get those early leaps back.
3. You won't have to think about yourself as a serious writer at all. No weight of career aspirations or reputation. You can come to the genre as a novice, as someone just having fun. You'll remember what it is to just ... write.
4. You'll learn new lessons that, when you return to your original genre, will apply in strange ways that will bring freshness to your work.
5. You'll hopefully find a new set of literary voices to draw from, refiring some neurons ...
Find the deathly fluorescent lights of your youth. Gaze up at them and let your mind wander anywhere but where you are.
Remember what got you into this to begin with. I bet the fire is still hot.
Remember: If you don't need the page, it doesn't need you. So find out why you need it and then come back.
Or take up the harmonica.