How to deal with writer’s guilt

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Do you struggle with writer’s guilt? Don’t let it talk you out of writing. Use these ways to outwit it… 

I was not born a guilty person. I had impatience. Perfectionism. Even a titch of arrogance. But, somehow guilt always slid off of me like eggs out of a Teflon plan. I always worried about the well-being of others but I figured I generally did the best I could and that would have to be good enough.

Then I became a mother.

Whoa, Nelly. The guilt train pulled into the station fully loaded. Undoubtedly being the mother of triplets didn’t help. Going from no kids to three, overnight, stressed all our resources — time, money and emotional energy. My husband and I handled the parenting in shifts for the first year. I took graveyard because, then, I was a night owl. (Ten years later, hormones would turn me into a morning lark.)

I felt guilty at 3 am because I could hold only two crying babies at once. The other had to be assuaged by the baby swing. I felt guilty because when they were hungry at the same time, which was frequently, I had to prop one with a bottle in a car seat. I felt grateful but extra guilty when, one day, my son was screaming so loudly a neighbour heard him through the window and came to help.

But my guilt knew no bounds when I returned to work just after their first birthday. I felt guilty on behalf of my kids even though my employer, a newspaper, let me work just one day a week. Then I felt guilty about feeling guilty because I knew most women had it far worse than me.  Eventually, I quit so I could be self-employed and work from home. And that might have been the most guilt-inducing decision of all. When I worked I felt guilty for ignoring my kids. And when I looked after my kids, I felt guilty for ignoring my clients. A classic Catch-22.

Novelist Amy Shearn captured the feeling perfectly in a New York Times piece she wrote in 2013. Here is what she said:

I’ve always assumed that writing at all makes me a slightly worse mother than I might be otherwise. Being a writer means I’m, at very best, 77 percent focused. I’ll look up in the kitchen to see that while I’ve been scribbling story ideas on the back of an envelope, the kids have given themselves honey-and-peanut-butter facials. On weekends when I should be playing soccer with my kids or at least vacuuming, I instead disappear to write. Crappy.

Of course mothers aren’t the only ones who wrestle with guilt. I think guilt and writing go together like pepperoni and pizza. The job of writing, which seems both boundless and endless, and is of course endlessly easy to procrastinate about, keeps us continually guilty for either writing too much or not writing enough. It’s a brilliant multitasker. But who really wants to live that way?

Over the last 22 years, I’ve discovered three specific ways of managing writing and guilt so that the pleasure of the first can overwhelm the need for the second. Here they are:

  1. Write in dribs and drabs. Writing (as opposed to editing) shouldn’t take great gobs of time, and doesn’t even require much quiet if you’re prepared to live with a crappy first draft. Can you write for 10 minutes after waking up in the morning? What about for five minutes when you’re waiting for a meeting to start? What about while you’re sitting in the car waiting for your son or daughter’s soccer or hockey practice to end? Grab these stolen moments and use them to write. Otherwise you’ll just fritter them away, never realizing how they add up to real time. One of my clients has written an entire book this way. She generally had only 15 minutes just before going to bed but she did it every night for more than a year and her book will be coming out this fall. (Congratulations, Ann Gomez!)
  2. Schedule your thinking time. Of course we need to think about what we want to say before we write it and it’s always a mistake to leave this thinking time until we’re sitting in front of a computer. Our brains work better and harder when our bodies are moving. But if you don’t plan on what you want to think about, and when, your brain will go in whatever direction it pleases. I write this column every Thursday, for example, and I work downtown for a client most Wednesdays. I walk part of the way to the client’s office so I’ve developed the habit of using that walking time to think about this column. Easy peasy.
  3. Plan some escapes for editing. The one writing job that often takes more time than any of us can imagine is editing. It requires quiet and energy and attention. Now that my children are adults I don’t need to escape them for editing but I do need to escape, temporarily, the phone calls and emails of my many clients. That’s why, when you read this, I’m by myself in a tiny cabin in a remote BC community, accessible only by ferry, working on editing my next book (working title: How to Write Your Crappy First Draft.)

The thing about guilt is that it’s not a useful emotion. It may be a sign that something is wrong, it may illustrate lack of planning or it may simply be a bad habit. Don’t let guilt derail you. Instead, make a plan to banish it.

Do you struggle with writer’s guilt? How do you manage it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to L.J. Anderson, the winner of this month’s book prize, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro for a June 14/16 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by July 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Far From the Madding Gerund by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.