10 Ways to Kick Writer’s Guilt to the Curb

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on July 21, 2015 • views: 2950

Writer's Guilt 2Writers are at war.
We fight the battle every day between writing and the rest of our lives.

Sometimes writing wins. Sometimes life wins. Either way, we feel guilty.

The emotion is so common in the writer’s world that “writer’s guilt” is a real term, defined by fantasy writer Victoria Grefer as “feeling that you’re selfish, idealistic, and irresponsible for writing when you could be doing something more profitable and practical with your time.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of feeling guilty!

5 Typical Reasons for Writer’s Guilt

Scan other writing sites and you’ll see them—all the many reasons we have for feeling that underlying guilt, the emotion that often stops us from experiencing the true joy that can come from our craft.

1—I’m taking time to write when I should be doing X.

Fill in the “X” with whatever you like: spending time with family, cleaning the house, working, seeing friends, helping neighbors, volunteering, walking the dog, getting a better-paying job, helping your parents, making homemade cookies for your child’s party, etc.

“I’ve come to realize that it just doesn’t matter,” says author Meagan Beaumont. “No matter when I decide to start my novel, I still run into trouble. Kids still want dinner (EVERY SINGLE NIGHT!!). Husbands still want clean socks (my kingdom for a maid… honestly, I’d settle for a chimpanzee I can train to fold towels and match socks). Friends still get weird when you don’t pay attention to them.”

Writer Cheryl Clark agrees: “There are a THOUSAND (a thousand and two?) things I could be doing, SHOULD be doing, other than writing. The house needs to be cleaned. I need to go grocery shopping. I really should be grading papers. I haven’t called my mom in three weeks. Writing takes me away from everything important in my life; most essentially, it takes me away from my family, i.e. my child. I should be playing with the kid, not making up nonsense stories no one may ever read.”

2—I don’t have enough to show for all the time I’ve spent.

Our society is driven by money. Earn money for you’re writing, and it’s easier to justify your time spent on it. Others understand money.

But if you’re not earning money with your writing, or you’re earning less than a full-time wage (what most people seem to believe is the “legitimate” cut-off mark), you risk being told that you’re being self-indulgent, or you may simply feel that way yourself. Since most fiction writers don’t earn the equivalent of a full-time job’s wages with their writing, that leaves most vulnerable to writer’s guilt.

“It’s a strange phenomenon, how we tend to feel guilty for pursuing our dreams and doing something we love just because it doesn’t pay the bills,” says Grefer. “But many of us know that guilt all too well.”

Even successful freelance writers experience it, particularly after spending a lot of time on a project.

“You receive a meager check in the mail for a piece that took weeks to write and months to sell,” says freelance writer Susie Yakowicz. “Suddenly, your stomach twists and your mind fills with remorse. You know the feeling well. It’s guilt, and it comes on when you think you’ve spent too many hours writing for too little in return.”

Then there’s the whole thing about publication. If you’ve been writing for years, but you still haven’t been (traditionally) published, you’ll likely come down with a case of it. With no “outward” rewards to show for your hard work, it can feel more like you’ve been wasting your time, particularly when you try to explain what you’ve been doing to friends and family—or even to yourself.

3—I don’t write enough.

Those of us who are called to write often feel guilty when we’re not writing. Even if we do get in some writing time every day, we may feel that it’s not enough, or we didn’t get enough words down, or we didn’t focus enough during that time.

“I know it’s okay to take time off from writing,” says YA author Diana Urban. “Burnout is a real issue, especially for authors with full-time jobs, and everyone needs some time to re-energize. I love spending time with my husband, getting dinner with friends, going for long walks, going to the movies, and reading for pleasure. But the guilt always creeps in. I can never fully enjoy what I’m doing because I’m always thinking about how I should be writing.”

Poetry editor Debbie Ernie feels the same way: “If you’re someone who writes from time to time, you already know, there are spaces between those times. I mean, there are times you are not writing. Occasionally, those times take up the most space in your day, week, month. And I, for one, feel the guilt. The guilt that I am not writing, not creating, not sending work out for publication.”

“What is it about writing that when we don’t do it, we feel so guilty?” says writer Lisa Clifford.

“Is it because it’s our dream, it’s what we love, it’s what makes us feel happy and whole so that when we don’t do it, we feel as though we are letting ourselves down?”

4—I don’t challenge myself enough.

We all have writing dreams. Most of us have goals—where we want to be five or ten years from now. Having those goals is a good way to motivate ourselves to work hard—but we may also feel guilty for not working hard enough.

Says poet and writer Caroline Cabrera: “Constantly I feel wracked by writer’s guilt—the terrible feeling (knowing!) that I have not written enough, have not challenged myself enough, simply have not made enough. The guilt follows me everywhere like an overeager pet.”

Others of us may feel guilty that we don’t go to enough conferences, or take enough classes, or read enough writing books or blogs, or seek out enough mentors or editors to give us feedback on our work. We may look back on years of work and wonder if we’ve improved at all.

5—I feel guilty about what I’m writing about.

If you’re writing a memoir, it can be easy to fall into this trap. You don’t want to offend anyone, but you also want your story to be as true as possible. Or maybe one of your fictional characters is based on a real person, and you feel guilty about using that person in your writing. You take the usual steps to protect them, such as changing names, appearances, and settings, but still, the guilt is there—particularly if you happen to see that person often.

Or maybe you’re writing about a topic that makes you uncomfortable.

“I am currently working on a story in which sexual abuse occurs,” says one concerned writer, “and if people ask me what I’m writing about I can’t even say it out loud because I’m afraid of what they’ll think about me, writing about stuff like that….”

Writer’s Guilt is Not About Doing Anything “Wrong”

Maybe your guilt comes from other sources. Maybe you feel guilty for financial reasons—spending money on conferences, writing supplies, or editing services when you’re not making enough to cover those expenses with your writing. Maybe you haven’t sent out enough submissions in your opinion, or you haven’t spent enough time marketing your latest book.

Maybe you know you haven’t taken enough risks—that you’ve been playing it safe—and you feel guilty about the fear that holds you back.

Whatever the source of your guilt, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is realizing that this sort of guilt—this constant, nagging, negative emotion—is doing nothing but dragging you down, and making it harder for you to reach your writing goals, whatever they may be.

Guilt can be a constructive emotion, if it causes you to take action. If you feel guilty for having hurt someone’s feelings, for example, or for having done something truly wrong, than guilt can motivate you to make amends, which will improve your life.

Most things we feel guilty about as writers, though, have nothing to do with doing anything wrong. Instead, it’s all about choices.

If you choose to spend time with family rather than write, and then you feel guilty for not writing, you didn’t do anything wrong, necessarily. If you spent the last 10 years working on a project that never gets published, you didn’t do anything wrong, either.

You simply made choices. Those choices may have been right or wrong for you, but they were not moralistically right or wrong.

Feeling guilty about these kinds of choices, though, is useless, unless that guilt causes you to take constructive action to improve your life. If, for example, after feeling guilty about spending time with family, you review your schedule and commit to more writing time, then that guilt had a positive purpose.

If, however, you make that change, and then continue to feel guilty because now you’re writing and not spending time with family, you’re simply allowing yourself to remain in an endless cycle of guilt that will slowly erode both your writing and your family life.

Why not make the choice to allow writing to give you all the joy that it can?

“Our society has placed on us a double standard,” says writer David C. Hughes. “On one hand, if we’re having fun, it must be a waste of time. On the other hand, society says, ‘Just do it,’ that having fun is everything. But understand this: it’s okay to enjoy writing. In fact, the more you enjoy it, the more your passion will shine through, and the more your passion shines through, the more others will engage with you.”

10 Ways to Get Past Writer’s Guilt

If you, like me, are tired of feeling writer’s guilt all the time (or much of the time), try these solutions.

  1. Compare writing to other things you do. Do you feel guilty cleaning the bathroom? Spending time watching an hour of TV? Going out with friends? Getting a manicure? Playing a game of tennis? If you think about it, all of these things could be considered a lot less “productive” than writing, yet we rarely feel guilty about doing them.
  2. Realize how much “wasting time” others do. When at your writing desk—especially if you haven’t been published yet—you may worry that you’re “wasting your time.” Consider for a moment how much “wasting time” others do. According to a survey by Salary.com, the average company employee spends 1.7 hours a day on non-productive activities, including socializing, surfing the net, and taking long breaks. When you’re writing, you’re being more productive with your leisure time than many people are with their supposed productive time.
  3. Imagine what else you would do with your time. If you didn’t write, be honest about what you’d do with that time. Would you be happier with the results? What about ten, twenty, or thirty years from now. Would you be happy that you chose to do something else besides write?
  4. Consider our culture’s obsession with money. We have an idea in this country that only moneymaking activities are worthwhile. But this point of view isn’t good for us. Studies show that working too many hours increases our risk for heart disease, depression, and other side effects of stress. One study even found that compared to those who worked 40 hours a week, those who worked 55 showed poorer vocabulary and reasoning. It was like the extra work actually made them less intelligent. Instead of focusing strictly on activities that provide external rewards (such as money and position), realize that a balanced life involves those activities like writing that provide us with intrinsic rewards—that give us pleasure, and help us find meaning.
  5. Tune into your feelings for clues. Do you resent it when you agree to spend time away from writing? If so, ask yourself if that’s good for you. Does it make you a better person to sacrifice what you’d rather do to please someone else, or to follow some pattern you believe you should follow? Or are you a better person when you commit to your writing?
  6. Realize that writing is good for you. Would you feel guilty exercising, eating right, or doing other things that are good for you? Of course not. Put writing in the same category.
  7. Create a journal of your daily activities. This can be really helpful if you’re feeling like you’re spending too much or too little time on writing. Give yourself some real data to work with by keeping a journal for at least a week. Examine how you’re spending your time, and then take action. If you’re truly neglecting your family, you’ll see it in your journal, and you’ll be able to make adjustments. If it’s the other way around, you’ll be able to do the same. Allow your guilty feelings to compel you to action.
  8. Remember that you are not perfect. We try to be, don’t we? We try to be perfect parents, spouses, caretakers, employees, business owners, and more all at the same time. But trying to be perfect is a losing battle and will keep you in the guilt circle. Break out by forgiving yourself and use every day to start fresh.
  9. Realize when others are trying to manipulate you. Others will use the term “selfish” to manipulate us into doing things we don’t really want to do. Don’t let them suck you in with statements like, “I know I’m not that important to you.” Check in with your guilt and take action if you need to make changes, but otherwise hold to your writing commitments and don’t allow others to make you feel badly. Example: “I’ll call you back at 3:00, when my writing time is over.” Better yet, let them leave a message.
  10. Make peace with your choices. We all make choices in life. If we decide to pursue our writing dreams, that’s a choice. How we go about it is also a choice. Trust yourself. Make the choices that you need to make, and then don’t apologize. You will likely have to make adjustments along the way—many of them—particularly as things change in your life and in your writing. Take time to reevaluate when you need to, but then make your choices, and be brave enough to commit to them wholeheartedly—no guilt.

In the end, when all else fails, realize that writer’s guilt is a part of life for most writers. Hey, you’re part of the club!

“At any point one is either writing or not writing,” says Cabrera. “While writing one can identify as a writer. While not writing, we need this guilt to remember who we are and what we want. The guilt makes us writers or at least helps us remember to identify that way.”

Do you struggle with writer’s guilt? How do you manage it?

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Comments (11)

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  1. Dorene Alama says:

    Wonderfully (is this a word?) Encouraging article I totally relate to. I am 55 and still have so many family and home demands clinging to me. I ask, When will it be my turn? I just need to learn to carve out my time and make it sacred so others will learn to respect it!

    • Admin says:

      Thanks, Dorene. Yes, you have to make your turn for sure. Good luck penciling in that “me” time!

  2. Laura says:

    Thank you for this!

  3. Jan says:

    I do suffer from writer’s guilt particularly as I used to be heavily involved in a variety of charities. Now that I’m taking care of my mother, I don’t have the time to volunteer and write. But I made a promise to myself many years ago that I would continue writing no matter what. A promise made to oneself can be postponed but never forgotten.

    • Admin says:

      Very true, Jan. It stays there in the back of our minds, doesn’t it? A good thing—keeps us going.

  4. Gill James says:

    This was really helpful and encouraging. Thank you. Though I hadn’t thought what I was experiencing as guilt – rather as disappointment.

    • Colleen says:

      I’m so glad, Gill. Yes, I can see those two emotions being similar in this case. Wishing you more guilt- and disappointment-free times with your writing in the future!

  5. Heather says:

    The older I get, the worse my writer’s guilt has become. I find myself being stingy with social activities, because if it’s not something that will be an amazingly fun time, I’d rather be writing. However, I have a hard time saying no and end up in these situations anyway, wishing I’d stayed home to write. It’s a vicious cycle. But I will try to follow your 10 tips and kick that guilt to the curb!

  6. Chere Hagopian says:

    I really identify with this article! Writer’s Guilt is real. My guilt is mostly about not writing enough, but when I analyze my schedule, sometimes I’m limited to writing in my head while walking dogs or brushing my teeth because the things that must get done take up all other time. But that still counts if I eventually write it down!

    • Colleen says:

      We do what we have to do, eh? Notebooks everywhere around the house, near the dog leash, etc…