Should You Feel Guilty About Taking Your Writing Seriously?

Filed in The Writing Life by on August 4, 2015 • views: 2060

I attended a writer’s conference in Boise back in May 2015. One of the speakers at the event reminded us that writing is supposed to be fun, and that sometimes, we take it far too seriously.

I latched fiercely onto that statement. With my first book about to be released, my freelance business demanding as ever, and my marketing efforts requiring more and more time, I had developed a view of writing as a chore. I felt the heavy weight of the iron on my foot even during my regular writing practice first thing in the morning—that one time when I usually revel in the joy of pure creativity.

After hearing that statement, I realized it was true: I was taking it all too seriously. By letting go a little, I could help myself feel a lot better. It’s not that big a deal, really, I thought, and the weight lifted off my shoulders.

Eureka! I’d found the solution to writer’s stress: just change your point of view. There’s a lot more to life than writing. What does it all really matter, in the end?

Then I read this post by award-winning author and creative writing teacher Roxane Gay: “Seriously, Though…Some Thoughts on Writers Who Take Themselves Seriously.”

In summary, Gay says that though taking your writing seriously may be seen as “uncool” or “self-important,” writers who take their work seriously work hard, make deliberate choices, and do their best to create something of lasting value. Is that so bad?

I saw myself in her words. Yes, I do work hard. I do try to create something worthwhile. I am conscientious about it.

Crap. Here I am back in my serious mode again.

So much for my simple solution.

So what gives? Is it better to be a writer who takes things too seriously but approaches his work with discipline and a search for meaning, or to be a writer who keeps it all light and fun, surfs the ups and downs with a smile, and allows the creativity to flow as it will?

Serious Writers: Do They Take Writing Too Seriously?

Serious writers are known for their discipline. They’re always working hard, and trying to find ways to get more done than they currently do. They’re often perfectionists, those irritating people who have a hard time letting a piece of writing go, if there’s another sentence that could be improved, or a transition that’s still a little rough, or even a word repeated on the same page.

“You’re daily discipline will make or break you as a writer,” says bestselling novelist Jerry Jenkins in his article, “10 Productivity Tips for Serious Writers.” (Implied: Serious writers get more work done!) “Books don’t make it to the bookstore shelf by your hoping for a series of writing days. I know. I’ve written more than 185 of them.”

Jenkins is like you’re writing boot camp instructor, ready to demand 20 push-ups for every minute you waste not becoming a better writer.

“You’re writing is a business,” says author Rob Huckins. “It’s serious, serious work. Treat it as such.”

Serious writers are often looking for something more than entertainment or self-expression in their writing. They seek something else, some way to understand life, relationships, and their position in the world.

Anna Smith, English teacher and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Illinois, talks about this search in some of her writing students. They were using their writing “as venues for making sense of themselves and their relationships with others,” she writes. Their writing was more than a school assignment, but “part of a larger sincere effort to work out their place in the world.”

Serious writers fret and worry and suffer over their work. They’re anxious that in the end, it won’t really matter, and if it doesn’t matter, than why bother with it? They go through periods of not writing or of tossing everything they create in the trash for fear it isn’t good enough. But they can imagine no other path than their very serious one.

“Writing a good book,” says writer Rick Gekoski, “which is what one tries to do, is one of the great human activities, and if an author is good enough and lucky enough, the result will be around for generations.”

Indeed, it seems for serious writers, the solution to any writing problem is to take the writing even more seriously.

“If you want others to take you seriously,” writes writing coach Ali Hale, “it’s vital that you take your writing seriously. What will you do, this week, to make your writing a more important part of your life?”

Serious writers also have profound and deeply moving experiences associated with their writing. Moments when they realize they’ve accomplished what they wanted to accomplish, even if it’s only in a single paragraph. Experiences in life that mirror what they’re doing in their writing—that make it feel like there’s more at work in the creation of the piece than their own minds alone. Even times that slip into the spiritual realm, where writing becomes transcendent.

Most serious writers feel like writing is their purpose in life, their reason for being here. That’s why they can suffer horribly if they feel like they’re not living up to what they believe they should be, or if their work doesn’t succeed at the level they hoped it would.

If they’re not careful, serious writers can suffer from a number of health ailments brought on my stress, depression, and the insatiable drive to get better that causes them to neglect themselves. That’s when it may help to take things, well, a little less seriously.

Non-Serious Writers Don’t Worry So Much

What do we call them? The non-serious ones? The frivolous ones? The funny ones?

The teacher I was listening to at the Boise writing conference said numerous times how writing, for him, was fun, and that he had the best job in the world. He’s the type of writer who can spit out a novel in a matter of weeks, send it off to be published and never worry about it again.

He’s extremely hard working and prolific. It’s not like he doesn’t spend hours at his craft. He just doesn’t worry about it.

Non-serious writers think serious writers are a bit precious. Maybe at times, pathetic. “I think people take writing much too seriously,” says author of On Writing Well William Zinsser in a “Poynter” article. “They just need to relax a little and have a good time.”

Serious writers are laughable to non-serious writers. In a humorous post on “Anti-Serious,” author Mohit Parikh gives “serious” writers tongue-in-cheek advice. First, don’t eat too much.

“Remember Kafka’s hunger artists?” he writes. “If your dedication to your art is no less spiritual than theirs, if you consider yourself a serious writer of the highest order, you will know better than to eat your stomach’s fill.” And later, he “advises” serious writers to avoid baths: “Serious writing comes from intense pain and suffering. Bathing is pure joy. Leave it for the happy and shiny.”

I suspect Parikh was speaking mostly to writers who take themselves too seriously, and fail to be serious about their work, but the message could apply to both types. Serious writers can seem a bit silly, thinking the words they put on the page are life-changing somehow. Most likely, they are for the writer, but for anyone else? Who knows?

Taking your work so seriously seems to non-serious writers like arrogance. “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” non-fiction writer Steve Scott told writing coach Bryan Collins. “I don’t think I am writing Shakespeare or that I am the next Ernest Hemingway. I hope my books make a good impact on people’s lives, but I do not try to think that they need to be ‘revolutionary’ or ‘life changing.’”

Non-serious writers also think taking your writing too seriously is like asking for writer’s block. “There’s no such thing as writer’s block for writers whose standards are low enough,” wrote American poet William Stafford—the message being that taking your own writing too seriously can paralyze you, and certainly isn’t something prolific writers do.

Non-serious writers have fun writing. They don’t worry so much. They may still care about quality, but they’re not going to lose sleep over it. They’re the energizer bunnies of writers, spitting out the stories with a smile on their faces and a skip in their steps.

That may—or may not—mean that their writing isn’t quite as polished as that of serious writers. Maybe they can more easily self-publish a short story without worrying if there’s a typo on page 10 or a few too many adverbs. They may never write a Pulitzer prize-winning novel, but then, that was never their goal in the first place.

Non-serious writers keep things in perspective. Stories are fun, but life is life. Novels are work, but they’re not brain surgery. If someone doesn’t like the book, oh well. Someone else will. And if one book doesn’t do so well, they’ve got another one coming right behind it.

For non-serious writers, writing is a part of life, but it’s not everything. They can keep things in balance a little better, and though that’s not to say they don’t get stressed out about it, they’re probably a little more fun to be around when they do!

To Be Serious or Not to Be Serious?

Most of this is pure conjecture on my part, of course, based on my own writing experience and that of the writers I’ve known or talked to. But there’s no doubt there’s something of a debate about being a serious or non-serious (I’m sure there’s a better term!) writer.

I know I tend to lean toward the serious side, and I’ve learned that at times, that can affect my health and well being. Reminding myself to lighten up can be really helpful to me.

Would a non-serious writer benefit from being a little more careful at times, as well? From making their writing a little more important, or digging a little deeper into its meaning or themes?

I don’t know. I put the question to readers. Just how serious is too serious for a writer?

Are you a serious or non-serious writer? Or do you land somewhere in between? Please share your thoughts.

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Comments (7)

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  1. Oj says:

    I enjoyed the article!

    To answer the question, I’m not sure. I have the habit of writing every day but feel like I could do more to improve the quality of my writing. Recently I’ve started to think about taking on more serious pieces and start freelancing but part of me does worry that if I do so and fail, then my seriousness would have been a waste of time.

    However, I have fun doing it at the moment and hopefully I won’t get to the stage where being serious excludes the possibility of fun!

    • Colleen says:

      Sounds like a good approach to me, Oj. Please don’t worry about failure. It’s the only way to move forward!

  2. Thanks for exploring this, Colleen. It’s worth exploring!

    Yes, I’m a serious writer. But it’s a job. I took my job seriously when I was an art director, a designer, an art gallery owner, a painter, a photographer, you name it—even the jobs I didn’t earn a living from. Writing is no different—it’s a job I absolutely love, like all the others I’ve had, and I take it seriously. But I don’t let it rule me, my family or my life. There isn’t a career out there worth that sacrifice.

    Maybe I define “being a serious writer” my own way. In cases like these, I always think of what I’ll say to myself on my deathbed—”damn, I shouldn’t have used two semi-colons in a row in the last graph of my 55th novel”? Probably not. Hope not.

  3. Chere Hagopian says:

    I totally agree with Kate! As an employer and as someone who has worked in a variety of settings, I can tell you that there are serious and non-serious workers in every type of job. As long as the non-seriousness doesn’t become carelessness, and the seriousness doesn’t make the serious person or others miserable, both are great, but a balance is best of all!

  4. Kate says:

    I believe a writer will be the type of writer that mirrors their personality. Someone who is naturally crisp, fun, bubbly and light will appear less serious and the same goes for how they write. Someone who is naturally serious, conscientious, structured, reflective will be a serious writer. Both personalities and writing styles should be honored – and I like how you did that in this piece. Ultimately, both types of writers need to mix in a little structure, or fun – just to keep things in balance. 😉