Last week, I began a series talking about some of the challenges I face in my writing. We started by tackling the hobgoblin of writer's block, and exposed it for what it truly is, a clever excuse NOT to write. Today we continue the series with a look at something far more dangerous to creativity . . . GUILT.
"Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do." - Voltaire.
In a nutshell, guilt is the emotion we feel when we act (or fail to act) in accordance with what we know to be right. I would say more, but it is a universal experience. It is the crushing emotion we all get the first time a parent looks us in the eye and says, "I'm not mad. I'm just... disappointed." We've all been there.
So when do I feel guilt as a writer, and why is it soul-crushing to my creativity?
I feel most guilty as a writer when I'm NOT writing. It's during those quiet moments I steal for myself - watching a Phillies' game, playing on the PS4, taking a nap - when I know that I could be (should be) writing instead. And those are the magic words that conjure the demon we call guilt... "should be." By some long-lost alchemy, "should be" transforms our favorite hobby into something more resembling a job, if not a moral imperative.
But doesn't that make GUILT a good motivator for writing?
In my experience, it is impossible to work creatively while suffering under the burden of guilt. It drains our emotional energy and leads to feelings of resentment toward the work itself - in other words, it creates the exact opposite of the excitement and momentum required of a writer to dream up well-rounded characters, faraway settings, and dramatic plots. There's simply no way around it: Guilt kills creativity.
What makes it even worse is that it begins a cruel cycle. I feel guilty for not writing, but because I feel guilty that makes writing more difficult. I blame my lack of creativity on writer's block and walk away from the computer, but then I feel guilty again for not writing. I sit back down at the keyboard, doubly guilty now, but any hope of being effective in my writing was lost hours ago. And on and on it goes...
How do we break the cycle?
I can offer two pieces of advice for dealing with guilt in my writing. The first is consistency. We must find a consistent time to devote to our writing. It doesn't have to be daily and it doesn't have to be hours upon hours. Carving out a couple hours once a week devoted entirely to writing can be all it takes. By writing consistently, we don't have to feel guilty for the other free moments when we're not writing. The routine itself fosters creativity.
My other piece of advice is applicable after you find your routine. Invariably, you will fail at writing consistently, but in those moments, we need to be kinder to ourselves. Acknowledge that outside forces sometimes plot against our carefully planned routines, and instead of beating ourselves up over our failures, forgive ourselves and recommit to our writing moving forward.
I started this series last week by teasing that only one of the three (Writer's Block, Guilt, and Ghosts) was real. Unfortunately, guilt is the one that's real, and it can absolutely kill our creativity if we let it. If you're a writer like me, there's no doubt you started because you love the act of writing and the joy it brings. Don't let feelings of guilt ruin that for you.
Find your own routine, forgive yourself when you fail, and don't feel bad about taking those naps. I do some of my best writing when I'm asleep. In the meantime...
In an attempt to keep some of the momentum from last week's Rutgers Writers' Conference, and in a concerted effort to practice what I'm about to preach, I thought I should put out another post without waiting a full calendar year. Today I confront some of my own mental blocks to writing: Writer's Block, Guilt, and Ghosts. Fortunately, only one of these is real.
Neil Gaiman once said, "I don't believe in writer's block, but I absolutely believe in getting stuck. The difference is one is imposed on you by the gods, and one is your own damn fault." Neil Gaiman Interview click here.
I certainly recognize how foolish it would be to hold myself out as a writing authority on par with Neil Gaiman, but I feel so strongly about the myth we call Writer's Block that I have to add just a few words. First, let's all agree that Writer's Block is complete and utter bullshit. It's simply not a thing. It doesn't happen. As Gaiman ably points out, no other profession suffers from the dreaded block. There is no Teacher's Block or Parent's Block no matter how much we might wish it so ("Sorry, son, you'll have to do your own laundry today. I've got the Parent's Block.").
I have, however, been "stuck" in my writing. I've experienced those moments in a story where I've taken a wrong step, and like the engine of car deprived of oil, the imagination seizes and will go no farther until the error is corrected. Your subconscious mind sees what your waking brain misses, and almost as a fail-safe, it stops you from compounding your mistakes.
Once again, I'm not sure this experience is unique for writers. There have certainly been times in my teaching career when lessons have bombed. The only real difference in the experience is that you can't just throw on the brakes, stop the lesson mid-class, and sit down at your desk to figure out where your life went wrong. You push through the lesson the best you can, reflect on where it went off the rails, and try to do better the next time. You don't get to just stop teaching.
And this is where I don't think Neil Gaiman goes far enough in his remarks. We need to call out Writer's Block and being Stuck for what they really are... excuses not to write.
As writers, it's too easy to throw up our hands, blame the absent muse, and go about our days (or weeks or months) without touching a keyboard. Our writer's block becomes an excuse to ignore the discipline required for consistent writing.
If we truly want to become better writers, we need to write and we need to write consistently. There is no sport, skill, or talent on earth that flourishes in disuse. Writing, just like golf or piano or laundry is refined in practice, and consistent practice is more effective than infrequent practice.
So when a writer is stuck, it is important that we continue to carve out that time at our keyboards, clacking away. If a story won't move forward, try going back. Edit a previous chapter. Start something entirely new. Drop your lost character into a different setting and get to know them better. Try a writing prompt. Find a writing group - there is nothing like the deadline of a submission to your writers group to get the imagination-engine purring again.
Whatever it takes, you have to write! You owe it to yourself and your talents not to ignore your craft. Getting stuck happens, but staying there is your choice.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the third annual Rutgers Writers' Conference. It was an amazing experience to spend time focused on the craft of writing, getting insights from talented writers who I truly admire, and best of all, spending the weekend with two of my favorite people - Mike Shaw and Kara Knauss from the Pitman Writers' Guild.
So, in no particular order, here's Rutgers Writers' Con 2019:
All in all, it was a great weekend!