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I'm a writer and library worker who wears many hats. I believe a good book and a good piece of chocolate are the keys to a happy life.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Writer’s Guilt, or My Little Ah-ha! Moment

There has been a lot of discussion among my friends lately about the guilt that seems to come along with being a writer. For some reason, we seem to be burdened with a warped perception of why we should or should not be allowed to write.

Most, if not all, writers have specific reasons for pursuing the craft. Often, that has something to do with an inspiration, a belief in a God-given talent, a drive to pursue words and mold them into something that will inspire the world around us. Writing is part of who we are. We know we wouldn’t be complete without that part of our personality. Most of the people around us recognize that, too.

Enter the problem. Every time we sit down at the computer, every time we head off to a book signing or conference some little part of our brain pops up and says, “But wait! You left dishes in the sink. The baby was crying and clinging to your leg. You haven’t even thought about dinner yet!” On and on. Why is it that writers are so consumed with the feeling that they are doing something naughty, or being neglectful to our families, being selfish, even wasting time because we don’t have any tangible evidence we can really show people for why we spend hours locked in our offices?

After all, most people struggle with balancing their lives in some manner. They wish they could do this or that better, but nobody begrudges the doctor who has to take a call in the middle of the night- that’s just part of who he or she is. No one says the gardener is completely wasting their time because the deer will likely eat everything any way. No one wonders how the scrapbooker manages to care for her family and still have time for her talent. It’s all give and take, it’s all choices and priorities.

So, why does the writer tend to see their priority, their talent and gift as something that gets in the way of the rest of their life? Partly, I think, because we are driven by that need to write, every day and every chance we get. But, I think there is a bigger reason.

I think it comes back to the core reason we are driven to put things down on paper in the first place: our minds. Our heads are constantly dividing our attention between what is happening around us in real life and what we are trying to get to happen in a different reality that’s no less real to us. The doctor, the golfer, the sewer, the gardener can all put away the tools of their craft and walk away when they’re done. They may think about “Oh I love that paper, I should grab some for the next page I want to do,” or “It’s a beautiful day, wish I could be on the course.” But they are still present in the activities that are actually going on around them. It’s a fleeting notion. They know they’ll get to fulfill their desire at some point, then put it away and meet the other needs of their life.

A writer very rarely sees life this way. Even when we aren’t able to sit down at the computer, the story and words that consume us when we are there don’t get put down when we have to take junior to the soccer game. We carry them right along with us. Some portion of our mind is always fashioning and refashioning a thought we want to catch before we lose it. We look at the world around us and wonder how to fit it into our WIP. We can not take off the words and scenes floating around in our brain and walk away when we’ve finished our hour or whatever. It all goes with us every single moment of the day.

If that’s true, then what happens when we do get the chance to sit down and pour out our hearts on paper? There goes our subconscious again, doing exactly what we’ve trained it to do. Be divided. We are not fully present when we write because we’re not fully present in any situation. We sit down to write, which is what our brain has been wanting to do all day, so now our subconscious has to find something else to process, to mold while we actively work with the writing side of us. So, we end up with a reversal of thoughts. Suddenly, a small portion of us is obsessing over the consequences of feeding our children cold cereal for the fifth night in the row- our lives have now become the backstory we’re re-hashing and trying to get just right.

Make sense?

We sit down and our subconscious makes us feel guilty for being there because it doesn’t recognize a difference between the mental exercises we go through all day long with our writing and the time we spend actually spitting those words out onto the computer screen. It’s all writing and our brain starts to whisper, “Didn’t you already do this today?”
Often we become so caught up in the story that we truly have trouble remembering if we really did anything else that day. We may have challenged the phone company on a bill, gone grocery shopping, helped the teenager with a homework assignment, chatted with a neighbor having marital problems, even remembered to take a shower and get dressed. But, that’s all lost in the fog of figuring out the villain’s motivation for tying Sweet Sue to the railroad tracks. When someone else asks us (or when we ask ourselves) what we did that day we really have no idea, so we’re sure the day was wasted.

Our muse consumes us. It follows us everywhere we go, so we always end up feeling like we’ve neglected something important. We multitask too well. We’re never completely present in whatever we’re doing and we never completely walk away from what we want to be doing. It begins to feel like an addiction, a guilty pleasure that should be hidden or stifled. Oh, we still logically know and understand the inspiration behind our words, but how can we possibly consider ourselves a good mother when we sit back and watch the two-year-old’s tantrum with the gears turning about how we’d put his actions into writing rather than doing what a normal mother would do in that situation. (By the way, I have no idea what a normal mother would do since I’ve never been one of those.)

Do I have a solution for this? Nope. I only claimed to be a writer not a genius. I’d say, practice uni-tasking, becoming fully present in each area of your life, but that wouldn’t do the writer who has to grab his time in 15 minute snatches any good. By the time he gave his brain permission to think about the WIP his time would be up. I don’t have any miraculous solutions, but at least I understand what my problem is a little more. It doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty, but it does help me to put it in perspective. It clears my head just enough to remember what I’ve done and haven’t done, and my true motivations for what things I let in to my life and what things I leave out.

It doesn’t stop the train wreck that is my creative process, but it helps me understand that in reality my family was not in that train wreck. I may have just made a disaster out of my heroine’s life, but that doesn’t mean I’ve made a disaster out of my teenager’s life, no matter how many times she’s inclined to tell me I did. I haven’t destroyed their fragile lives because I was thinking about how to describe a character’s phobia while sitting in little Sally’s parent-teacher conference. I’m just allowing myself to be who I am. Hopefully, that will mean I’ll let them be who they are as well.

Besides, cold cereal is vitamin fortified. If they want something different they know where the fridge and stove are. I’m sure they can figure it out. Odds are it won’t hurt them one bit to do so.


Lori Nawyn said...

Well said!

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