Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Writer vs. The NonWriter: Overcoming the battle of Writer’s Guilt

I have a confession to make. It’s been over a week since I sat down with my writing. That’s not to say I haven’t written anything, I just haven’t touched my Work In Progress. And as I type these words I admit that I during that time I couldn’t help but feel a sense of shame; as if I’m guilty of some unforgivable crime. As if I have no right to call myself a writer.

I could easily claim end of summer activities have gotten in my way, that my day job has taken up more time, or that a week-long migraine has turned me into a pseudo-vampire whose fatal weakness is the stabbing glare of a computer screen. All of this is true, but as my brother so aptly likes to remind me, excuses are like armpits….

Everyday I see other writers posting their goals for the day, how they’ve written so many words by a certain time, how they’ve stayed up late and are celebrating with a bowl of ice cream, and I think: these people are the writers, not me. Their lives are just as busy, but somehow they’re making it work.

This evening, I happened to look at my bookshelf and noticed “How to Grow a Novel” by Sol Stein. It had been a while since I read it so I took it out and opened it to the foreword where I saw I had at some point in time underlined the following passage, “A writer is someone who cannot not write… a nonwriter is someone who can write or not, who does not have the drive and need to put words on paper.”

In re-reading this, it suddenly dawned on me. I haven’t worked on any of my fiction writing lately, but I have been writing every single day. I’ve written a couple of blog pieces, a human-interest piece for work regarding the damage a small model manufacturer suffered at the hands of Hurricane Irene, and I also spent several days working on a devotional piece for my youth group’s monthly newsletter.

My fiction writing is still a skill I’m learning to master. The notes (though thankfully largely positive) from my beta readers on my WIP are proof enough of that. My fiction writing has not yet made it out into the world, though I am ever hopeful that it will soon. My non-fiction writing, however, is a completely different matter. It’s already being seen and, more importantly, it’s already being used to make a difference in the lives of those who read it.

Last week I received an e-mail from a young woman I’ve never met in response to my post “The Honest Writer.” In it, she shared a good deal of her life story, which bore an uncanny resemblance to my own. As a result, we exchanged a few additional messages that encouraged both of us in our writing and everyday lives. If I was a nonwriter, the words that spoke to her at that particular moment would never have been set down on a page. If I was a nonwriter, I would be in bed sleeping off the effects of a migraine right now rather than braving the light emanating from my screen. And if I was a nonwriter, than I would never have told my mother years ago: Sometimes all I want to do is write. Most of the time it’s all I can think about. When I don’t write I have this ache inside me, right here in the middle of my chest. My arms get tense, like there is this pent up energy inside of me that can only be channeled through a pen.

I said earlier that I often see writers talking about their achievements, but I also see writers struggling with the same sense of guilt and helplessness in their writing endeavors that I’ve faced this past week. So I put to you Sol Stein’s words — a writer is someone who cannot not write; whether it’s a story; an article for a newspaper, magazine, or newsletter; a blog piece; a devotional; a poem; or a song. If that describes you, if the only relief you can find to that odd “ache” in your chest, your arms (or your head) is by putting the pen to page or filling a blank Word doc, then you, my friend are a writer.

When life gets hectic and you can’t write for a week, a month, or even years, don’t let senseless guilt prevent you from picking up again right where you left off. Just take it one step at a time until you reach that final goal. And then, start again.


  1. Jen,

    This is so true. I'm constantly am looking to the next page, how I am sticking the prose to the outline, and how the arch of my chapter corresponds with the National Parks Documentary soundtrack that seems to help glue my historical ideas to the page. Writing for me provides one of the very few moments when I feel most alive but at the same time, it's very stressful. I always feel guilty if I get sick, am overwhelmed, or only get a page or two (historical writing is different than other forms--slogging through is par for the course). Thank you for the encouragement. I have to force myself to take breaks, relax, or give my body a break if ill because the page is always calling me back.
    David Vail

  2. Thanks for your comment, Dave. It in turn encouraged me. I haven't attempted any historical fiction, but I have done a ton of research into history to help mold ideas for my fictional world, and I have certain soundtracks that I rely on to keep ideas and emotions flowing smoothly while I'm writing. Sometimes breaks are good for us; they help us recollect our ideas, find new avenues we haven't considered before, and sometimes we just need the rest to take care of ourselves. Keep at it though! I'm looking forward to seeing your name on the bookshelves someday.

  3. Jen,
    Thanks for another great, thought-provoking post. I don't think a day goes by that we writers don't write--but as you pointed out, it may not be with pen in hand or monitor in front of us. Writing is a 24-hour-per-day proposition. When we're not physically putting our thoughts on paper or keyboard, our brains are reorganizing, sifting, discarding, discovering, probing, inventing, refining, and solidifying those thoughts. We "work" even when we're asleep or at our other job or taking care of crying babies. As you (and Sol) said, we can't not write.


  4. So very true, Deb! I can't tell you how often I've had to have someone repeat themselves because my mind was wondering off trying to solve a problem with my story, or one of my characters was busy talking to me at the same time.

  5. This means a lot to me. I've been struggling this week with some new self-knowledge about myself and my writing and it's been hard to accept. Reading this reminds me that everything is not always picture-perfect, that there will be easy days and there will be very, very hard ones. To hang in there is the mark of a true writer, I think, and your post says this to me. Thank you.

  6. Jessica, I think this is something every single writer ends up struggling with more than once in their lifetime. You're right, everything isn't always going to be picture perfect.

    You're going to have days where writing comes as naturally as breathing, and days when it's the last thing you'll want to do. You'll have days you love everything you write, and days where you just want to chuck the whole thing into the fireplace. Perseverance during these times is the mark of a writer. And one thing I've learned is that these moments often bring me the most clarity and sense of purpose. Keep writing!