Writer’s Guilt

Should a writer write every day?  Did we ought to follow a prescribed plan?  Can we only consider ourselves writers if we write full-time?

It seems counter-intuitive to associate words like “must”, “got to”, and “ought to” with writing.  These words, in my mind, are usually paired with all sorts of things that are good for you, but not enjoyable, like brushing your teeth, cleaning the loo, and paying the bills.  Telling myself that I have to write every day down-grades this activity from a form of expression to a necessary chore.  I have quite enough of those already, and it would distress me to lose the creative pleasure I get from writing.

Yet experts agree that, like keeping fit, exercising the writing muscles helps them grow stronger; as with any skill, practice is vital to becoming more proficient.  But it’s all too easy to get caught up on “having” to write every day, and we can end up feeling guilty if we don’t match up to some idealised prescription of how much and how often we “should” write.

I’ve tried all sorts of ways of making sure that I include writing in my day.  When teaching full-time, with young children to engage with outside of school hours, finding the odd half hour once or twice a week was a triumph, and this had to suffice.  At one point, my husband took all the children away for a long weekend, and I spent fifteen hours a day working on Brightly Shines the Darkness, so eager was I to finish it without taking time away from the family.  Looking back, I put my husband and children first, including the need to help earn our living, and writing was very much my next priority, so I feel justified in seeing the achievement of finishing a novel, rather than the many days when writing simply was not possible.

As the children grew older and as I worked less hours (sad, isn’t it, that one most needs the money at the stage when one would most like to be at home with the family?), I set writing goals, sometimes involving spending a target amount of time each day on the current work in progress, and sometimes aiming on completing a certain number of words.  I’m very much a list person: I like crossing items out as I complete them, and I even keep a weekly, rather than daily, list, so that jobs undone stay there until they are finished.  I won’t take down a list until everything has been completed; I feel that being strict with myself is part of the reason that I manage to get so much done.

But that doesn’t work for me, with writing.  It helps me remember and complete chores, commitments, and preparation for meetings.  It even works for my studies; the chapters I need to read, the research I have to do, the notes I must make, the steps towards finishing an assignment all figure on my weekly list, broken down into manageable chunks which are entered up on the appropriate day.  I can see that allocating writing tasks in this way might work for some people, as list-driven as I am, but without my distaste for relegating my creative impulses to “got tos”.

So now I have a different system.  I have several pin-boards in my study, one for my novel in progress, and space on the others for each short story and article on the go.  Here I pin up diagrams and notes showing my ideas, outlines, future steps, and suggestions for where to go next.  I use whatever seems right at the time; one board is currently an ordered arrangement of rows of index cards, while another is an explosion of multi-coloured timelines and charts, with a moon calendar (not for this year) and a herbalists’ summary underneath.  Because all the elements on each board are separate, I can add more, take finished items or discarded ideas down, or rearrange things to suit the emphasis of the moment.  Although a board may look chaotic to someone else, it makes perfect sense to me, and I don’t have to “spoil” the outpouring of my ideas by crossing things out as I finish something, nor does it feel so set in stone that I am inhibited from making sweeping changes.  So each board, or section of a board for smaller works, encapsulates my intentions, represents my progress so far, and shows me in pictorial form or words when my next steps and my overarching designs are.

This system not only keeps my projects on track and ensures that each idea stays captured, it also helps me to write most days.  You see, on my weekly list, under each day, I have the task of spending a few minutes going over the boards.  That may be all I do; but more often than not, looking over the steps I planned so enthusiastically is enough to spark a desire to take one of them a little further.  And no guilt, if there are days when I don’t write!

How do you help to keep yourself writing?