Tuesday, September 15, 2015

11 Writer's Guilt: The Honest Truth about Gender, Creative Cycles, and Making a Positive Change

by Martina Boone

I actually get paid to write. That's still amazing to me. Someone gives me money to use my imagination, which makes me one of the most privileged people on the planet.

I write, edit, or research for at least eight hours a day at least five days a week. That is my job. That's how I look at it. But you know what? I STILL feel like my writing time is illicit, somehow stolen from other things.

Which is crazy.

I know I have to find a way to get myself past that mental block, but in talking to some other authors, I've discovered that a lot of us feel the same. Like we have to squeeze the writing time in between family and the business side of being an author, the marketing, social media, and just about anything else.

You know who overwhelmingly don't feel writer's guilt? The male authors with whom I've spoken.

Male authors seem to be able to put their writing time first and acknowledge that without the writing, nothing else matters. They even acknowledge that without the writing, they aren't as wholly themselves, and therefore they aren't as present for their families.


What is it about women that makes us so prone to guilt? Is it something that we do to ourselves? Or is it something that we are conditioned into believing?

I've been thinking a lot about gender roles as I finish out the Heirs of Watson Island series. Persuasion deals with the fine line between compulsion and persuasion, the many different ways in which individuals and society in general apply pressure to make someone conform.

Thinking about guilt and gender got me curious, so I looked up some studies. Admittedly, I didn't spend a lot of time chasing down the statistics, but what I saw suggests that women as a whole seem to:
  • Feel guilty more often than men.
  • Feel guilty about different things than men do.
  • Be dismissed more easily in creative endeavors than men.
  • Feel less likely to assert themselves or take themselves seriously in creative endeavors.
  • Tend to be harder on themselves.

You know what else women tend to do more often and also differently from men? Dream. Our dreams are a complex mixture of hope, despair, escape, and a search for validation. The success of books like Twilight and and 50 Shades and so forth speak to this a little bit. We live vicariously.

But we need to cut that crap out. Not the dreaming part. The restricting ourselves to dreaming part. The feeling guilty part.

I'm a fan of Shonda Rhimes, and her commencement address at Dartmouth was brilliant. Here's an excerpt:

The dreamers — they stare at the sky and they make plans and they hope and they talk about it endlessly… The buttoned-up ones meet for cocktails and they brag about their dreams, and the hippie ones have vision boards and they meditate about their dreams. Maybe you write in journals about your dreams or discuss it endlessly with your best friend or your girlfriend or your mother. And it feels really good. You’re talking about it, and you’re planning it. Kind of. You are blue-skying your life. And that is what everyone says you should be doing. Right? I mean, that’s what Oprah and Bill Gates did to get successful, right?


Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams — fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them — it’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change. So… ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer.

Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real. Just do.

So you think, “I wish I could travel.” Great. Sell your crappy car, buy a ticket to Bangkok, and go. Right now. I’m serious. You want to be a writer? A writer is someone who writes every day — so start writing. You don’t have a job? Get one. Any job. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical opportunity… Do something until you can do something else.

For me, the thing about being creative for a living is that I still feel like I'm dreaming. I'm going through the steps of doing the work--I'm actually doing the work. But I'm letting guilt hold me back.

The creative cycle is partially to blame. Even when I put in my eight-hours, for me the creative process does involve a lot of navel-gazing where I have to give my sub-conscious time to make connections. It's those times when I'm "brewing" a story that make me feel the most like I'm not actually working.

I'm going to try an experiment.
  • I'm going to focus harder on putting the writing first. 
  • I'm going to accept that I have a tendency to feel guilty.
  • I'm going try to be easier on myself.
  • I'm going to focus on enjoying the process.
That last one, man, that's the sinker. Because somehow, even saying that one aloud induces guilt. 

Your Turn

What about you? Do you feel guilty? Do you feel like you're stealing your writing time?

Have you found a way to cope?

About Martina

Martina Boone spoke several languages before she learned English after moving to the U.S. She has never fallen out of love with words, fairy tale settings, or characters who have to find themselves. She is the author of Compulsion, the acclaimed first book in the Heirs of Watson Island trilogy. with Persuasion releasing 10/27/15. She is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers site, the CompulsionForReading.com book drive campaign for underfunded schools and libraries, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site devoted to the discovery and celebration of young adult literature and encouraging literacy through YA series. Locally in her home state, she is on the board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, helping to promote literacy and adult education initiatives.


  1. I was reading an article about how when John Lasseter took over Disney, how he made changes that turned the company around. One of the things people said about him was that no matter what he was doing--listening to a pitch, brainstorming story details--he was wholly present. He wasn't thinking about his schedule--he was completely focused on the task at hand. They say the definition of genius is being able to focus on one thing at a time. That's how I treat writing. I homeschool my four kids, so when I'm with them, I try to focus completely on them. I get up early to write and stay up an extra hour to write--and that's all I do. No distractions, no interruptions.

    Guilt, I think, comes from that nagging voice telling you that you should be doing something else. So I have cut offs. If I don't get the house vacuumed or all the shoes picked up by writing time, I Let It Go. I can sweat the little stuff tomorrow. Big rocks go in the box first, then the little rocks. If the little rocks go first, there's no room for the big rocks. Priorities!

    1. REALLY great points. I love the advice from John Lasseter, and I think that's true of most successful people. Certainly it's a trait of the people we like to spend time with, too. And your big rocks, then little rocks . . . that's genius! Thanks for this Kessie!

  2. Yes, I know what you mean about guilt. There's simply not enough time to get everything done and why is that always my fault? Sounds like women need some sort of Guilty anonymous support group. :)

    1. I love it. Except that we'd feel guilty for taking the time out to do the support group, lol!

    2. That's probably true! To be honest, I thought all this excessive guilt was a growing up catholic thing--I hadn't considered the gender factor until now. :)

    3. Ha--that's true too, but I honestly believe it's more gender than anything else. Now that you say that, though, I wonder how much of that is rooted way back in the depths of religion?

  3. This year has been particularly acute for me in regards to the guilt I feel.

    As a single mom, it's me helping my kiddo with homework, answering oddball questions, carrying on conversations so she knows I'm there for her while also working a full time job and now a second job because I don't make much with my writing and publications.

    That was the crux needling my heart for the longest. Why spend the time writing, rewriting, researching, revising, marketing and on social media when my situation could not be helped with the rather tiny sales I've earned? Why spend that time away from my daughter or from doing other things as the head of the household that need to be done? The guilt is a real struggle that aided my lengthy procrastination during the first half of this year.

    But just as the struggle is real, my dream of writing and publishing is real. I got into this to show - not just tell - my daughter the importance of turning dreaming into doing. I keep going forward, despite the guilt that nags at me at times, to continue showing her the importance of dreaming and doing...not just dreaming.

    1. Angela! Oh, I'm sending you the biggest hug. But you're absolutely right to keep going, because even though your daughter gives you joy and satisfaction, at some point, she is going to move on with her own life and she'll want you to have something besides her that you can leave as a legacy. If the writing does that for you, sales are less important. Remember that writing truly is art, at least at its best level. We forget that in the commercialism of it, but I think that the aspects that warm us internally, that drive us, are the artistic portions. The themes, the characters. Hold on to that and do this for YOU! I'll also share something my daughter said in an essay that she wrote for school about my writing. She said that my pursuing my dream showed her that she can dream bigger. That was one of the proudest moments of my life--so trust yourself. I feel guilty for the writing time, for prioritizing my writing, I feel guilty for not doing enough--but I never feel guilty for writing any more. Yes, I'm lucky to be paid well for my writing, but honestly, I'm not doing it for the money. I'm doing it for myself and the readers--and whether we connect with one reader or many thousands, we've still forged a connection.

      Hang in there, lovely! You earn massive respect for all you're doing, and you're also setting a shining example for your daughter! XO

  4. Ah, great post and thoughts. SO weird that women feel more guilty for creative endeavors. Sometimes I admit I do feel like I should be doing something more "worthwhile" and that I'm spinning my wheels. I feel selfish, focusing on what I want. But that's silly! Thanks for the validation post. :)

    1. This is EXACTLY what I keep hearing. And why should we feel guilty when men don't? What guy even feels guilty for spending a bazillion dollars on going to football games or playing gold? And we feel guilty for *writing*? We need to reclaim our get-out-of-guilt-free cards!

  5. Blergh, I've been struggling with this for a long time, and even more for the past few weeks. I'm a teacher, with 2 new demanding preps this year, and I constantly feel like I'm letting my students and my job down if I write in the evenings instead of grade or work on lesson plans. But teaching also takes so much out of me emotionally and physically that it's often hard to muster up the motivation to write after school. Then I feel guilty for neglecting my writing...agh! I'm trying to set my feelings aside and just write when I can, but it's hard. Glad to know I'm not alone.


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