Sometimes, I feel guilty when I’m convinced I “should have” written something, but didn’t.
The other night I opened a document to work on a project at the end of a very long week and just stared blankly at it for about 15 minutes. I quickly realized I had two options: Try to write and probably produce mostly junk, or close everything down and take the night off.
I instantly regretted that decision not to write.
Though I tried reading a book, watching a movie, and catching up on TV shows, nothing seemed to help.
I felt so guilty, so ashamed of taking the night off that I could barely sleep. I could have just written a few hundred words. I could have at least tried. But I hadn’t. And for some reason, that shook me.
There are many aspiring and working writers who feel like this every single time they say no to writing. They try telling themselves they will try again tomorrow, often already believing they won’t. Many of them get so down on themselves that they just stop writing. Some never write much again.
You shouldn’t have to feel guilty for not doing something you don’t want to do. But the reality is, most of us do. We’re under a lot of pressure to work harder than our competition to get ahead, even if we don’t always realize that’s what we’re doing. We think we should be doing more, always, every free moment we have. Even when we know this isn’t practical or healthy.
Over the years, I’ve come up with several methods that have worked for me in those moments I’ve pushed myself as far as I [think] I can and need to put writing aside for a night. One of them may work for you. A combination may help. Maybe none of them will. I’ll leave the tips here for you to try and apply/avoid as you choose.
Look back at your most recent writing accomplishments. I’m an “always forward” kind of person. But I also believe reflection is extremely important, especially when you’re directing negative emotions toward your writing such as guilt or disappointment. That night when I started feeling guilty about walking away from my computer, I went back and looked at what I’d worked on that week. I’d done a ton of work! That helped me justify my night off, at least a little bit.
If you don’t have any, that’s OK. Look deeper into your possible writing roadblocks. If you haven’t written in a long time and you still feel guilty about that, there’s something deeper going on. You may feel guilty about not writing, but that wouldn’t be a problem if you were writing — and something is stopping you from doing that. Is it self-doubt? Fear of rejection? An inability to focus? Don’t focus on erasing your guilt. Focus on figuring out why you aren’t writing and go from there.
Take the night off — only after you make a plan for tomorrow. Maybe, like me the other night, you just can’t force yourself to write even one sentence. At that point, there’s no reason you should try forcing yourself to write unless you absolutely have to (you have a deadline, for example — but hey, why’d you wait until the last minute, you goof?). You aren’t going to write at your best, and may end up having to do more work later to correct for that. Just call it a night. But only after you’ve decided how you are going to make sure you write tomorrow instead. Get up an hour earlier and knock it out first thing? Take a longer lunch break? Record your show and save it for later? Make a detailed plan for how you’re going to make it happen. Then enjoy your night. Or try to, at least.
Write 500 words. There seems to be something about the 500-word mark that’s just manageable enough to handle — at least, that’s how it feels when you sit down and aim for that goal. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve aimed for 500 words and ended up writing over 1,000. It’s almost like once you hit that threshold, your brain enters deep focus mode and you suddenly find it very difficult to stop — and that’s not a bad thing! Try it. Aim for a small number of words. If you hit it and that’s all you can do, at least you wrote more than 0. If you hit it and decide, “Eh, I might as well keep going,” awesome! Keep going! You’ll feel less guilty if you do.
Remember: You’ll always wish you could have written more. When it comes to writing, “a lot” is still rarely enough. Psychologically, many of us end up feeling like each new record is the new minimum and we consistently want to try to one-up ourselves. Or is that just me? You’ll almost never feel like what you accomplished is good enough. You’ll always think, “I could have done more.” I’m not a therapist and I can’t tell you how to stop feeling guilty for not consistently exceeding your own expectations. But do be aware that this might happen to you, and you sort of have to just learn to deal with it. You could have written more, but you didn’t. You can always try again tomorrow, I suppose.
There are a lot of reasons people feel guilty when they don’t write. Most of them turn into negative self-talk. I’ll never be able to work hard enough. My ideas must be terrible. Everyone is better at writing than me. I’m a failure. It’s up to you to work through your insecurities and bad habits on your own. But don’t let the fact that you didn’t write today send you spiraling. Try again tomorrow. Or the next day. Figure out what’s standing in your way and how you might be able to work around it.
Good luck. Have a good day off, if you need to. Then, as quickly as you can, get back to writing!
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.