Writing and Guilt

These days we call upon ourselves to be everything in perfection. In the wider world success and fame are seen to be a criterion for happiness. In all aspects of our existence, health, parenting, relationships, careers we have been assaulted by a multitude of ‘shoulds’. These have been substituted for common sense and instinct. Even if we are self-assured and confident people we still find ourselves,Β  through out networks, in contact with, aware of, and affected by the social norms and influences that run through the networks.

The voice of commonsense, of our mother’s perhaps (who we don’t want to listen to always) would tell us that we can’t do it all. We can’t blog, write an enormous amount of words a day, build our platform, take part in online writing communities, do reviews, interviews, take proper care of our loved ones, our children, hold down, perhaps, another job, keep the house clean, get a publishing deal and appear beautifully pristine in the local paper on the day of our launch, keep our partner, happy, ‘satisfied’, keep in regular contact with all our friends, keep fit, slim and win a Booker.

I often, in the social media channels see people apologising for not getting back to others, not doing #followfriday (where you recommend, on Twitter, good people to follow), not having a #fridayflash. I myself apologise for not getting back to people quickly, not doing a review I promised to do. I spend quite a bit of time thinking where I think I should have got to by now and getting annoyed with myself that I haven’t yet done what I hoped to do.

All this guilt. Sapping the energy out of our lives and our projects. Never mindfully living, concentrating on the experience or enjoyment of what we are doing at a particular moment.

It’s almost September. For many of us with children, it has a New Year feel about it. We want to organise and orient ourselves. Our lives feel cluttered. We can become overwhelmed and half-hearted about our lives and our writing. We can feel that we are not giving enough to either, that we are letting ourselves down in both spheres.For me, I’m pretty sure that the niggling feelings of guilt lead to LESS productivity, MORE stress and LESS satisfaction with life and my interactions and relationships with others.

In terms of writing, feelings of guilt may come from others if they do not appreciate the time spent on a ‘hobby’. We might feel guilty about taking time to do the thing we love when there are so many other pulls. Guilt might become a vicious cycle. We might try to write but it may take longer than we are happy with because we are not able to concentrate properly, because all the shoulds about where we should be now with our novel, what sort of book we should be writing, what we should be doing instead of this etc etc etc sap our energy and distract us from pure imagination and the joy of creating.

These are the ways that I am trying to move away from guilt both in writing and in life.

Give myself credit: Document each day what tasks, writing and otherwise I have accomplished, reflect on the pleasant activities or interactions I have had with family and friends. For writing specifically, review a monthly list of everything I have achieved in that time.

Outline my intentions: In a previous post I mentioned intention journaling, a method used by StudioMothers.com founder Miranda Hershey. She writes down every morning what she would like to achieve for the day. Writing them down clears our heads of our to do lists and allows us to check against them at the end. If short of time we can just jot down a short list in a diary and come back to it at the end of the day.

Outline small achieveable specific goals and check progress against them: This may be a daily wordcount that is highly achieveable (we can extend it more at a later point if we want). Realising that we have written 500 words a day, every day for the last month will show us that we are progressing.

Take breaks: We all have our own rhythms and after 40 mins on a particular task we begin to flag. It’s okay to take a break or to write in short bursts and the goals help us to do this because then we can work towards the goal and not just spend hours gluing ourselves to our writing chair hardly producing anything and feeling that we have ‘writer’s block’. Cut out distractions and stick with it but if you are overtired and it’s not working, go do one of the other tasks in your life, like sock pairing. Surely it’s time you spend some time on that!

Keep an eye on balance: Think about what you want in your life as well as writing.Good relationships, social outings, days out with family rest. Keep an eye on physical factors which hugely affect mood and energy, rest, good food, exercise. If some areas are flagging then make just take time to text, email or phone friends, have a regular family day out, take a daily walk, buy some delicious fresh fruit or ingredients for a delicious, healthy meal.

Kill two birds with one stone

The delicious meal can be prepared with your children, as a fun activiity, or you could do a writing course or visit an interesting venue with a friend.Β  Use your writing twice, exercise & find writing ideas as you walk.

Turn it all off

Sometimes it’s time to rest, to have fun, to turn off the computer, to go out of the house, to pick fruit, to mess about with boats or in the garden. You should not be writing your novel, you should not be keeping up to date with the forums or researching publishers, you should be out in the world living, filling up your energy and happiness for all your future endeavours, enjoying yourself just for sake of it.

Are you making plans to take the guilt out of your life and to organise yourself. Are there any things that you want to share that have worked for you?


  1. Oh my, I can relate to this. This week I am enjoying a rare week off work, during which time I hoped to be able to find a bit more than my usual 45 minutes a day writing time and, you know what, maybe actually finish something worthy of submission! But instead I find myself inundated with visitors, spending time making breakfasts, lunches, dinners, while my husband wonders aloud about the possibility of surgically removing me from my laptop. All the time I am guiltly making plans for locking myself in my study for a couple of hours. Comes with the territory I suppose, but its nice to know I’m not alone. Thanks Alison! Now I really must sneak back downstairs before anyone notices I am missing…

    1. Inundated is just the word. We feel so overwhelmed at times that we can’t see how to organise ourselves. I must say writing this post has focused my mind and I’m going to revisit this topic to tease out some more of the things you said, how can we stand back and what about when we can’t?

  2. Second post I’ve just read that involves the distractions of social media! I guess it’s a very relevant topic for all us writers. I think you set out the answers very clearly, Alison. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Try to set acheivablle goals so that the guilt doesn’t set in when you realise you haven’t written that 5,000 words you’d planned to! And strike a balance. Sometimes, easier said than done, but nonetheless, we can at least try.

    1. Definitely, try that is a really important point and also be aware that you are trying, chart progress so that it doesn’t disappear into the confusion of what went on today. And yes, the goals have to be realistic and we need to revisit them and check what’s going on and if we need to alter them.

  3. I was just about to go for a walk when I seen you had a post up, so yes I got distracted, but I am glad I did. All you have written makes sense, and yes we can try too hard and do too much, I certainly know I do, and all the talk from friends about me being superwoman doesn’t really make me feel any more super. One thing I think we all forget, is that for the most part, all we can do is our very best, mixed up with (if we are very lucky), a life which we can share with other people whom we care about and care back. This morning I revisited a chapter which I nearly know by heart, I know I have some of it right, and some well just about alright if you get me. My biggest frustration is often disappointment in not acheiving the writing standard I aim for. Most times I fall well short of the mark, but sometimes it works, and it is this and the constant aspiration for it, which keeps me coming back to writing. None of us are superwomen, or men, we are just plain human, which is why I am now going for my walk before returning to work, picking up the pieces of my life, including dinner and laundry, and maybe even a little writing later on. Thanks Alison – glad I go distracted. πŸ™‚

    1. I so recognise that frustration of writing not being what you aimed for, I know we all do. Occasionally we read over something we have completed and get a great sense of satisfaction and also, of course, what matters is the reader and if it works for them – they don’t care what was in our heads beforehand. Of course we have our own standards we aspire to, especially if we admire other writers and their techniques, we want to achieve something special like them. The walk you had is a great example of how sometimes we just need to break away and refocus. I’m going to come back to this topic as I think there’s a lot more to explore.

  4. I love this post. I can relate to just about everything in it. I admire you for trying to find a way to combat the guilt; it can eat you all up otherwise, can’t it. This post contains some fantastic ideas.

  5. This is so true! Only this evening I have been wracking my brain, trying to write a blog post to describe how I am feeling at the moment in terms of writing and family life. I have an idea, yet to be written (along with two novels and several short stories). It is so nice to know I am not alone, thanks!

    1. ah yes, so many projects, so much to feel guilty for not working on. And sometimes with the best of intentions, when it comes to families, events can just take over and it’s hard to keep your ‘head above water’ for writing.

  6. This sounds familiar!

    I recently wrote a blog post called ‘The Doing of It’, in which I said I’d abandon chocolate and write 1,000 words a day ’til the end of October. I spent last night enjoying a two-handed cuddle with my baby and this morning I overslept ’til 8.30 (unheard of in our house, we have 6am children…). I woke to a guilt-edged panic about yesterday’s lost words.

    However, I have the answer. It’s an old family tradition that has served me well through many years of education and career — 1,000 words a day was only ever going to be an average; a mean. I am going to chill out, enjoy my kids, have plenty of sleep (important, sleep) and then, in the last five days, write 12,000 words a day.

    It’ll be fine.

    1. I’ve read your great post and it really gelled. Your humourous answer to everything is very apt and very familiar! I think that’s why we really need to ‘get real’ and see if what we are aiming for is possible and alternately if we are getting in our own way sometimes. This is something in particular that I am looking at this week.

  7. Gorgeous, honest post. Yep, I feel guilty about everything, so much so I’ve decided maybe I’ve taken on too much. I am taking (and have taken) breaks from social media, including my blog, and things like $fridayflash because they distract me from what is most important to me now — my novel. I’ll be back to read and reread your words of wisdom. Peace…

    1. Hi Linda,

      Yes it’s so important to know when you have taken on too much and I saw your post in the #fridayflash stream last week and I thought it was a great thing to do, to acknowledge that you want to stay involved with the community and to post the link to explain where you were with things. I also love #fridayflash and I did one last week and was thinking of it again this week (a novel extract). However I know that it’s time consuming if you want to do it right and so we need to say to ourselves I’ll do it once a month or not at all till the novel is done etc etc. It’s funny because it’s still playing on my mind that you invited me to comment on your Why we write post but I did not do it. I am sure you don’t mind but we let things play on us sometimes. Your comment has helped me orient myself a bit more so thanks to you too!

  8. Wonderful post, Alison! You make an excellent point about balance. Since my father died, recently, and my mother is in need of more care, I’ve begun to live more in the way you suggest. Doing what we “want” is a fundamental need – and what we want is not always what we believe we “should”. I now find myself asking how important “should” actually is, and consequently putting it into my list of priorities in the position it “should” be!

  9. My thought. Recognize that if you did not write one more word your entire life, the sun would still rise, the earth would keep turning, and you would still breathe. When you realize that writing, and every other activity, is a choice, some of the guilt subsides. Make choices that make sense in your world. I choose to write.

    Great post Allison. Thanks for the tips and encouragement.

  10. Love the positivity and realism! I have so much guilt this summer over all that I’ve not achieved (how often do I get up, determined that I Must Have Fun with the kids, only to get in a horrible tangle because I’m trying so hard…) and it’s good to remember that everyone struggles with the balancing act. Too often I see women who seem to be doing a perfect job, but maybe it’s all just an illusion..?

  11. Alison, great article, well written and brilliantly illustrates how the accumulation of feeling guilty over little things can add up.

    I loved the paragraph about what we cannot do, yes we can do all of those things, but NOT all at the same time πŸ™‚

    I know I place very high expectations of myself. A productive day for me, is probably worth 4 productive days of the average person (not boasting, it’s just fact, I am extremely effective & efficient), but I don’t always have productive days, and usually guilt plays a factor at blocking my productivity. I also think it’s a contributing factor to my physical ill health at the moment.

    So thank you for writing this, getting me to think more about how I create guilt in my life, so that I can let go of it, be happier, be more relaxed and more productive!


  12. Oh Alison! This is a lovely, kind, inspired and inspiring post. I love your idea of doing the anti-to-do list at the end of the day – the Acknowledgment List, which reminds you to take stock of the things you have done.

    I also was reminded of a quote I read on Twitter last week: “Never confuse what you earned with what you made.”

    Thanks for making me think – and for reminding me to breathe.


  13. Alison, a great post and one that’s also applicable to those of us who don’t have kids but somehow managed to be extremely distracted by the rest of life! My rule, to add to this, is Find What Works For You, don’t just feel you have to do what others do. For me, that means feeling okay with playing online Scrabble while I am writing – I used to feel guilty about that because everyone said I “should” switch the Internet off. But actually it helps me with the writing of short stories because it helps distract my “rational” brain while the non-rational part gets on with creating. That suits the kinds of writing I do, but clearly wouldn’t suit everyone! Down with guilt, I say….

  14. Love this – thank you! The bit that especially sang to me was “it may take longer than we are happy with because we are not able to concentrate properly, because all the shoulds …. etc etc etc sap our energy and distract us from pure imagination and the joy of creating”. Well put, and I so needed to hear that!
    I’m reminded of a point made in The Now Habit (a great book btw) that feeling guilty & procrastinating often take up more time & sap more energy than simply acting would take.
    Right, off to be relaxed & positive now. . . πŸ˜‰

  15. Great advice. It’s especially nice to know that I’m not the only one who feels guilty about not getting back to people fast enough. I love the list idea and am going to use it–today!

    1. Thanks Lorijo and Rhian. It’s funny that I write this post and then forget to follow my own advice. I do write my aims and accomplishments each day but I don’t take enough space and time out.

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