In Defense of Not Writing #3: Guilt

This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.


Last week was my “spring break.” I put quotation marks because while my younger brother was off with his frat in Mexico, and someone in my program spent the week in Ireland, I was still working my 9-5 from the kitchen table of my parent’s house.

Happily, I should add.

The first few days came as a relief. I was able to focus on one thing and actually be done for the day upon clocking out: closed the laptop and the slack channel, opted instead for walks with my dogs or slowly sinking into the corner of our couch. But around Wednesday, those bastardly feelings of dread and guilt that I hadn’t felt for a while reared their ugly heads.

Wasn’t my break supposed to be spent writing?

This time off, it was so I could enact a mini-residency of my own design and complete every essay I’d ever written through my entire MFA program, right?

In all honesty, I hadn’t opened up a document to write since arriving home the previous Thursday and I was becoming restless. Images of my peers spending all day and night with their faces aglow by computer screens filled my imagination and I became convinced that everyone else was getting work done while I was wasting my time.

I’ve gone on writing droughts like this before — ones that always leave me questioning whether I will ever be a writer or not — but it had been a while since I’d fallen so deeply into a pit of self despair. I mean, I’ve now written two columns about what to do instead of writing. But there it was again, that voice saying I was worthless for not writing every day.

I made all the excuses to convince myself otherwise: I was still working, it was a break after all, and I had been writing so much during school anyway. All of which were and are true. And yet, I couldn’t push past the feeling.

When someone tells me they feel shitty about not writing, I am always the first to assure them that’s nonsense. Your writing will come to you. Just give yourself a break! Good writing isn’t constant writing. So why now was I unable to provide the same words of comfort to myself?

Perhaps it’s because I’m graduating soon and will be responsible, solely, for my creative production. There will be another full-time job then, hopefully teaching, which will occupy even more of my time and energy. Coming home each day I will be exhausted, worn thin, starving. Dinner will have to be made, dishes washed, showers taken. When will I find the time to write in all of that? Will I ever actually produce something from all this education and labor?

When I need to talk myself down these ledges, I typically turn to reading. A friend of mine recently said that she’s unable to write unless she’s read something that day as well. I tend to be the opposite. I find that on the days I write, I don’t read. And the days I decide to read, I don’t have the creative energy afterward to write. So I grabbed Jane Ayre from my childhood bookshelf and opened the massive thing.

Even though the novel is a pleasurable (if dark) read, it’s also work. My current longform project investigates various female friendships of mine while looking at the media and literature we consumed at the time through an analytical lens. I’m currently focused on one friend I met in a Shakespeare class and bonded over Victorian and Regency novels with; meaning Jane Eyre is both break and service.

Reading the book and making margin notes helps my busy hands be occupied again, and soon I remember what productivity feels like. I know I deserve the break, but that doesn’t make accepting the stillness any easier.

Writing is easy when it’s easy but when you run out of steam, it can be like pulling teeth. I’m the first to tell people not to force it when writing becomes painful, but maybe there’s still space — even in this column — to push ourselves through those mucky moments. In a way, I guess I have been. Both the In Defense of Not Writing: Binge-Watching and In Defense of Not Writing: Walking columns talk about these other activities outside writing as different avenues to still end up, well, writing. The former as lesson for the way a storyline is built, the latter a guide to finding stories in the very dirt you stand on.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that when the guilt comes, it sucks. And no matter how much prevention you pack into your writing or creative schedule — all the various ways you absorb stimulation and inspiration — that voice cutting you down for not producing constantly will creep up on you. And that despite being an advocate for taking time away from writing, I am still affected by it intimately.

Even still, as soon as I got back to my apartment, I opened a new tab and got to typing.

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