The Problem With Guilt-Inducing Advice

by | Feb 1, 2021 | Articles | 4 comments

I frequently see tweets asking, “What’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever heard?” I don’t know if I want to comment on that, exactly, but I do have something else in mind.

Probably the biggest cliché writers will ever hear is some variation on the old saw, Write every day. When I was in grad school, I took a course with an anthologized short story author who asked the class, on day one, “Are you all writers? You all write every day?”

I took that second question personally. My internal answer was something like, “Well, um…no…not every day.”

And then I felt guilty about it.

 

“Compulsive Drivenness”

I suspect it takes a particular kind of empathy to understand just how bizarre my internal guilt really was. I was a student. Majoring in writing. I’d never been paid a dime for writing anything, and would not, for years afterwards. But what I did have was what the late great John Gardner so accurately called “compulsive drivenness.” I was a poet, a songwriter, a short story writer, and well on my way to becoming a novelist.

Today I write for a living. I’ve worked for the better part of two decades as a full-time professional writerbut prior to that, I was already the author of a couple of unpublished novels, and working on a third. Those novels are all available today thanks to stick-to-itiveness, compulsive drivenness, and a very understanding wife. Oh, and I’ve written and published an additional fourth novel and a collection of short stories. Novel #5 is underway as I write this post.

So what’s wrong with the “write every day” advice?

Nothing, if you need that sort of thing to motivate you. Nothing, if you’re creating content for quick, ready consumption.

But if you’re already compulsively driven to write, and will keep on writing year after year whether you get paid for it or not, you don’t need that advice. In fact, you might want to try to forget you ever heard it.

 

Better Than Ever

When I started writing each of my first two novels, I was working full-time outside the publishing world. I was a writer only in my own world. Was I any less of a writer? Did I suddenly cease to be a writer when I took a day off from it? When I went on vacation, or read a book, or looked out the window?

No.

And yet…because I’m an introvert and an empath and a poet, because I’m a writer of literary fiction whose primary goal is art, not commerce, I took that advice far too much to heart. I slaved over my books like a madman, but when I took a breakbecause I needed one, or because I feared the well had run dryI felt guilty for not writing. To be clear, I’m not saying that professor made me feel bad. For some writers, Write every day would have been the best advice. Just not for me.

A wise man once said to me, “Screw guilt.” I say to you, “Screw guilt.” If you’re going to write, you’ll do it. Job or no job, spouse or no spouse, inspiration or no inspiration. And if you take off a day, or even a week, you might come back refreshed. You might come back better than ever. I know I did.

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