You Should Be Writing – or – On the Subject of Willpower, Motivation and Guilt

Starbucks and kindleI should be writing. Right now, I should be sitting down at my desk cranking out the words like a machine. I should not be looking at twitter, reading books, eating dinner, washing the dishes, brushing my teeth, scrolling through Netflix new releases, going out with friends or doing anything else that might be construed as living.

I should be writing.

Because that’s what writers do isn’t it? They write. They don’t talk about writing, they don’t say someday they would like to write. No. They Write. That’s it. Always.

I should be writing.

But here’s the thing. I write a lot already. Both in my professional life (academic) and in my aspirational life (successful novelist) I spend much of my day, every day, at a computer, tap tap tapping away. So the problem, if we really want to peel away the skin and take a look at the bones and sinew pulsing underneath, is not so much that I should be writing but that the vast majority of the writing I do every day is not considered writing at all. The emails, tweets, student feedback, academic proposals, comments on assignments, comments in blog posts, blog posts themselves, application forms, character notes, research notes, enquiry letters, synopses and references are not considered writing to anybody whose brain has ever whispered the phrase – you should be writing.

you should be writing 2

Because when we say “writing”, most of us only mean it in a very narrow sense – printable, well researched and ultimately publishable pieces of work that will get you tenure, millions of followers, a few literary prizes or an entry on next year’s Sunday Times Rich List.  None of these things will happen unless you crank out the word counts towards that paper, blog post or novel. Word counts, edits and the blood sweat and tears that go towards producing publishable work are the only things that matter when we say to ourselves – I should be writing.

However, time and energy are in short supply (at least around these parts) and a lot of it is used up on things that are, objectively, writing but that we’d be reluctant to call as such.

Today, for example, I did the following:

  1. I sent several longish emails to colleagues about meetings for next week.
  2. I sent several more longish emails to colleagues about tasks needed to be done over the exam season and about proposals we’ve been working on.
  3. I wrote page long feedback for three masters’ students who had sent me drafts of their research.
  4. I wrote an abstract for a conference.
  5. I wrote in a journal some ideas I have for the next novel.
  6. I wrote this blog post.

None of these things count as writing because there are no awards for the ‘most carefully constructed email’ or ‘best feedback given to a student for an essay’. There are no bonuses or big pay days on the horizon for doing these things. They are part of the day job. They are expected.  No matter what your day job is, I’d bet it involves at least some amount of report writing, emailing and form filling, with no more praise for doing so than you would expect from successfully brushing your teeth.

The problem is when we don’t acknowledge the ‘invisible’ writing that we devote much of our day to, it becomes far too easy to feel lazy or a failure when you don’t have the energy to give over to ‘writing’. Here’s how it tends to go for me:

  1. I put some writing goal on my to do list for the day. Write 500/100o words towards the novel. Edit the first 2000 words of that research paper I’m supposed to present next month. etc etc.
  2. I spend hours on the ‘invisible’ type of writing.
  3. I finally clear my inbox (by late afternoon) of all the ‘other’ stuff I need to do and the naggy “you should be writing” voice starts to get louder.
  4. I check twitter.
  5. I follow the rabbit hole down YouTube looking for motivational videos that will kickstart me into writing.
  6. I mentally beat myself up and feel an enormous sense of guilt for not having the energy to open the document and type some words.
  7. Netflix.

From this you can see there are three phases to the process. First, willpower has been steadily drained over the course of the day. I may still have energy for other things like the gym or making dinner but there is nothing left in the tank that will keep fingers to keyboard. Second, motivation to act isn’t really enough when I’m exhausted. Of course I have the motivation to do it. I want to do it, but while the mind is strong the body is weak. The combination of a lack of willpower plus the desire to write creates an enormous feeling of guilt that is all to readily fuelled by social media – just think of the number of gif’s devoted to “You should be writing”. It’s a horrendous cocktail.

So what can be done about it?

Well first you can try to be kind to yourself. Recognise that you probably have done a lot of writing today and accept it’s probably not the type of writing that will transform you into JK Rowling.

Second, somedays you will have to admit defeat and try not to feel too guilty about choosing a nice hot bath over another hour of tap tap tapping away.

Third, somedays you’ll need to use the proverbial carrot and reward yourself for pushing through the pain and try to hammer out a few hundred extra words before calling it a night.

Fourth, if you can, try to prioritise. Somedays you might not need to send that email. Maybe it’s ok to miss the odd deadline. This one isn’t always possible when there’s a pay-cheque involved but it’s worth taking some time out to see if there are ways you can streamline your work.

Finally, find times to write when you are not so exhausted. Write first thing in the morning or a few hours on the weekend, whatever works yeah?

Beyond this, I don’t have any mystery solutions. Writing is fun, but it’s also hard and the important thing is to cut yourself some slack when you fall short of your own high standards. Trust the process and know that you’ll get there. You will. Although maybe a little later than you expected.

8 Comment

  1. Laura says: Reply

    “The combination of a lack of willpower plus the desire to write creates an enormous feeling of guilt” = so much yes to this statement. I really want to write my novel, so why is it so damn hard to actually do it?
    I get myself all twisted sometimes, thinking that if I really wanted to be a writer I wouldn’t find it so hard to actually sit down and do just that. There’s obviously a lot of fear involved, but also just this surprise that writing is hard work. What’s that all about 😉

    1. thenovelprojectchronicle says: Reply

      Haha. Yes, it’s such a complex mix of emotions. The desire to complete it is always there but it takes a great effort to actually do it, especially when there’s not much energy left in the tank. I think sometimes people who are trying to write novels (of which I know a few) beat themselves up over not having a disciplined schedule or never quite reaching their weekly goal. But I really feel we need to be kind to ourselves on those days when when the willpower is just not there.

      1. Laura says: Reply

        I think I might be too kind to myself sometimes though – I should probably have some balance between kindness and motivational ass-kickings

        1. Caroline says: Reply

          A very difficult balance indeed 🙂

  2. Phoebe says: Reply

    I’ve had a terrible week with writing so this comes at a good time! It’s been so hard to motivate myself to just put words on the screen when there’s so much other stuff to do and sometimes I’m just so tired… Now I’ve started trying to get up earlier and work, but I’m a chronic night owl so it’s a slow and painful process.

    Setting realistic goals per day – e.g. on busy days I aim for 500 words, on more free days I try to aim for 1000 – has helped, but I think the guilt is kind of part-and-parcel of the process. Sometimes it can be channelled into something productive. At the moment, I’m just aiming for more of those days, rather than trying to stop feeling guilty altogether.

    1. Caroline says: Reply

      That’s a very good point that sometimes guilty feelings can be channeled for good use. There’s also a trick that I’ve heard others use where on the worst days they tell themselves they will sit down for just five minutes to work on writing and then if they are really not feeling it they will stop and will not have to feel bad about it since they really tried. I’ve never actually tried this but it might be helpful.

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