Guilt and Shame for Writers

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot.

Several days ago, I posted the following:

1. Guilt and shame are the enemies of the artist.
2. Guilt is when you feel as though your time should be spent doing something else, for someone else.
3. Shame is when you think what you’re producing is not good enough, or you’re not good enough as an artist.
4. The only way to deal with guilt and shame is to feel them, because you’re going to feel them. Then do, and show, the art anyway.

I have to deal with guilt and shame all the time. I think most artists do. Guilt and shame are two different things, so I’m going to try to define them. But they’re similar in that they’re equally debilitating. And equally difficult not to feel — I think they afflict most of us who are trying to do creative work.

Guilt is focused inward and has to do with a sense of what you should be doing that is not art, and who you should be doing it for. I have a daughter; time I spend writing is time I don’t spend with her. I have a sense of duty as her mother, but of course I have a lot more than that — I want to spend as much time with her as I can, because time passes quickly and I know she’s growing up. Every experience we have together, even if it involves sitting on the sofa watching a movie, is precious. And I have students, a lot of them. I have a sense of duty towards them, and also toward the university programs that employ me — but beyond that, I want them to learn and succeed. Time I spend writing is time I don’t spend grading their papers, creating lessons plans. Would I be a better mother and teacher if I didn’t write? I don’t know. I’m sure I would have more time . . .

So that’s guilt: the continual sense that you should be doing something else, for someone else. The sense that writing is an indulgence, and your duty lies elsewhere.

Shame is different: it’s a sense about the work itself, that it’s not good enough, will never be good enough — for others. Shame has to do with how other people perceive you. If you never showed your work to anyone, you would not have a sense of shame about it. You might have a sense of failure, but it would be a private failure. You would feel relief — at least no one has to see how I failed!

Shortly after I posted about guilt and shame, I also posted the following:

Everything I write is a failure in some way. It never lives up to my original idea of it.

I think that’s true for so many writers. You have the story in your head, which you’re convinced is going to be the best one you’ve every written. And by the time it gets onto the page, it’s a flawed, awkward thing, like a young falcon, wet, tousled, squawking for worms. And you think, what happened to my original perfect conception? All the words are wrong. Even the commas are wrong . . . By that point, you’re convinced it’s the worst story you’ve ever written, and your writing career, such as it was, is over.

The more you write, the more you realize that this is a cycle, that it happens every time. Months later, particularly if you see the story in print, you’ll think — it’s not that bad after all. Not perfect certainly, but not the worst I’ve ever written either. But understanding that it’s a cycle and actually getting rid of the shame are different things — understanding happens in the conscious mind, whereas the sense of shame lies much deeper, in the unconscious. Understanding simply brings it to consciousness, helps you talk to yourself about it. The shame itself doesn’t go away.

At least I’ve found this is the case for most writers. It seems to me that there are writers without that sense of shame, who are confident in their own writing (although how would I know, since I don’t inhabit their heads). They tend to be writers who were encouraged by their families and teachers from a young age. The rest of us, particularly if we were discouraged at some point, have internalized a sort of societal voice. It says both that the work is not good enough and that you, as a writer, probably as a person, are not good enough.

And then it becomes not about the work, but about you: I must not be good enough, I must not be smart and skilled and dedicated enough, to be the writer I imagine I could be.

Therefore, says guilt, you’re wasting time. You really should be doing something else: volunteering at the local food pantry, supporting a political cause you believe in. Serving on the PTA. Don’t get me wrong, those are all good activities. But guilt says, you should do them instead of your art. Because, adds shame, your art is worthless.

If this were a self-help article, this is the point at which I would tell you how to defeat guilt and shame, as though they could be removed like an appendix. It’s not that easy. I’m pretty sure guilt and shame are here to stay.

All I can tell you is what I do. The first step is understanding what they are, and how they’re stopping you. And then, since they’re different, approach them differently.

Guilt: If you have the something inside you that makes you a writer, or a painter, or a musician, it’s like an itch. I find myself writing all the time, whenever I have free time. For fun, because that’s what I enjoy doing. When I can’t write, it’s like an itch in the middle of my back that I can’t scratch. Or worse, because I start getting tangled up inside. It’s as though writing untangles me. What I believe is that if you have that particular itch, something put it in you — call it what you will, but you were created with a purpose, and it’s that purpose, unfulfilled, that causes the itch, that makes you want to scratch at it, almost desperately. You were make to create whatever you have the impulse to create, and your unhappiness when you’re not creating is it the universe itself speaking to you, saying: hey, you’re ignoring me.

So yes, you have a duty to your family, to your students. But you also have a duty to yourself, and to something greater than yourself — to the work itself that wants to be created through you, and to the creative power of the universe that is trying to find a means of expression and has chosen you for it. If you ignore that duty for all the others, you will end up unhappy, unfulfilled. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably end up feeling guilty for a whole new reason . . . now you’ve failed in your duty in another way, to yourself and God or whatever! But at least you’ll be able to see that these are competing duties, and that sometimes your parenting or teaching need to come first, but at other times your writing needs to come first. And then, maybe, you can start to negotiate among them.

Shame: The only way I know to deal with shame is a form of behavioral therapy in which you do exactly what you’re afraid of. And if you don’t die, then you know that you probably won’t die . . . the next time you receive a rejection, or moderate a panel, or do a reading. It’s not fun, but it works. Whatever you’re afraid of the world seeing you do, do that. Every time I publish a piece of writing, I feel a sense of shame, because as I pointed out, everything I write is a failure. I think, this isn’t good enough to show the world. (It seemed so good after I finished writing it, but by the time I’ve revised it and I’m fixing commas, I realize that I can’t even punctuate properly, so what made me think I could be a writer?) That’s one of the reasons I keep writing and sending out the work — because it’s scary.  And it’s partly why I write this blog, because who am I to offer advice, to tell anyone my views on life, the universe, or anything?

But many of you, in your kindness, tell me that what I write resonates: that you feel and see it too. And I’m betting that many of you, if you’re writers or artists, or maybe if you’re just human beings, will relate to what I’ve written above. Which is perhaps the final way to deal with guilt and shame, and equally applicable to both. Realize that aside from a fortunate few (and we’re not even sure of them), we all feel guilt and shame. We’re all in this together.

Dora in the Morning

(I thought this would be the most appropriate picture for this particular post: it’s of me first thing in the morning, before I’ve washed my face or even brushed my hair. In exceptionally good light, but otherwise, as the universe made me, whatever idea it had in its head at the time. About to eat breakfast . . .)

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10 Responses to Guilt and Shame for Writers

  1. Duncan Saunders greenmanharper says:

    Theodora, I am not a writer, but a therapeutic harper and your words this morning resonated deeply with me, especially around shame as I hear how the music should be in my head, then I hear it as I pluck the strings and worry that it will not have the healing qualities necessary for those in distress who I wish to comfort.
    And so I continue to practice, walk the halls of the hospital with the harp and know that even if I am not always happy about what the harp sings out, I see the delight and comfort it brings and I know it’s the right path.

  2. Awesome. I am going to work on these issues in the coming year. I also know a lot of other writers who feel this all the time. Excellent advice.

  3. moomstex says:

    Therapy helps, too!

    I didn’t realize till recently that Brene Brown’s academic field of study is Guilt and Shame. Pretty interesting theorizing and paths to understanding — if not total freedom and confidence.

  4. Laura Saba says:

    Thank you so much for this, Theodora – both timing and words could have been more perfect, more serendipitous. I’ve been working toward making a commitment to say a gigantic “No!” to everything in 2016 that isn’t serving either my primary training program (what I view as my day job), or supporting me in creating the space to write. The struggle has been entirely about guilt and shame. Daily I would find myself trying to slip in one more little thing I should make room for in the coming year (guilt! guilt!), yet when I sit with it, I realize that while indeed it’s sourced in guilt…it’s wrapped quite neatly in a perfect little foil of shame, as well.

    Perhaps this is further compounded by the fact that I don’t see myself so much as a writer, as I do a scribe. I don’t think of stories, they arrive in my head fully formed, somehow. Yet … even with such gems delivered, I feel I fail – most desperately fail – in helping them make page-fall in a way that is even remotely deserving of the story I see in my mind’s eye. How infuriating! How shameful! Something so perfectly formed – just handed to me from the ether – and I can’t even get it right as I translate it to paper? Oh, the exasperation of defeat as I botch the job, time after time (after time, after time…).

    However, now? My sons are grown, my youngest is now readying to move out on his own. The bulk of parenting is now behind me. And, I’ve also made the shift from seeing my business not as a business, but rather as workshops I teach that happen to be arranged under the umbrella of a legal business structure. This shift matters, because for a long time I hesitated to write things that could upset potential enrollees in my program. I’ve come to discover, however, that the work I’m doing there stands for itself, and I’ve come to accept that if indeed there are a few who turn away for such a reason, then we weren’t meant to work together.

    Anyhow, these shifts make the coming year *my time*, finally. If I find the courage to step up and claim it – that is the trick of it though, right? I’ve been a mom since I was 21. My ex ran out on us when I was 23 and expecting our second child – leaving me to single-handedly raise our two sons, with no hint of monetary or physical support. I was so young, and so unprepared for it, and yet I learned how to parent, how to care for a home, how to earn. Now that I’m successfully on the other side of that equation, with my sons doing well in their careers, forming healthy relationships, and participating successfully in their community, I can finally begin to genuinely pursue dreams long ago cast aside due perhaps initially to need, but which certainly converted to that perfect little package of shame covered guilt across the years.

    Thank you so much for the gift of this post. I needed to hear this, and to hear it now. This, I suppose, is precisely why it’s important that we continue to take the risk, to feel the fear and do it anyway – there’s a purpose to it all, something that will come of it, even when we can’t see it from where we sit. You, in writing this, have helped me, and likely many others, too. And so the wheel continues to turn, yes? Thank you again, so very much.

  5. Wayne C. Rogers says:

    First of all, an excellent article on Guilt and Shame. No one could have written it better than you. with your skills as a writer. Guilt, however, only works on those with families, or has a job in which the work has to be brought home in order to finish it. If you live alone and don’t have a family; nor, the type of job that is demanding of your free time, you don’t have anything to worry about. Shame is something every author feels at one time or another. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how famous your name is. All any writer can do is the best of their ability at that particular time and space. If you think the story you’re submitting is not your best work, you could be wrong. Sometimes the story you think is the worse is actually the one most snagged by the readers. Like William Goldman said about Hollywood, “Nobody knows nothings!”

  6. Phyllis Holliday says:

    What a new year gift. I fell apart sixteen years ago, and found a therapist who, after I muttered my pain, said, “You are a writer. You must write.” But, but, but, family, my money making job, etc. It is amazing to see Guilt and Shame, like two ugly clowns can caper around you, too. Most of my shame is: Well, yeah, I have stories and poems out there, but such a small audience, so am I really a writer and poet,? Or am I some stumbling, bumbling, once in a while amazingly told one of my stories or poems has touched some-one, the way I hoped they could.

    Once again, thank you. I just feel the width of what we have all gotten into. Some in the high castles, some highly loved but always struggling, and those who just can’t stop the writer inside who needs to live this life, with some of the most wonderful magic given to you. And then, there is despair, which can only be treated with friends and laughter.

  7. Aura Eadon says:

    Shame and guilt. I’d say that shame is probably toxic shame, at least, it has been in my case – then again my past would make toxic shame and guilt rather probable. So in my case, the shame that is externally focused, is essentially masquerading. The toxic shame attacks me for who I am and that is no small attack. It doesn’t matter how many people tell me they like my words; if my head is insisting I am useless, any positive external influence is lost. As for the guilt well it’s there for everything. If I don’t write, I feel guilty. If I write, I feel guilty because I should be writing something else. If I’m writing something, the guilt shifts to another target and triggers another wave of toxic shame. In other words, a mess.

    How do I cope with such a messy head? I cope by being a vigilant cold-hearted bitch. Guilt’s foundation is fear, which as you said needs to be faced. I follow the motto “feel the fear and do it anyway” and if you ever had a look at the complex tangled fears that have governed my life for decades you’d laugh. Or cry. Or both. Anyway. Being vigilant allows me to spot guilt and toxic shame quickly. Then I squash them like one would do to cockroaches (cold-hearted bitch). And I do that by focusing on these:

    – I keep vigilant to shift from the external locus of evaluation (what others think of me and my art) to the internal, which is what I think of myself and my art and how it feels to me. It’s a constant battle, but it’s getting easier.

    – I never write what I think others want to read. Even if that means I may stay unpublished. If guilt is insisting, I throw it in the big “fuck it” bucket.

    – I never consider my words my babies. Words are there to be changed. They are tools. The medium of delivery. The notion of “perfect” words is folly. So if they can be improved, so much the better.

    – I never see my stories as my babies. I know it will start from an idea, and the idea will evolve and most likely will change. Story weaving is like that. Instead of fighting with my preconceived notions of what I think the story should be, I just let it evolve and grow, letting myself grow with it.

    – Finally, any thoughts that what I produce is not good enough, I totally agree and thank them inside my head for the motivation to keep improving. Draft upon draft if necessary, until the story that needs to be told is out in some form or way.

    Staying away from such attachment to words, ideas, and stories means I can work until I’m happy that any further attempt to improve won’t make it better but rather different.

    Having said the above I must also say that there are days, weeks even, when things are bad and I have to keep a nominal presence until the onslaught of toxic shame, guilt, and fear quietens. I don’t think there is any other way.

    Thank you for sharing your writing, thoughts, and poetry with the rest of the world. I love learning about people, how everyone thinks, lives, sees the world; it broadens my perspectives as a writer. It’s always lovely to read what you write, so please keep writing and sharing.

  8. John Doe says:

    That is exactly how I feel right now. People around me think it’s pathetic to write a novel and that I don’t do anything with my life. That you won’t amount to anything. Then I wonder could I be doing something else. But they don’t see it because you are trying to keep it a surprise. And it seems like it takes forever to get it done. You keep saying a little more time and they’ll see what you have done. The path to accomplish it is difficult, tedious, and it can be long, yet you know it’s worth it in the end. Or you hope so which brings you to doubt yourself and your work again. I feel this all the time with my writing. Excellent writing takes time. Time you could be spending doing other things. However if you truly are dedicated to writing you will have to endure this to get your work published.
    Thank for this article, I don’t feel alone anymore.

  9. tommiaw says:

    Theodora, this is perfect timing – as many of your posts have been for me.
    Thank you.

  10. tasnimae0 says:

    Thank you, this helped me a lot 🙂 What subjects do you teach?

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