Guilt, Selfishness, & Permission to Do Your Work

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For the last ten years, since EAT PRAY LOVE came out, I have been respectfully, carefully, and earnestly answering questions from people about the word “selfish”. For years now, people have been asking me thousands of variations on this question: “Wasn’t it selfish for you to go on a spiritual journey?” (Other manifestations of the question include: “Isn’t it selfish of you not to have children?”, or “Isn’t it selfish for somebody to want to be a writer, instead of having a normal job?” or, “Is it selfish for somebody to want to be a traveler?” or, “Wasn’t it selfish for you to get divorced?”) And if you Google my name + the word “selfish” (I won’t do it, but you can!) you will see how angry my search for joy made many, many people. You will see lots of people hating on me about my selfishness, my horrid selfishness, to have changed my life, and to have created for myself a new way of walking through the world, insistently chasing the light. From Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook Page, May 16, 2016

I read this Facebook post by Elizabeth Gilbert upon the 10th anniversary of Eat Pray Love, and while I’m lucky enough not to hear these comments from other people, I get these comments a lot from my inner critic.

For two years as I improved my writing discipline, I was also working hard to find freelance gigs. During that time, this voice told me I should feel guilty for taking any time at all to work on this thing, because I should be doing paid work.

Now that I have sufficient work – some of it freelance, some of it not – I still feel a tinge of guilt from this voice that tells me I should do something “less frivolous” and “more productive”.

Yet the other day, my inner critic was not bothered at all, when I spent a morning in bed researching destination races and watching episodes of The Good Wife.

Reading Gilbert’s post, I reflected on this no-win situation for writers. We feel guilty when we’re not using our free time to work, and we berate ourselves for not being better motivated. We feel discouraged by the bad days and the unproductive days. We feel like we could always be doing more and that we’re never doing enough.

And then we feel guilty when we do. There are other things we should be doing to keep our households and our lives from collapsing. There are those things that we need to check off the list, and instead we’re traipsing about in some fantasy-land.

I recently started using Todoist, and one thing I discovered, by, oh, day two, is that I add things to the list more than I check them off. There will always be something on that list, and there will always be things to get done.

I can’t convince these critics or my own inner critic that yours and mine and Gilbert’s calling is worth pursuing. Those voices speak with an intention that has nothing to do with the work itself.

My inner critic speaks from the fear of not doing what everyone else is doing. It tells me I should be an adult and get a real job. It tells me that I need a career, but it doesn’t give me a compelling reason why.

Gilbert’s critics were maybe afraid of seeing someone do what they themselves are afraid to do. I imagine that those comments that start with “Isn’t it selfish…?” are the very excuses people tell themselves so they can remain comfortably in the same-old-same-old. They feel like the excuses keep them safe from a risk that may not be worth taking. I’ve used those very same excuses on myself, and let me tell you, the only way they served me was to hold me back.

The truth is, those creators, travelers, and spiritual journeyers already make sacrifices to do their thing. As an unpublished fiction writer, I basically have a part-time job that I don’t get paid for. World travelers scrimp and save, so they can go abroad, and while travel hacking is a real thing nowadays, there’s still something to be said for saving money for the big trip. And it takes a lot of courage to go on a spiritual journey, where you have to sit still and face your bullshit.

Creators make sacrifices of time, energy, and resources. They say no to social engagements. They say no to buying a new car, or any car for that matter. They say no to ordering take-out. They say no to the new dress that they don’t need but feels good to buy. They do it for the love of the thing, because not doing it makes them feel like a walking corpse.

I know that I am a more miserable, unhappy, deluded, and misguided version of myself when I’m not writing. Whatever is lost from the time that you create, it can’t be any worse than wasting the gifts that are given to you.

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3 thoughts on “Guilt, Selfishness, & Permission to Do Your Work

  1. Live this so much. Yes sometimes the world seem pretty much oblivious to the sacrifices artists and creators make.
    I can totally resonate. The struggle is real. Day in and day out.
    Thankfully, by the end of the day it’s also totally worth it.

  2. Hi, I enjoyed reading your post, and understanding your prespective on the discipline. I am in the infancy stages of trying to create a site to blog on, I have a inner drive to do so, but have not found my voice to create my audience as of yet. What disciplines did you do along the way, to develope yourself as a writer. If you have the time, I would appreciate any feedback.

    1. Hi Theresa! Great question. Finding your voice is a common struggle but also something that is an on-going process for a lot of writers, even experienced ones.

      I’ve been writing on this blog on and off for three years and feel like I’m just now discovering my voice and at the same time while also sensing that there are many more stops along this journey. Keep in mind that it is a process, but also a fun, exciting endeavor with lots of discovery along the way.

      My process for finding that voice uses a practice that I started many years ago when I first started writing. I used to write all my ideas down in a spiral notebook, messily and clumsily, but what matters is that I was practicing the craft. After some time, I got an intuitive sense of how it felt to write in my voice, when something feels right, which may not be terribly helpful,but it gets easier with practice. I learned about this practice from Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones, which I highly recommend. I’m also an enthusiastic practitioner of morning pages.

      So if you’re just starting out and you’re not sure how to write in your voice, simply practice writing the ideas that come to you, ideas that speak to you and inspire you. Write them up either on paper or on a computer without worrying about whether its going to go on a blog. See how it feels to write it and re-read it later. Sometimes it helps to write without any expectation of the piece having to be a certain way. Writing without the expectation of outcome gives you a lot of freedom, and you may be surprised what you find.

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