Busy, Guilt-Ridden Writers! Write What You Can

Two weeks ago I attended an after-work spiritual retreat at Rolling Ridge, a  retreat facility and conference center that’s located only about a half-hour from my office.

It had been a hectic week, so I welcomed this chance to kick back, meditate and just generally let someone else do the talking or better yet, shush my brain altogether.    

The presenter began with a story about two monks–one older, one younger. One day, the junior monk confessed to his mentor how, as a neophyte, he could never seem to measure up; he could never be as pious as his elders. The younger monk said, “You get up so early every morning.  You seem to pray with all your heart and soul.  I could never hope to pray like that.”

The elder monk smiled and said, “Why don’t you pray what you can, not what you can’t.”

This advice really applies to our writing. It especially applies to those of us who constantly dither between our creative lives and our other responsibilities, including work. Honestly, there are weeks when I should get a golden gloves for all the jabs I take at myself, for how much I beat myself up over all that “I can’t” do, or haven’t done or failed to do.

In her inspirational blog for writers, Barbara Ann Yoder dubs this, “emotional self-flagellation,” a state she finds counterproductive.

Barbara adds:

I think it’s important to acknowledge that jobs, relationships, cross-country moves, illnesses, and many other challenges can and do at times take precedence over writing.

For me, this “emotional self-flagellation” is often rooted in a monkish belief that only long-form writing stints qualify as “real” writing. 

Or, for another perspective, check out Lisa Romeo’s writing blog, in which she also refutes that perennial advice about writing every day.

Lisa says:

But to my mind the most detrimental piece of standard writing advice is the one that declares that in order to be a *real* writer (whatever that is), one must write every single day, often amended to include that one must write a set number of pages or words, or a set amount of time per day.

Since attending that evening retreat, I’ve been trying to change my own thought processes.

On those days when I simply can’t get 500 words on the page, I force myself to ask: What can I do?

Can I do a short morning meditation to clear my brain and develop a better and more creative attitude? Can I journal for five minutes?

journalCan I switch on my laptop and just read yesterday’s paragraph so that I have at least “visited” my work in progress for that day? Can I do a quick read-through and edit of the first paragraph? Can I write up a to-do list of what’s left or outstanding in the work? Can I play a scene through my head while I’m driving to the day job?

By focusing on what I can do, I am actually getting more writing done–or at least, I’m staying more consistently engaged in the work.

And best of all, I’m on much better terms with myself–and this life called writing.

What on-the-fly, quickie writer strategies save your writing days?

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About Aine Greaney

I'm an Irish writer living in greater Boston. I've published four books--two novels, a small collection of short stories and a how-to writing book, "Writer with a Day Job" (Writers Digest Books). I've also published lots of short stories, essays and feature articles. My latest project, "What Brought You Here" is a non-fiction narrative about being an expatriate in America. Find me on Twitter @ainegreaney. Or at my author web page, www.ainegreaney.com. As well as creative writing, I am the communications director for a healthcare non-profit. I also lead creative writing workshops at various libraries, schools and arts programs. At my workshops, I've been inspired by lots of wonderful writers--most of whom work a day job!
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6 Responses to Busy, Guilt-Ridden Writers! Write What You Can

  1. LadyGrave says:

    This is great advice. I just moved and I’m starting a new job, and while I’m still getting used to things I *can’t* do long stints of writing every day, and I can’t seem to get to work on the illustrations for my book at all. I can, however, update my blog once a week, read a few paragraphs of a book for novel-research while I’m waiting for the bus, scrawl a few ideas down on some notepaper during a lunch break, write a few words before I go to bed, and spend just a little bit of time on preliminary sketches for those illustrations. Instead of beating myself up for not accomplishing any big heroic writing/creative goals, I’m trying to be thankful that I’ve made the time to at least keep doing those little things, because they’ll all add up eventually as long as I keep working.

    • Aine Greaney says:

      HI Grace, first, congrats on your job. I’m delighted for you, and hope that it brings you much joy. I’m very proud.
      Thanks for your comment and insight. I think the dual-genre artist perspective (writing and visual arts) is particularly useful.

      Again, glad that all three pursuits are working for you and that we get to stay in touch.

  2. Lisa Romeo says:

    Absolutely! Such great tips here.
    Making the writing fit into a person’s life is key, no matter how or when or where that happens; not adhering to a piece of advice that may or may not support one’s overall life, job, family, time constraints, etc. I sounded off about this myself in this post.
    http://lisaromeo.blogspot.com/2012/09/what-about-advice-that-writers-must.html

  3. Lori Grace says:

    I’m pretty psyched about what you say, Aine. My life is full and rich and busy and yes, I do write, but perhaps not “enough”, largely because I’m exhausted from my four jobs! I’m going to ‘go with what I can’ and feel good about that!! Thank you ! Lori

  4. Yes, I like your approach. Write what you can. Don’t beat yourself up. Do what you can. Don’t compare to others. Set a timer too! Or trick yourself into writing something BAD, just so you get started. Bloghopping from #WWWBlogs (for some reason commenting using my twitter account is not working, my twitter is @mauijungalow)

  5. Pingback: Saturday Edition – What We’re Writing and Reading | Live to Write - Write to Live

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