A steaming pile of Should.

I recently had a workshop “chat” with a bunch of writers, on how to write every day.  Not that I necessarily advocate writing every day, but especially after my last run-in with my Muse, I discovered that if I don’t dedicate at least regular time and focus to writing… well, she gets miffed.  A miffed Muse is no fun.

Anyway, one of the participants asked me if I had any advice about procrastination.  When she had the time, she couldn’t seem to bring herself to write.

So I asked her what else she had going on.  She then rattled off a list of stuff that made my head swim:  she had a job, and a husband and kids, a house to tend to, and I think some other obligations — and of course, the stuff like social media platform building. I blinked, reading her list.

“It doesn’t sound like procrastination is your problem,” I typed back.  “It sounds like burn out is.”

The funny yet sad thing is, I know so many writers who are like this.  Who can’t look at everything they’re doing, and realize — holy hell, I need a nap.  No wonder they can’t write!  It’s not procrastination — it’s exhaustion!

Instead, they’re wondering why they can’t seem to do the things that everyone is presumably doing, that they’re perfectly physically capable of doing, that they… wait for it…


I’ve also recently read writers lamenting about Pinterest, a new social media “bulletin board” thing.

“God, one more thing!  I don’t have time for the stuff I’m supposed to be doing now!”  they wailed.  You could hear the pain, the frenzy, the sinking depression.  And I could hear the underlying cry:  I don’t have time for one more thing.  I don’t have time for the stuff I have now.  I’m exhausted and I’m angry as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.

But they don’t say that.  They put their heads down and just plow forward as best they can, and feel guilty when that best means things inevitably fall by the wayside, only to be picked up haphazardly every few months or so in a frenzy of activity (usually because they’ve managed to have some sort of respite.)

It’s not a war.

On the recommendation of a friend, I started to read The War of Art, by Stephen Pressfield. While I think he had an interesting take on the subject, I have to admit I started getting uncomfortable — and upset — by lines like the following:

“The Artist must be like that Marine.  He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey.  Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.”

He then goes into detail about how Resistance is the enemy that wants to grind you down, and how you have to wake up every morning and brutally kick its ass so you can produce the great Art that is inside you.

I will reference, yet again, Havi Brooks of The Fluent Self, who I count as one of my greatest teachers.  She posits that all Resistance is a part of you.  So when you declare war on resistance — hi, you’re kicking your own ass.

War?  Yeah, a civil war — and all the violence is against you.

Haters gonna hate.

“Well, I need to,” some of you might be muttering.  “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t get anything done, because I’m a lazy git.”

Maybe it’s my returning to my hippie roots, thanks to my Year of Cruise.  But when I hear someone say “well, I need a drill instructor, because otherwise I’m lazy” all I’m hearing is:

“I don’t like myself, I don’t believe in myself, please beat me until I do it right.”

The other thing with that — it only works as long as you have the energy and resources to devote to the battle.  It’s not a natural system.  So if you need a drill instructor to sit down and write, then as soon as the drill instructor goes away, so does the writing.

And as someone who has had terminally low self-esteem for years, I can vouch:  an internalization of  “you maggot, get out of bed!  Sit down at the computer!  Write, you lazy asshole!” really does nothing for your writing.

Because the writing will never be good enough to satisfy it; the speed will never be fast enough, the productivity will never be sizable enough.  And at some point, you’re going to go from soldier to prisoner — and you’re going to start fantasizing on some level about beating that drill instructor to a bloody stain on the pavement.

And guess what? 

It’s still just you.

Make love, not war.

I’m going to go more into detail in a future post, but for now, I’d like to pose the question:  what if we didn’t have to be miserable?

What if we loved our talent, and respected it enough to nourish it by taking care of ourselves?

What if we stopped assuming we’re lazy gits and started assuming we’re naturally wonderful people who rock at writing?

What if we figured out what our resistance is trying to protect us from, and then negotiated a compromise that let us move forward without the fear?

What if we stopped platform building in fear, and started connecting through stuff we actually liked doing?

I am willing to give this a shot.

Maybe it’s the hippie talking. Maybe I’m not going to make a dime.   Maybe I’ll be a cautionary tale, but hey…

Fuck “should.”  If this is wrong, I don’t want to be right.


15 Replies to “A steaming pile of Should.”

  1. As at least one of those who recommended War of Art to you, let me first say I’m sorry it wasn’t for you. Pressfield’s use of the warrior ethos and battle as an analogy for creation certainly isn’t for everyone. I’ll admit there’s a lot of machismo in his approach.

    When I read WoA, it was just what I needed. I was so green, I had never read anything on craft, not even a blog post. And, boy, did I have resistance. It was uplifting to hear one of my favorite authors saying he faced those same demons, and that I should ‘just do it,’ and keep doing it until I was done. I had written enough by then to believe in his conception of ‘the muse.’ I needed someone to tell me to put my butt in the chair at a certain time and work, and not just wait for inspiration to strike. I’m all good with finding a way to negotiate a compromise so I can move forward without the fear, especially right now, in the midst of submissions. I have to do this just to hit send every time – even when I send stuff to you.

    Having said all that, I am constantly amazed by those writers in my community who do so much else and STILL manage to write (like you). There is a reason I spent the twenty years while I was running my company ‘not writing.’ I’d always known I wanted to write, but there just wasn’t the time or energy left for it then. I am a tribute to the concept that your ‘someday,’ (the day you finally get the opportunity to actually write the story you’ve got burning inside you) can actually come, if you hold those dreams close and nurture them.

    So perhaps that is the only ‘should’ I will say not to surrender or tell to fuck off–that you ‘should’ never give up knowing it’s inside you, and that if you keep believing, the day you will let it out onto the page will come. I know that’s not the ‘should’ you were talking about, so I’ll just agree to stand beside you while you’re putting daisies in the barrels of Pressfield’s guns. 🙂 Good ‘pot-stirring’ post, Hippy Chick.

    1. LOL! Hippy Chick. God, takes me back.

      I know you loved WoA, and if it helps people, I’m not going to take away from that. And I think I need to start tacking onto my blogs “I could definitely be wrong about all of this, this is just my opinion” — but it’s a blog, I imagine that’s standard? We’ll see from the comments.

      And I’m proud that you’re brave enough to send stuff — even to me. I know the “deep breath and hit the button” feeling. It takes courage, and it’s not easy. I just wish more people could find a way to be brave without being, for lack of a better term, self-abusive. To get really hippie, I think creativity is our natural state. It’s all the crap we pile in the way, the fears and shoulds and expectations, that cause the problem. So it’s like we’re putting up these concrete walls between us and Art… and instead of figuring out how to disintegrate the walls, we’re just putting a guy with a gun behind us going “okay, looks like you’ll be running. Good luck with that.”

      You can see this is a hot button topic for me. I’m glad you posted! 🙂

  2. I love this advice. It not only fits with writing but so many aspects of life. It reminds me a lot of dieting and why I stopped.

    What if we loved our bodies, and respected it enough to nourish it by taking care of ourselves–not through restricting, counting, measuring and starvation but through eating when physically hungry, stopping when full and allowing ourselves to be okay with not looking like the media says we should?

    What if we stopped assuming we’re lazy and realized our resistance to dieting (plateauing and yo-yo dieting) is a way to protect ourselves, a reminder that we’re okay the way we are and only in accepting ourselves can we truly be rid of feelings of hatred.

    Okay, so you’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking I’m crazy, lol, but it’s perfect advice for so much. 🙂

    1. This! This, exactly! I don’t think you’re crazy (or if you are, I’m right there with you.). How we do any thing tends to be how we do everything. I am seeing so many parallels with how I write, and how I live my “normal” life.

  3. I’m with you, Cathy. Like Vaughn, I found Pressfield’s stuff reassuring when I was heavy-deep in resistance a few years ago. I was also burned-out and mildly depressed at the time. Go figure.

    I re-read War of Art when his book Do the Work came out last year, and I couldn’t believe the over-the-top language about Resistance being like the Terminator or Alien, the most toxic force on the planet, an engine of destruction. Because now I find resistance useful. It always has good information for me about what needs to change in my life or my creative process, or even just that I need a nap.

    I will gladly join you in the next round of Kumbayah.

  4. This. This is me right now. A bit burned out on a lot of things. A bit (a LOT) resisting the thing that seems hardest and instead tackling the easy stuff (like cleaning the kitchen), even when swear to the Universe, it is NEVER really clean (and I’m not exaggerating or a neat freak, so when I say it’s never clean, I mean, I would never invite someone into my kitchen because it’s so not clean). Argh. Looking forward to future advice, my friend.

  5. Agreed. It’s useful for me to know about the Resistance, but it’s not useful for me to go all blitzkrieg on it. It’s also so hard to trust that NOT beating myself into submission is going to get me the results I want.

    I also love your Cruise experiment. How funny…this is exactly how I have been approaching my business for the past year. Well, more like a worldwide tour, but still. It’s the idea of possibility and discovering that everything you knew isn’t exactly how it IS all the time. That there is plenty of room for play and just watching things as they happen.

  6. YES x a billion, Cathy.

    We cannot suffer and sacrifice ourselves into happiness, and if happiness is not what we’re after in achieving creative success, then what the crap ARE we after?

    Beautiful. Keep writing (but only if it feels glorious).

  7. I’ve been thinking about this post since you wrote it, and yes, me too. When I first read Pressfield’s book I was quite swept away. Then it began to feel sort of depressing. I decided I didn’t want to live my life in a war. Still don’t. Would rather find out: if I’m not working, why not? And fix that. Searching, seeking, maybe some struggle – okay. War? Uh uh.

    Cathy, you go!

  8. Awesome post, thanks so much Cathy. I needed to hear this now, as I just let myself let go a goal I could have reached but decided was too bruising to try for.

    Sometimes, easing up on ourselves and giving ourselves more time is the only way to produce our best work. I can rush to submit this book now because of a self-imposed deadline, or wait, take the time to do it right, and then sub.

    I too loved the War of Art when I first read it. It was what I needed to hear at the time. But now, not so much. The Hippie peacenik way makes a lot more sense than declaring war on myself.

    I get up at 5.30am. I’m out of the house from 6.30am to 8.30pm at a high-stress job where I’m lucky to get five minutes to eat lunch. I have aging parents and a mother in law all needing support. My husband has multiple chronic health problems and can’t work. I’m tired. I’m a bit depressed. My stomach hurts.

    So, I’m not writing as fast as I wish I was.

    The last thing I need is to be kicking myself in the arse for not doing more, more, more. It’s time for a moratorium on self-loathing, and on beating myself up.

    Maybe, just maybe, I’ll even write more that way.

  9. Meant to add, like Alison and Lauren say, Resistance can sometimes be useful.

    I recently spent a week completely unable to write a word on my story. Pissed me off because I had a tight target date I wanted to be ready to sub by. But no amount of butt kicking could get me motivated to write.

    Then I realised why. I’d lost my way, forcing my characters to act and feel the way I thought they should, which was completely wrong for them. Stopping to ask WHY I wasn’t writing instead of giving myself hell over it gave me the answer.

  10. Great post, Cathy! You have said exactly what was rolling around in my brain, particularly with reference to Resistance (and Pinterest too!). I started to read Steven Pressfield’s book several months ago but for some reason couldn’t really get into it. Now I know why. I was kicking my own ass. 🙂 I have returned instead to Ralph Keyes much more forgiving advice in The Courage to Write. I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed that book…Particularly this: “Once we forget we’re writing we’re freer to write.”

  11. Just discovered this and I couldn’t agree more.

    Three years ago I was diagnosed with M.E (also known as ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’), but I’d actually been suffering with it for at least four years. It took twelve months for me to be told – ‘You’re doing too much. Your body needs you to STOP.’

    As a result I had to get rid of every single (and I mean EVERY) should in my life. I was housebound for three months. The only thing that kept me sane was writing…and it made me realise I was doing all those ‘shoulds’ and not doing anything I loved.

    Since then, I have written two novels (yet to be revised) and submitted a few short stories here and there (none successful as yet). I work part-time and use the remainder of my week to rest and write and walk my dog.

    I don’t do ‘shoulds’ any more. At all. Ever.

    Maybe that’s why I have recovered from my M.E whereas others have not (it’s a very uncertain disability). Whatever the reason, doing all those ‘shoulds’ didn’t make me happy. In the end, not being a slave to them not only made me happier, but also improved my health.

    Just like any character in my book – I have to have a better reason than just ‘I should do this’ to achieve something. No motivation ‘should’ be based in obligation alone.

    Great post.

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