Writer’s Guilt: The feeling that comes when your pursue financially insecure dreams while someone else (as Stephen King put it) pays for your meal ticket.
I had my first baby in graduate school (where I was studying creative writing), and I was pregnant with my second child by the time I graduated. My husband was (and is) a paramedic. We weren’t rich, but I didn’t need to be rich, and we did just fine. For thirteen years I cared full time for those children (and the two more who followed). I was mostly an at-home mom, although I wrote on the side, and later taught piano lessons. Evenso, I ALWAYS felt like I was contributing to our family both emotionally and financially. Even though I wasn’t pulling in tons of money, I was saving a bunch in child-care costs and, what I wasn’t earning, I was saving due to the well-honed cheapskatery that I’d learned from my own mother.
And then last year, my youngest child started school. I think this is an adjustment for every parent and especially every at-home parent. For six hours every day a whole new world of possibility opened up to me. What should I do with my time? I could work, at least part-time. I could volunteer and help people. What my husband and I decided was that for that year, I would throw myself into my writing and see if I could earn a bit of income through that. With some work and some luck, Ink Smith Publishing picked up my book. I was so happy, and I had the time to polish my manuscript and work up a plan for marketing that manuscript. All went well until recently when I was almost done, almost ready to jump into the marketing and selling of my book. The book was taking all my extra time and a lot of energy. I was stressed and losing a bit of sleep. And then this tiny little voice in my head started saying, “Why are you doing this? You could be out earning money. You could be volunteering at your children’s school. You’re just sitting around pursuing a hobby while your husband works his butt off supporting your dreams.” Which is true. And I am very grateful. It is that husband that gave me the wise words (or the ideas behind them) I’m going to impart to you today.
There’s a lag at the beginning of every dream–a time when you’re sitting there at the bottom of your S curve. You know that, statistically, your book will probably not make millions. But you also know that it’s a great story, well told. You know it has some potential. You know–or at least you believe–that with some effort and marketing, if you pound the pavement and work to sell it, that it has some possibility of making at least a bit of money, of enjoying a bit of success, of affecting an audience. But you don’t know how much. It’s that uncertainty that contributes so deeply to your writer’s guilt, to that nagging question, “Is it worth it?” Or more accurately, “Will it be worth it?”
And the difficult thing about this question is that the only way to answer it is to say, “It’s worth it to me.” And then to do all that work. But if you answer, “I don’t know if it’s worth it, so I better play it safe and not put too much effort into my book” then you’ve got your answer as well. Unless you get crazy lucky, a book you mostly ignore will not do well. Writing and selling your writing is a work of effort and of love, but also of faith. You have to trust that you can succeed, that your story is worth it, that the work you put into it is worth it. You have to trust that as you climb your way up that S curve, you’ll begin to see success. That might not come in the first month (it almost most definitely won’t) or even on the first book, but it only has the potential to come at all if we keep working at it. For that, we need to let go of that guilty voice trying to persuade us that what we’re doing is useless or pointless. We’ve got to trust that the thing we’re doing is worth effort. I’m not saying that we should sell our souls or put our art before our families and other good works (because I really don’t believe that). But it does mean that we can give it a piece of our hearts and some of the work of our hands. If we do, we open ourselves up to possibility. It’s true that possibility is not a sure thing. Do you know what is a sure thing? Giving up and then failing. It pretty much works every time. If we don’t open ourselves up, then the doors will remain closed. So if a sure thing is what you want, feel free to let the art (and the effort) go. Otherwise, you’re going to have to release the guilt, and say, “This unsure thing has worth to me. I will invest in it. I will see it through.” At the very least it will have made me a more full person. At the very best, it will also enrich the lives of others (and, uh, let’s be real, bring in a bit of money so you can contribute to that meal ticket after all.)