Crushing our creative guilt
Many of us feel a strong calling to express our talents—in the academic and literary arts, music, dance, media, crafts, sciences, or any other field. In my profession of writing, almost every writer I know feels guilty for not writing enough, producing enough, and sending out enough pieces. But for “creatives,” as spiritual creativity guru Julia Cameron (1992, p. 33) labels us all, I’ve recognized another unproductive, thwarting, and possibly paradoxical self-recrimination.
Too Much Creation?
Preoccupied with pulverizing our blocks and eking out a few precious minutes to devote to our passion, we rarely speak about this type of guilt. It is this:
We feel guilty because we are creating.
Especially during our most prolific times, an insidiously rational voice whispers, “I’m spending too much time here. . . . I should be doing something more socially useful.”
In The Artist’s Way, Cameron (1992) calls this guilt the “virtue trap”:
We strive to be good, to be nice, to be helpful, to be unselfish. We want to be generous, of service, of the world. (p. 98)
For creative women especially, Cameron quotes Leslie M. McIntyre’s wry observation:
Nobody objects to a woman being a good writer or sculptor or geneticist if at the same time she manages to be a good wife, good mother, good-looking, good-tempered, well-groomed, and unaggressive. (p. 99)
Do you experience such guilt-making constraints? Put everyone and everything else first? Give your time, energy, and attention to others and skimp on the same precious resources for yourself?
Such self-deprivation has steep prices. When we keep our drive to create bottled up, deny or ignore it, and deprive ourselves of even a little creative time, we stop creating at all. And we get depressed and sick, overeat, overspend, oversleep, overtube, and snap at everyone within mouthshot. But when we allow ourselves expression through our chosen mode of creative expression, we feel energized, hopeful, enthusiastic, healthy, even happy.
The Guilt of Honoring Ourselves
Unfortunately, as soon as we give ourselves time to create, others may react and fuel the guilt of honoring ourselves. One writer working on her textbook finally let her answering machine take over during her writing sessions. When she chose to pick up the phone, her best friend fumed, “Why are you hiding from me?”
As this writer found, whatever our passion, it’s hard to give to ourselves. We’re bucking the entire expected social order, attested by everyone we say No to.
I recall agonizing for weeks with a block the size of a giant cement slab. At last, carving out two evening hours for writing, I sat down. But all I could think of was the list of essentials missing from the refrigerator.
I picked up the phone and whined to a friend. “How can I sit here and scribble? I should be doing something useful, like being a decent homemaker—or a social worker!”
She laughed. “Do you know how valuable words are? Their power?”
“Ever hear of the Hamlet, the Declaration of Independence, Maslow’s hierarchy?”
Her words about words cracked my block, and it shattered for good when I read this stirring description of writers by writers and therapists Rosenbaum and Rosenbaum (1982)—and it applies to every creative:
Visionaries, we predict the future . . . interpreting social trends, human nature, and historical patterns, punching holes in our readers’ complacency, revealing unpleasant truths, exposing possibilities and destroying our pretenses. (p. 93)
These words helped me get back to writing. But to truly rope and shoo out to pasture my guilty feelings, I needed to practice. The following four imperatives, applicable to any creative, helped me overcome creative guilt.
1 – Believe
Erroneously, we think our creative desires and dreams are frivolous, bad, ridiculous. Creating feels too good, and we tell ourselves we shouldn’t want the feelings. We’re wrong. Cameron (1992) declares, “Creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back to God. Our creative dreams and yearnings come from a divine source” (p. 3).
Motivational author Peter McWilliams (1994) directs us: “Your job is to fulfill your Dream” (p. 419).
Filmmaker, professor, and author Robert J. Escandon (n.d.) says, “Your dreams are a blueprint to what you should truly be doing. This is essentially your calling, or purpose, your destiny all fused into one” (para. 18).
So, dare to believe that your dream of creating is given to you—you only and specially.
2 – Accept
Know that your yearning is far from silly, meaningless, or groundless. Rather, recognize you can accomplish your dream. Of course, you may need training, practice, and experience, but the very strength of your aspirations means you’ll succeed.
If you’re questioning your calling and talent, don’t. A “deep desire,” says McWilliams (1994), “also comes with an inborn ability to achieve that desire” (p. 65).
3 – Decline
But we need mental vigilance to be true to ourselves. Every time our fledgling self-confidence peaks out, negatives swoop in like preying crows. To send them flapping, we need the discipline of declining.
Observe your thoughts for a minute or so. You’ll be amazed at how many carry pessimism and anticipation of the worst:
- I’ll never become a real writer or scholar or professor (or painter, singer, dancer, hip hop musician, filmmaker, photographer, inventor, chef, wood carver . . . ).
- I’ll never get published (or tenured, commissioned, called back, signed up, assigned, optioned . . . ).
- I should have stayed in school to get another degree.
- I’m really very selfish.
Such thoughts may feel natural, especially because most people think pessimistically. But a negative outlook is not natural, nor is a martyred resolve.
Nor is a putting-off mentality. Some of us live by the law of “Someday.” “Someday, I’ll make the junk room into a writing/research studio.” “Someday, when my oldest kid leaves, I’ll make her room into a darkroom.” “Someday, when I retire, I’ll convert the guest bedroom into a workshop.”
Someday comes, all right, but that Someday room and time always get filled with more stuff, other “necessities,” a kid returning, an actual guest.
To stop the Someday chorus, with or without your equivalent, start thinking “I create now.” Writers, for example, work everywhere, especially today with laptops and smartphones—at the kitchen table, in the car, the library, the park, a café, a hotel lobby. Take an inventory of places for your private space—a garage, attic, basement, dormant workroom, rented studio, room in a collective.
A warning, though: As we saw above with the writer who dared to let her answering machine pick up, changing your behavior often provokes others’ shock, disappointment, hurt, anger, tears, or outrage. After all, they’ve always counted on you.
Your refusal, though, doesn’t mean you’ll never do anything for them again. It means that now you’re in charge of if, when, and how much to do. Set your limits, explain with kind firmness, and stick to your guns.
When you do, family and friends may become surprisingly understanding and secretly proud of your new self: “Oh, he’s a scholar. You know how they live in their minds, library carrels, and journals.”
Family and friends may also share startling admissions. One writer, working to coax her dissertation into an article, mustered the courage to tell her father she’d take him shopping only once a week instead of the longstanding four times for things he “forgot.” She said she needed the time to write.
He shook his head. “I wish I had your discipline. I’ve always wanted to develop my photography, but there were so many other things I thought I had to do.” Julia Cameron’s “virtue trap” is unisex.
4 – Declare
As you take the physical steps, bolster your new sense of deserving with affirmative declarations. Spend five quiet minutes daily, morning and evening, repeating affirmations:
- I deserve to create (write, study, paint, carve, sculpt, compose, sing).
- My creative desire is my gift to me.
- No one stands in my way.
- I don’t stand in my way.
- I have enough time, money, energy, interest, and cooperation from everyone to create consistently.
- Being creative harms no one.
- Being creative makes me feel good and keeps me healthy.
- The more I give to myself, the more others are blessed.
During your sessions, other similar words or phrases may float in. They’re your wiser Self talking to you. Listen and use them.
As you practice the principles and your affirmations, you’ll wrestle less with creating too little or too much. You’ll know deeply that you deserve to create in your chosen medium, enjoy it greatly, and profit rightly from it. Your creativity will flow and your deservingness and conviction in your gifts will strengthen. And you’ll perfectly crush your creative guilt.
Cameron, J. (1992). The artist’s way: A spiritual path to higher creativity. New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam.
Escandon, R. J. (n.d.) 5 reasons why you should fulfill your dreams. Every Day Power. Retrieved from https://everydaypowerblog.com/
McWilliams, P. (1994). Do it! Let’s get off our buts. Los Angeles, CA: Prelude Press.
Rosenbaum, J., & Rosenbaum, V. (1982). The writer’s survival guide. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books.
© 2019 Noelle Sterne
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com
The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.