The Frazzled Writer: 5 Strategies for Alleviating the Guilt

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The Frazzled Writer: 5 Strategies for Alleviating the Guilt

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In a Boston Globe interview, a local author claimed to have written her novel during the day, while caring for her three young sons, presumably in the snippets of time between feeding the kids, cleaning up smeared PPJ, and baking brownies for playgroup. I won’t accuse her of fibbing. She might have been telling the truth. And there might have been a twelve-toed purple platypus lurking beneath the veneer.

WritingThe problem isn’t that Super Writers make the rest us of look bad. It’s that they make us feel guilty. Toss a healthy dose of Mom (Dad, spouse, teacher, friend) guilt into the mix-and, voila, the perfect recipe for A-N-X-I-E-T-Y.

Deadlines loom, networks beg for attention, your novel sits like an abandoned foster child, all puppy-eyed and neglected; meanwhile, ten new messages have flooded your inbox-never mind you haven’t responded to the previous twelve, the kids are crying-or whining-your cellphone’s ringing or singing . . . And all you feel is guilt.

So what do you do? How do you silence the monsters taunting you, accusing you of neglecting your work?

My friend and former teacher, the wondrous Jessica Treadway, in response to the dreaded process query (What’s your writing process? Meaning: what’s the formula, the A + B that ensures success?) advised: ‘Write when you can.’

Jessica’s simple, yet sage advice has resonated over the years. Last week, our beloved aunt passed away. Our eldest daughter Jen, bless her, drove up from D.C. for the services, and to be with us. There was nothing I wanted more than to spend time with her and her three little cuties, and I did. All week, though I spent a few hours each day at my desk, the little birdie trilled in my head, work to do, work to do, work to do.

This is a big improvement over the old days. Back then, that bird drove me nuts. Now, for the most part, I can ignore it. Yes, the work piles up. Sure, I wish I had more time to work on my novel. Despite our best intentions-at times, because of our best intentions-life gets in the way. When the kids whine, a friend phones, or we just want a break, we ought to be able to step away from our desk, without feeling guilty.

Write when you can.

I know what you’re thinking: easier said than done. And you’re right. But it’s possible. It can be done.

Here are 5 strategies that have helped me conquer the demons:

Make a list

This is so simple, yet, probably for that very reason, seems silly. I’m not advising you to create a flow chart or a organize your work on an Excel spreadsheet (if that floats your boat, sure, go to it). An ordinary list, handwritten or typed, as long as you can easily find it, will do. An itemized list allows you to see all your tasks at a glance, and gives you the gratification of crossing them off as you finish. A list, to me, feels less overwhelming, and infinitely more doable, than detritus floating around in my head.


Now establish a hierarchy. What’s most important? Finishing the article you promised? Editing a friend’s novel? Working on yours? Responding to e-mail? Touching base with Twitter or Facebook friends? Unanticipated jobs or requests always pop up, so priorities may change. Try to stay flexible. If you’re too rigid, you’ll only frustrate yourself. And be sure to include on your list a few 10-minute items, things you could do in a hurry. Alternately, break bigger chores into component parts. When time is short, this will allow you to progress.

Cut, Cut, Cut

Cross any inconsequential items off the list, and then block them from your mind. And don’t take on more than you can reasonably handle. A perfectionist, I used to think I had to be Wonder Woman, Super Teacher, Mom of the Year-I still do, at times-and I’d run myself ragged trying to fit everything in. Guess what? Nobody cares. As often as not, no one notices.

Here’s what I’ve learned: the most productive, accomplished people are 90 percenters. That’s right: 90 percent. The trick, the differentiator between them from everyone else, is that they’ve figured out which 10 percent they can neglect. Think about it: do you really believe the top 25 newspaper columnists or power bloggers care if every essay or post is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize? Of course not. The legendary New York Giant Willie Mays averaged .302 over his 22-year career. That’s 1 hit for every 3 times at bat. No one hits every day. No one expects you to either. I’m not advising you to be selfish or neglectful or sloppy; I’m simply suggesting that it’s OK to let go.

Quit beating yourself up

Along the lines above: be kind to yourself. Lower your expectations. Don’t assume, just because a friend, a neighbor, that sanctimonious writer spouting her mouth off in the Globe gets cranking at dawn and you don’t, you’re a slacker. There’s no crying in baseball, right? There are no rules for when writers write. Recognize that you’ll have days, weeks, possibly months, when you can’t get to your desk. Remember the proverb: this too shall pass. Soon, the kids will grow up, and (between calls, texts, and shopping trips to your pantry) you’ll have long, peaceful days alone. Try to stay within yourself. Don’t worry about what other writers do or don’t do. No one, no one, has a guaranteed formula for success. If they did, they’d sell it. Write when you can.

Reward yourself

Baby steps, friends. We don’t have to win a marathon to be worthy of praise. Some days, the best we can do is to crawl out of bed, put on joggers, and circle the block. And that’s OK. If you walked at all you did something, and that counts. It means, despite feeling tired or sick or bored, you got up, gathered your energy, and pushed yourself through. That’s a big deal.

A very big deal.

Maybe, distracted, the kids whining all afternoon, you wrote only a sentence or two. Or you sat at your computer, contemplated the blank screen, read for an hour or so, scribbled a note to yourself, and got up. Trust me: any monkey can write when he or she feels like a million bucks, everything’s honky dory, life’s a box of chocolates. It’s the days when you feel like dog meat, your brain’s cramped, you’re exhausted, that count. Those are the days that separate the winners from the losers.

Relax, enjoy a cup of tea or a glass of wine, treat yourself to some chocolate. You deserve it!

Yesterday, the lovely Terri Rochenski tweeted: ‘You want to share tips? How ’bout ‘how do you write with two whining kids in the same room???’ I’d love an answer for that one!’ Thank you, Terri, for inspiring this post!


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2015-02-03T17:46:37+00:00 April 22nd, 2011|Categories: Inspiration|Tags: , , , , , |

About the Author:

Terri Giuliano Long, a frequent guest blogger, with appearances on hundreds of blogs, is a contributing writer for IndieReader and also wrote for Her Circle eZine. She lives with her family on the East Coast. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, winner of the Global eBook Award, Popular Fiction, and Indie Discovery Award, Literary Fiction, has sold over 130,000 copies worldwide.


  1. thea atkinson April 24, 2011 at 9:16 am - Reply

    what a great and timely post…no pun intended. i've been working on juggling this last month and I agree with all you said. "The trick, the differentiator between them from everyone else, is that they’ve figured out which 10 percent they can neglect." : Best part of the post. Thanks.

    • Terri Giuliano Long April 27, 2011 at 10:49 am - Reply

      Thanks so much, Thea! This is something I first heard on a Tony Robbins tape, years ago. But I've seen it play out so often, with so many different people.

      Thank you for visiting!

  2. Darlene Shortridge April 25, 2011 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    Terri…wonderful post! When I make my daily list and complete something that was not listed, I almost always add it to the list solely for the pleasure of being able to cross it off! Feeling a sense of accomplishment is often the catalyst for getting more done and lessening the feelings of guilt.

    • Terri Giuliano Long April 27, 2011 at 10:46 am - Reply

      Terrific point, Darlene! There's something motivating and wonderful about crossing chores off a list! At the start of every semester, I ask students to list their goals. Without clear goals, it's impossible for them to know what they've achieved. It seems to me, this works on the same principle. A list gives us a visual reminder of what's to be done and what we've achieved. I agree–that sense of accomplishment makes a huge difference in our perceptions. Thank you so much for pointing this out!

  3. Timothy Steven Coote April 27, 2011 at 9:34 pm - Reply

    Okay, I'll chime in and maybe some of you will feel guilty after but what the hell. I write when I can and when I can is between 5am and 7:30am every morning.

    When I say write this means two and a half hours of new prose. It does not include editing, re-writing (or re-reading), research, pretending that scanning Twitter is actually research, et al. It's just a block of new words on the page.

    I know they are not perfect but they exist. I can't do this any other time and after such a long time of this routine it is now my writing time. Everyone knows it and now not even my dog wakes up anymore when I crank up the computer.

    I can't write in grabs so I have my block and once 7:30 comes around I can have a relatively normal and guilt-free (albeit a fraction more tired than most) day.

    • Terri Giuliano Long April 28, 2011 at 12:11 am - Reply

      I'm glad you did, Timothy! Two and a half hours of new prose per day is impressive! And you make an excellent point about procrastination.

      While it's awesome that this early a.m. slot works for you, it may not be doable for others. I sometimes have days when, for one reason or another – I have a teaching deadline, for instance, or a family emergency – I can't write, because I simply don't have the time. The point, at least for me, is that we should write within ourselves, when we can, and not measure ourselves against anyone else. On those days when we can't write, we shouldn't feel guilty.

      Thank you for weighing in! I hope you visit again.


  4. Michele Strangis Ste May 3, 2011 at 2:17 pm - Reply

    You have no idea how much I needed to read this today. I didn't see it when it was first posted; maybe because I didn't need it as much then! I may just print this and post it somewhere in my house. I do most of the list things, but I still let myself feel guilty and beat myself up for not doing the whole list every day, and for having such a "short" list; why am I not doing more??? Thank you so much!!

    • Terri Giuliano Long May 5, 2011 at 9:09 am - Reply

      Thank you so much, Michele! I really appreciate your kind words. I honestly think this is a bigger issue for women than men. When our kids were young, a friend and I used to joke about all moms having the word G -U -I -L- T tattooed on our forehead. Naturally (at least for me), the guilt spills over into other parts of our lives. As a writer, I definitely fall prey at times. I do try, though, to adhere to the checklist – and it really does help. I posted with the hope that these strategies might help others feel better too.

      • Terri Giuliano Long May 5, 2011 at 9:10 am - Reply

        Guys – do you feel guilty for not getting enough done? If so, how do you alleviate guilt?

  5. Helen Cassidy Page May 8, 2011 at 5:55 am - Reply

    I so appreciate this post. If I had one wish it would be to banish guilt from the world, my own first. I agree with everything, Terri, but as a septuagenarian, I look back on the days and years I wasted that I wish I could have back to write. Hours wasted worrying I wasn't a writer, wasn't entitled to write, etc. Dilemma: there is no time to write vs. there is no time to waste.

    • Terri Giuliano Long May 9, 2011 at 7:24 pm - Reply

      Hi Helen,

      You are so right! We waste so much time worrying – if only we could have that time back, but of course we can't. Sometimes, though – if we have a personal or family emergency, for example – we truly don't have the time. Even then, we so often beat ourselves up. Or maybe it's just a beautiful day and we want to spend it with our children, our grandchildren, our friends. To my mind, that's not time wasted, yet we think, because we're not "working" or being productive, we're lazy or bad. Like you, I wish I could banish all guilt. If I could, I'd take that sort of guilt with me, too.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate your insights!

  6. Jessica M June 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm - Reply

    I make a list for the week and prioritize, but honestly, I don’t cut. So needless to say, I’m frazzled and always feel like I get nothing done. 50% of my list checked off works for me, as long as it’s from things on top of the list! Even if it’s one thing per day, I can at least say I’ve accomplished SOMEthing.

    Being a stay-at-home mom and mother of a 4 and 2 year old is tough for our favorite hobby, and I get a lot of flack from friends and family who know I’m a writer. “And I suppose you’re neglecting your kids?” It’s annoying. I don’t show them my schedule. All my writing is done after they go to bed (at 11pm or 12am, even) and it’s a slow process. The daytime is for the kids and 5 minute tasks related to writing (like reading blogs or making comments!), and the late evening/early morning is spent writing to my husband’s dismay. And I think the local Boston author was fibbing. There is no way no how nuh uh!

    Thanks for this post and I’m going to force myself to cut and stop getting upset over the writers who can spew a thousand words in fifteen minutes!

  7. Pamela Beason August 29, 2011 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    Sadly, my creative inspiration seems to come in tiny flashes instead of big spotlights.

    So my "lists" consist of little pieces of paper I jot things down on during the day when I'm working at my other jobs. They include corrections and ideas for my WIP.

    Then I sit down to (finally) do my creative writing with my pile of paper scraps (and chocolate and/or coffee and/or wine) and try to get all those tiny ideas in the right spots. So far the resulting mosaic has always looked like a novel; but along the way I'm often not so sure I'm finding all the pieces.

    Thanks for a great post.

  8. Stuart Haddon January 29, 2012 at 11:18 am - Reply

    Sitting here in Southern Maryland with the sun shining outside and the dog gazing at me longingly because he needs a walk, while I battle my way through 546 Tweets that have popped up since this morning, I really did find this very helpful Terri. I took a decision about a week ago to spend less time trying to publicize my first novel and get on with writing the second, but guilt still kicks in when I see my neglected blog, or those damn Tweets. Now I know that I am not alone with these problems. I'm going to walk the dog, make dinner, talk to my wife and then, maybe, I'll do some writing later…

  9. Suddenly Jamie July 23, 2013 at 5:08 pm - Reply

    Love this, Terri. So timely as I am under water with writing projects that aren’t “mine” (marcom work for my clients) and have been lamenting the fact (even while being deeply grateful for the work) and beating myself up for having no energy left at the end of the day to do more than fall into bed and (maybe) read a chapter of a book … so I can at least have some bit of literary joy in my day.

    Life is so busy. For most of us, finding time to write will always be a challenge. We have to fit it in around everything else. Your tips are great. They are do-able, sane, and make loads of sense.

    Thanks for sharing them … and for sharing a link to my post on Live to Write – Write to Live. :)

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