They had this great front porch with a swing that was perfect for reading.  I could sit in the heat of an eastern North Carolina summer and read page after page until the mosquitoes made me pray my legs from the slats in the bench and go inside. 

But I didn’t do this very much because even though it was never spoken – at least not to me – I knew that reading at my grandparents was considered rude, anti-social even if everyone else was just sitting in the living room not talking to one another.  Because other people didn’t read, I shouldn’t either.  It was almost as if my family thought I was being uppity or something. So every time I read there, I felt a little guilty.

As writers, I think many of us feel the same thing. We feel like if we take the time we need to write we’re being rude, or anti-social, or selfish.  For some of us, this idea was taught to us by parents or friends who found the very act of doing something artistic to be “soft” or “lazy” or “play.”  If like me, you grew up with a portion of your family thinking “real” work was manual labor, this idea might have been even more ingrained.

But for many of us, I think the voice we hear saying these things is our own. We think we’re being selfish when we write because – if we’re honest – we don’t really think what we have to say is worth much, and if that’s the case, then it is selfish to sit around writing drivel for hours a day.

Or we’ve bought into the cultural lie that the only things worth doing with our time are those things that make money, and so if our writing is about keeping ourselves healthy or is just in its beginning stages or is – like most writing – not really bringing in the cash, we feel like we’re wasting our time.

The kicker is, though, that we usually only feel guilty about things we enjoy but think we shouldn’t.  Somehow, we’ve decided as a culture that doing something alone or doing something creative is selfish, self-absorbed navel-gazing, to use the term often applied to my genre, creative nonfiction. And yet, we enjoy writing – if not the process then the product, the way it makes us feel sorted and calm.  But with that calm comes a slick of guilt about how selfish it is to do something that makes us feel better when there are people – our families, the poor, our churches – who need us.

So we put aside our writing and give all of our time to people. We do wonderful, noble things, and we feel good about ourselves . . . except for that part of us who now feels guilty because we’re not writing.  That part begins to resent these people, to scapegoat them for taking our time away from something we enjoy – and need – so much. We begin to blame, and if we’re not careful, we can begin to think ourselves superior to those people who are so selfish and took time to do something creative like write. 

The cycle is perpetuated.

But here’s reality – writing, painting, sculpting, creating intricate scrapbooks with the perfect stickers for that child’s first soccer game – being creative is not selfish; it’s necessary.  It’s necessary for you because it keeps you healthy, because it helps you understand the world, because it gives you peace.  If you feel these things, you can love better and do more for all those people around you.

We need balance, of course. Sometimes we have to put our pens down and pick up a shovel or a phone or a crying baby.  We have to be sure we find the space for all we love in our lives, but we also can’t martyr ourselves about how we “gave up our art” for our families or friends unless, of course, we really are going to give it up and put it away forever, never to feel guilty or make other people feel guilty again.  And that’s a hard thing if you’re built to create, as I think we all are.

But before we begin to think about burning our journals or donating our paints to Goodwill, let’s remember that our art isn’t just about us. Writing, or creating in any form, also goes beyond what it gives you. It provides gifts to the world:

  • Beauty – we need beauty as humans to be healthy. Your art can give that gift.
  • Insight – think of all the books you’ve read that have helped you learn or understand something. Your art can give that gift.
  • Awareness – so many experiences of loveliness and pain would go unwitnessed if no one took the time to make art about them. Your art can give that gift.
  • Healing – your work may be the thing that helps someone face a trauma or take responsibility and begin to heal. Your art can give that gift.
  • Health – in our society, busyness and cash are the commodities we trade on too deeply. Your art and your practice of creating it might be the thing that helps more of us slow down and appreciate things more than activities and dollars.

Art isn’t selfish; it does give to people beyond the artist.  But here’s the ticket – even if writing only helped you feel sane and calm, helped you think through an experience, gave you and you alone insight into something, you should still make it and to do so is not selfish.  Because you are not less important than anyone else.  You are loved down to the very darkest places tucked behind your hip bones and out to your sparkly toes, and you need to do what keeps you healthy and what helps you be the gorgeous, unique person you were made to be.

My person, me – I’m a writer and a reader. So in time, I came to realize that the problem at my grandparents’ house wasn’t that I was reading; it was that some of my family members were close-minded and a little fearful of learning.  And you know what I learned, also, in time; other people’s fears are not something I can own.  I spent many an afternoon on that swing, and I enjoyed every second.

Have you ever felt guilty about taking time to write? Why? How do you overcome that?

If you’d like to read a truly inspiring and encouraging book about the importance of creativity, check out Ed Cyzewski’s Creating Space: The Case for Everyday Creativity. I read it and, well, yeah, it just reminded me that writing is part of who I am and that there’s no shame at all in that.