Writer Fuel: Creative Gaslighting – Why Do We Do This To Ourselves?

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

About a month ago, I wrote a Writer Fuel on creative burnout and wow did that hit a nerve! I got a bunch of emails from folks sharing how much the newsletter resonated with them and telling me about their own experiences with burnout.

One of the patterns I noticed as I read some of those emails is that we, as writers and creatives, tend to gaslight ourselves. A lot. We’ll say things to ourselves like “You’re not really burnt out, you’re just being lazy.” Or “You haven’t accomplished enough to say you’re burnt out.” Or, my favorite: “It’s not really burnout… it’s all in your head.”

I call this phenomenon creative gaslighting, because even though we’re experiencing creative blocks, we act as though on some level those blocks aren’t real.

It’s bad enough that the world around us doesn’t believe that writing is “real work.” It’s bad enough that writers are being told left and right that they shouldn’t quit their day jobs or that their English degrees are actually worthless. It’s bad enough that the rest of the world treats writing like it’s a joke and says things like, ”I’d love to write a novel, if I could only find the time.” In the face of all this, we have to be determined enough to convince everybody else (and ourselves!) that writing is important, that it has value.

In light of all these obstacles, we have to be the #1 champion of our own work. After all, if we don’t take our writing seriously, if we don’t act like it matters, why would anyone else think any differently?

This is why creative gaslighting is so insidious. When we allow ourselves to think this way, we become our own worst enemy. We chip away at our creative soul and we capitulate to the blocks that stand in our way.

When I wrote the DIY MFA book, I came down pretty hard on the idea of writer’s block. Here’s what I had to say.

Many writers believe that writer’s block is an external obstacle that prevents them from doing their work. Here’s the truth no one wants to hear: Writer’s block is a scapegoat. We blame writer’s block because we can’t bring ourselves to sit down and do the hard work of being a writer. If we’re not writing, it’s not because we’re “blocked” or we’ve lost our creative mojo. The problem is inside of us—but that’s actually a good thing.

When we blame writer’s block for our failure to do the work, it takes the power away from us and instead puts our writing at the mercy of external circumstances. We tell ourselves that it’s okay that we’re not writing because we’ve got a busy day job, or our kid came down with the flu, or we’ve run out of good ideas. But whatever excuses we dream up, that’s all they are: excuses. The only reason writers don’t write is because they just don’t want it badly enough.

Boy, did I get some major pushback because of those two paragraphs. I can’t tell you how many angry—even nasty—emails I received because some folks didn’t like what I said. The truth is, while these paragraphs are a bit like “tough love” I still stand by them. If we’re not writing, there’s usually a reason for that, and if we dig deep and look at the heart of that reason, we’ll probably find that we are ultimately the cause—and the solution—of the problem.

We may not have infinite free time to do our writing, and many of us deal with external obstacles that are very real. Still, when given a block of empty time, we’re faced with a choice: am I going to write, or will I do something else? It’s okay to choose something else, but we have to acknowledge that we are making that choice. No one else is forcing us not to write, and if we really wanted to do it, we’d choose writing instead.

Looking back on those two paragraphs, I realize that they omit one very important piece. Yes, it’s true that “the only reason writers don’t write is because they don’t want it badly enough” but what I didn’t add is that it’s okay not to want it sometimes. It’s okay not to choose writing some of the time, as long as we don’t make that a permanent habit. After all, if we never choose writing at all, then maybe we need to reconsider whether that path is really meant for us.

Whatever obstacles we face, whether they are internal or external, whether they are within our control or completely outside of it, we can choose whether or not to write through the obstacles. I can probably guess what you’re going to say. “But Gabriela, I have a chronic illness and I can’t write every day.” Or “I have ten kids and five dogs and no room for writing.” Or “My day-job requires extensive travel and I can never find the time.”

I get it. I have faced my own set of obstacles. (As you probably already know I have bipolar disorder, and the past six months or so have been especially challenging.) I’m not saying that the obstacles don’t matter; all I’m saying is we have a choice. Every day, we have to ask ourselves: will writing be part of my day? Some days you might say “yes” and find ways to squeeze the writing in. And some days you simply say “no, thanks.” And that’s okay. But the point is that the choice was up to you.

It’s okay not to write sometimes when other aspects of life demand your attention. This is called “honoring your reality” and it’s essential to living a balanced life. This means you have to go with the ebb and flow of life, and turn your attention to the things that are most important at that moment. Sometimes writing takes the spotlight. Sometimes it’s off stage, waiting in the wings.

Writing doesn’t have to take center stage all the time.

You don’t have to write every day. In fact, I have a bone to pick with anyone who says that. Some writers (like me) don’t have the luxury of writing as a full-time job. Some writers have to squeeze in writing before the sun comes up, or while they sit in their car in front of their kid’s school, or late at night after the whole house has gone to bed. Some writers can only write on the weekends. The point isn’t when they write, but that they write.

It’s very easy for us to beat ourselves up for not writing enough, to tell ourselves we’re not a real writer because we haven’t published yet, or we don’t write often enough, or we don’t have a big enough platform. This, my friends, is creative gaslighting at its most insidious, and we have to stop doing this to ourselves.

Instead, look at all the amazing things you already have accomplished. Maybe you’ve finished writing a short story, or you added three paragraphs to your current work-in-progress. Maybe you submitted a short story to a literary magazine. Or maybe you sent out a newsletter to a loyal group of readers. Whatever your accomplishments, be they big or small, celebrate them! However you choose to fit writing into your life, remember to give yourself permission to do it your way.

Until next time, keep writing and keep being awesome!

P.S. For more info on Gabriela Pereira, the founder and instigator of DIY MFA, check out her profile page.

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