On Hating Writing

baby diaper sun

This is what I’ve been doing instead of writing.

I have a confession to make.

I hate writing.

I am a writer, and I teach writing, but writing is nonetheless a consistent source of anxiety in my life.

Even right now – I got up early this morning, pumped my baby full of milk, and rode my bike into town to have a “writing date” with myself. Now I’m sitting in front of a coffee shop with a steaming mug in the hazy Oregon sunlight, typing, listening to the ebb and flow of traffic, trying not to accidentally stare at the old man with a knee brace who’s sitting across from me, reading the sports section of the newspaper.

(Tangent: I can’t remember the last time I saw someone reading an honest-to-goodness newspaper, with actual paper and ink and everything. There is something comforting about that. This guy doesn’t seem to have an electronic device on him.)

Anyway, last night this sounded like an ideal way to spend a morning. As I planned the “writing date” in my head, I promised myself that I could write about whatever I want, without giving a thought to pleasing anyone but myself.

But now that I’m sitting here, writing, I can’t ignore the hum of anxiety in my limbs and fingers, or the thought-gnats in my brain that I’m trying, unsuccessfully, to trap and squash: will this be good writing? Will I post this on my blog? Shouldn’t I be writing something important, like for The Atlantic or some other publication? Shouldn’t I be writing something that matters?

And that’s what I hate about writing. Because things quickly spiral away from “writing” altogether, towards the fickle sirens of success, notoriety – and, yes, even money.

For the past month, I have been avoiding writing altogether (except for some compulsory work-related stuff), because any thought of writing instantly filled me with anxiety. This whole morning is my attempt to wade right into the angst and call its bluff. But it’s still here, simmering.

I’ve been running from writing not because I don’t want to write, but because writing has become inextricably bound up with my unfortunate ambition to be a “successful writer” – a phrase I will put in quotes because it’s a moving target, a meaningless category that constantly shifts to refer to whatever I am not.

At one point, being a “successful writer” simply meant being published. Until I got published. Then it became about publishing a book. Until I got a book contract for my PhD dissertation, and now it’s become about publishing a book with a general readership that might even make a little money. Ideally a novel, because for some reason that’s the holy grail du jour. In my mind, I’m a hack until I publish a novel. But, BUT, I know myself well enough to realize that if I ever do publish that novel or memoir or whatever that I will feel ecstatic for a hot minute – and then I will begin to stress about the next book and whether or not Oprah will include it in her club.

Ambition is fine, ambition can be good, but my writerly ambition is a voracious, insatiable blob monster, and most days I feel like I’m chained to it in an uncomfortable metal bikini.

The other day, Michael was patiently listening to me kvetch about all this for the gazillioneth time, and he said something – the only thing – that briefly made all this anxiety dissipate. We were standing together in the kitchen, in the midst of a long hug, listening to the munchkin pound away on his high chair. I was saying some muffled words into Michael’s chest, something like, “I hate feeling like I need to be a successful writer. I just want to have a bunch of babies and be a nobody.”

“Then be a nobody,” he said. “For now, at this point in your life, just enjoy being a mom, and write that novel when you’re 50. You don’t have to do everything now.”

When he said this, I felt my body relax, and I let those words hang in the air for a moment. You don’t have to do everything now.

That’s a neurosis of mine. I’m impatient, and so is my ambition monster. I’m not good at taking the marathon approach to life. Whether it’s running or my academic career or my writing, I’m terrible at pacing myself. I take on too much, I burn myself out, and then repeat the cycle.

Why is it so hard for me to live a small, unimportant, anonymous life?

The truth is, right now, I don’t want to be the angsty almost thirty year-old clicking away outside the coffee shop, worrying about “making it” as a writer and thus sabotaging my own happiness.

I want to be the nameless old guy reading the paper and drinking his coffee in the morning sun, completely unaware that I’m even here.



  1. Anonymous

    I agree with Michael. You don’t have to do everything now. Maybe I’ll start writing when I’m 60! And just so you know, I’m married to a guy who reads a print newspaper religiously. Every day. But sans the knee brace.

  2. bruce1971

    It’s funny, but writing became a lot easier when my daughter was born. I no longer had the time to spend hours endlessly navel-gazing; in those few spare moments that I was able to set aside to write, I had to write. Anxiety became an indulgence that I couldn’t afford, so I wrote.

    Sometimes my stuff was great, sometimes it was terrible, but it was definitely prolific! Personally, I dealt with my own critical inner voices by just writing. Sometimes I’d start with an intro, sometimes with a conclusion, sometimes with a really nice phrase that fit somewhere in the middle. I would ignore the critical voice, recognizing that everything can be fixed in revision, once I got the first draft out.

    This isn’t to say that everything I wrote was good, or that it was all stuff that I was able to use. Once it was about how much I hated NY and Company’s promotional ads with Patrick Dempsey. Once it was about how much I loved the smell of one of Victoria’s Secret’s fragrances. Once I enlisted my wife and sister in rating every deodorant at Walmart. And a few times I would do analytical pieces on the anti-male humor that was starting to worry me more and more as it slipped into my classroom and faculty meetings. And sometimes I’d just do silly stuff that probably doesn’t bear repetition.

    At any rate, I realize that, without my daughter, who let me know that I was on the clock, I might never have gotten serious about writing. And, thankfully, now that she’s a little older, she helps me pull myself out of my serious writerly funk from time to time!

    On another note, does your husband’s arm say “SPQR”? That’s so cool!

  3. Tamina's Turn

    I must say that currently I am enjoying a 3 week vacation with my family, and there is no pressure to do stuff because we have 3 weeks! It feels like so much time to get it all done! It’s this idea of having time that relieves the pressure (in my book.)

  4. Deepa

    Wow this totally struck a chord with me. Ambition is what drives you forward but can also be crippling. I had a career dream for a long time (a non-writing related one) and I had a big dissapontment which made me want to step away from that dream. And you know what? It’s kind of liberating not having that obsession anymore. I’ve been able to find joy in other things and realise that that ‘holy grail’ I was chasing was not the be all and end all. I’m not saying you should give up, maybe just don’t put so much pressure on yourself?
    PS. I’m a big fan of writing in cafe’s too 🙂

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  6. cara meredith

    I’m just reading this now from a couple weeks’ away (and in Oregon for a good bunch of it as well, by the way). I too struggle with this. I want writing and mamahood to be enough, even if I’m not making money, even if I’m not famous and successful and everything else I think I “should” be as a writer. So, thank you for your truthfulness in the hard things. You got this!

  7. Lisa

    I have this–this ambition, this anxiety, and this restlessness to get it all done NOW. I don’t understand it, nor do I understand the moving target that is success (as you put it). But for what it’s worth, I’m in the same boat. I’m writing, blogging, Facebook-posting, and writing even more. I think it’s good–it’s what drives me–but it does wear on me, too. Cheers to taking breaks when we need it and writing when we want to.

  8. Joy @ The Mama Minute

    Good Lord… it’s like you’ve taken a seat inside my brain and then written about all the anxious feelings you found in there. Oh the frustration! I’m constantly telling myself off for not writing (and feel that ridiculous sense of disappointment for not ever writing The Novel) but each time I sit down to write I become paralysed. I tell myself my day job has killed my passion but that’s not really true… I am anxious because of my pride. You nailed it in this paragraph:
    “I’ve been running from writing not because I don’t want to write, but because writing has become inextricably bound up with my unfortunate ambition to be a “successful writer” – a phrase I will put in quotes because it’s a moving target, a meaningless category that constantly shifts to refer to whatever I am not.”
    I’m so glad I’m not the only one…