Why Being (a Little) Selfish Might Be the Best Thing You Do for Your Writing

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One of my writer friends – and my fiction editor – Lorna Ferguson wrote some wise words in her email newsletter recently:

Praise yourself for what you’ve achieved. Keep your promises to yourself when you say ‘I’ll have an early night’ or ‘I’ll go for that walk’. We don’t ever want to be described as selfish – but sometimes you have to think of self.

When I read that, Lorna’s words “we don’t ever want to be described as selfish” stood out to me. Because of course no-one does … but I think some writers go too far in avoiding this. They give so much of themselves to others that there’s very little left over for writing.

I think that we writers, by our nature, tend to be quite concerned with people – and not just imaginary ones!

We want the best for our children, friends, partners, and other loved ones. But this doesn’t mean putting everyone else’s needs and wants right at the top of the queue, every time.

How to Be a Little More Selfish

It is not unreasonable to want the people around you to give you the time and space to work towards your dreams and goals. My friend Barry Demp shared a powerful quote about this today:

He who trims himself to suit everyone will soon whittle himself away.”

– Raymond Hull

Here are some areas where you might need to risk being “selfish”:

Writing Time:

You can and should expect family members to let you have some time to write in peace. You may find it’s easiest to get everyone used to this if you write at a specific time each day, or on specific days each week.

Even my three-year-old understands that Mummy goes off to write after teatime every day, and that Daddy is always in charge at this point. She occasionally asks me to stay, but usually, she barely even notices me head off upstairs to the study.

Clients and Saying No:

I’ve been a freelance writer for eight years now, and it’s only in the last three or four that I’ve felt comfortable saying “no” to clients. In the past, I took on quite a few projects that were a poor fit, or that didn’t pay well per hour spent, because I felt like I had to accept everything that came my way.

These days, I say “no” to almost everything, because I’m fully booked up with my own projects. However much someone might think I’m the right person to work on their book manuscript with them, (a) I’m probably not (I don’t do manuscript editing/critiques) and (b) I don’t have the time currently.

If you’re reluctant to ever say “no”, Michael Hyatt has a great phrase – “there’s more where that came from.” This will not be your last ever client! If you do find that you desperately need work a few weeks down the line, you can send out emails, run a special offer, ask past clients for referrals, etc.

Requests for Free Help:

If you have any writing out there in the world (e.g. a blog, a book), you may well find yourself getting emails from people who want you to help them. For free. (And almost any writer can get requests from family members and friends!)

It’s up to you to set limits on what you’ll do for free. If the requests are infrequent and you have time to spare, you might be perfectly happy to spend 20 minutes looking at someone’s blog and giving free advice.

But … don’t feel obliged to! It’s perfectly OK to say, “Sorry, I get a lot of requests and I can’t review everyone’s blogs. If you’re interested in hiring me to work with you as a coach…” or similar.

This is hard. Sometimes people won’t understand why you can’t do just this one little thing for them. But if you spend all your time giving one-to-one advice for free, you won’t ever get to write your books or blog posts (which could impact so many more people).

It’s tougher to turn down friends or family members. Mine are all great, and I’m always happy to lend an occasional hand for free! If yours aren’t so thoughtful, set clear boundaries about what you will and won’t do.

But What If Someone Describes You as “Selfish”?

Frankly, if a friend or family member called me selfish, I’d be offended and hurt. I’m not a selfish person – and I hope they’d respect my writing time and goals as much as I respect theirs!

If a complete stranger called me selfish (and I’ve had similar, from people I’ve refused to help for free), then it’s a little annoying, but it is no real reflection on me. They can call me a blue baboon, it doesn’t make me one! 😉

After all, what matters more – the opinion of strangers, or getting to do your important, fulfilling work?

What Selfishness Actually Looks Like

It is not selfish to:

  • Write for an hour in the evening, before hanging out with your partner / friends.
  • Go away on a weekend writing retreat by yourself occasionally.
  • Say “no” to a request for help, especially a request that could be fulfilled by plenty of other people.
  • Treat yourself with the kindness and consideration that you naturally extend to other people.

Here’s an example of real selfishness. Claudia writes about an unnamed author, in Do You Have To Be A Selfish Bastard To Be A Writer?:

He told us a little about the life of a writer, the necessity for withdrawal and isolation and dogged determination. He told us tales of family holidays when his wife and kids frolicked outside on the beach or in a sunny garden while he drew the shutters on his room and remained indoors for the duration, ensconced in his writing. […]This writer wasn’t really castigating himself. He was congratulating himself. He either didn’t believe his absence had caused his wife and children to suffer greatly, or he simply didn’t care.

To me, that is selfish. The writing life may require periods of withdrawal and isolation, but even writers can and should take time off.

What Message Are You Giving Your Loved Ones?

As a mother of two small, impressionable people, I’m conscious of how much they take in. (Recently, when my three-year-old gets frustrated trying to make something work, she calls it “silly bloody thing”… I don’t like to admit where she learnt that!)

I don’t want my kids to receive the message, “You have to put absolutely everyone else first. Your own happiness doesn’t matter”.

Tim Brownson, a life coach who blogs at A Daring Adventure, wrote in an email newsletter a while back:

When I was growing up my mum was always there for me. She was also always there for my sisters and nephews and nieces too, as well as my dad.

The one person who she was never there for, was herself.

There was always something that needed doing or somebody who wanted attending to.

Does that ring any bells with you? Do you have an older relative (and I know this is a gross generalisation, but probably a female one – a mum or granny or aunt) who devoted themselves to the rest of the family … at the expense of their own dreams and happiness?

How do you feel about that? Maybe you’re grateful for their sacrifice, but perhaps you wish they’d taken the time to live their life too.

 

One of the best things you can do, as a parent or a friend or a spouse, is to show your loved ones how you carve out time and space for what truly matters for you … and inspire them to do the same.

More emails will come in, meals will be eaten, the house will get dirty again … but your writing will last.

 

I’d love to hear your take on this. Do you ever feel guilty about taking time to write? Do you worry about seeming selfish? What advice would you give to a friend who felt the same way? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

9 thoughts on “Why Being (a Little) Selfish Might Be the Best Thing You Do for Your Writing

  1. I have been accused of being selfish with the time that I have allotted to my writing time. I had issues with my husband and I had to choose between my writing and him. Happily the writing won out because his control became more violent as I became more focused.

    • It wasn’t until I had the kids that I realised, rather belatedly, how much control I’d had over my time before… and how I should’ve taken the initiative in carving out that writing time! Great to hear you’ve found what works for you. 🙂

  2. Hi Ali,
    I used to feel guilty but I don’t now! I found that by taking time out to do stuff for myself it actually makes me happier, and leaves me feeling less stressed. Unfortunately, some of us are born people pleasers, and it doesn’t come naturally to please ourselves.

    It can be tough trying to carve out time for yourself when you haven’t factored any ‘me’ time into your life, however it’s vital. My advice to anyone would be to do it! Carve out time for yourself every day, and don’t feel guilty about it.

    • Hurrah for not feeling guilty! And I definitely agree with your advice. 🙂

      Writing makes me happier and less stressed too — I think it’s really important to hang onto writing time ESPECIALLY when life is stressful. Even a little bit of time is better than none.

  3. This really spoke me.
    As a depressed queer kid, guilt for not helping tends to be a constant looming presence in my life. There’s always someone else to help, someone else who isn’t educated about the issues or doesn’t know where to look for resources, or something that needs to be protested or advocated about or just…something.
    It’s very exhausting.

    This reminds me of a quote that got me to stop going to the Charlotte protests – “Givers need to set limits, because takers never do.”
    I stopped going to the protests because I stopped feeling obligated to be one of those marching in there, and that if I died out there, so many others I cared about would be hurt.

    Small anecdote, but this brought up a lot of powerful emotions for me, because I really haven’t been taking care of myself, much to my friend’s chagrins. I haven’t been trying to be kind or let myself relax or anything that a person should do, especially since in college there is never an end to the homework.

    But I miss writing, I always have. And I can’t roleplay anymore and rely on that as an exercise of writing because that literally took up too much time and energy, and now my short stories stay as bits of dialogue, and the articles I want to write haven’t even gotten the title.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is thank you for the wake up call. I really needed it.

    • I’m really glad this came at a good time for you. Do take care of yourself. Make time for the things you love. Treat yourself with the kindness and compassion that you want to extend to others: you deserve it too. Sending lots of hugs! x

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