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You should(n’t) be writing

You should be writing.

As far as memes go, it’s one that probably pops up the most in writers’ groups. “If you’re reading this, you should be writing,” “Stop scrolling Facebook and start writing,” and “If you’re not writing right now, you should be” are common variations on this same theme. These memes can be found everywhere, from the #WritingCommunity hashtag on Twitter to the Facebook pages of literary journals and writing schools.

Image description: A meme of David Tennant. He is pointing towards the camera. Text on the image is saying, “You should be writing.” Via writingonpoint.com

They seem to balance just the right amount of relate-ability (we know you’re procrastinating because we procrastinate too!) and motivation (no, really, get working!) which is probably why they’re so popular in the writing community.

If you spend as much time in these writing communities as what I do, you’ll know that these images tie into a bigger theme: procrastination. According to social media, procrastination is a massive part of being a writer. Jokes about procrastination seem to be part of the job. “Writers: you’re either writing right now, or you should be” is another variation on the meme that keeps popping up. To be a writer, you’re expected to relate to procrastination.

I know it’s a joke, but I can’t help but wonder: is this really a message we should be absorbing so uncritically? For those of us who tend towards perfectionism, “You should be writing” culture can be toxic to our creativity and state of mind.

A few years ago, when my career was just starting, I wrote YOU SHOULD BE WRITING in capital letters on a piece of paper and stuck it on my wall. I thought it would be motivating. In some ways, it was. But it also made me feel incredibly guilty and anxious. Ironically, this anxiety made it even more difficult for me to write.

I glanced at the paper when I watched Netflix, when I sent emails, when I texted my friends, when I ate, and when I was about to go on a walk. “Could I cut back on the time I spend watching Netflix or eating or exercising?” I wondered. And then I thought, no — those are all essential parts of my life. Recreation and food and exercise is important to me.

The more I stared at that piece of paper, the more I thought to myself, “No. I shouldn’t necessarily be writing. I should be doing whatever it is I need to do.” I threw the paper away, and I started thinking about burnout culture.

Yes — if you want to be a writer, you should simply write. Getting those words down is essential. Sometimes, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) is difficult, and these memes can be pretty motivating.

But our culture’s obsession with procrastination is worrying. We’ve moved from procrastination being undesirable, to it being something we all admit to doing with shame, to sorta romanticizing it.

Writers — who tend to romanticize writing a great deal, if I may add — tend to romanticize procrastination to the point where we insinuate all non-writing activities are forms of procrastination.

We shouldn’t shame people for procrastinating, because it’s not helpful. But we also shouldn’t insinuate that procrastination is a necessary part of the writing process for everybody, nor should we insinuate that all non-writing activities are procrastination.

When we assume all time spent away from work is procrastinating, we assume we should always be working. But productivity isn’t the only purpose of our lives. Sometimes, we shouldn’t be writing. Sometimes, we should be spending time with our families or eating or sleeping or traveling or reading — or, yes, scrolling through Facebook.

The glorification of productivity — a phenomenon often referred to as ‘burnout culture’ — is incredibly toxic. And it’s everywhere. Millennials have a tendency to boast about their ‘hustle’, and sometimes that means we proudly admit to engaging in unhealthy behavior by putting work first and ourselves second. We boast about running on fumes and try to out-busy one another. “Sleep when you’re dead” is a phrase that comes to mind. Needless to say, this messes us up, mentally, physically, socially, and even professionally.

What happens when burnout culture seeps into creative fields, like writing? Well, we produce shitty work. We may even give up on our work. More worryingly, we damage ourselves. Romanticizing procrastination is not good for humans or art.

So, what’s the antidote for “You should be writing” culture?

Nothing. Literally, do nothing. It helps.

A few months ago, I wanted to write a particular personal essay. I found it very difficult. I kept working on it every day. I felt guilty when I didn’t work on it.

And you know what? After working on it for a week, I had to admit it was awful.

My solution was to do nothing. Yes, nothing. I set an alarm for exactly a week in the future that said, “You can write now.” I promised myself I wouldn’t touch the essay until then. I wrote “You shouldn’t be writing” on a Post-It note and stuck it to my computer. (Since I write for a living, I obviously had to do some writing, but I was referring to that essay in particular.)

When I came back to the essay a week later, I was excited to do so. My week without touching it gave me the mental space to find my passion for it. I returned to the essay replenished, inspired, and motivated.

Now, I often schedule some time for doing nothing. I block time off in my Passion Planner by writing the word NONSENSE in green capital letters. I mess around in the kitchen and clean my bathroom. I scroll through social media and happily ignore “You should be writing” memes. I go to my grandmother for lunch. “Should you be working?” she asks. “No, I should be here,” I reply. Because I am a writer, but also a granddaughter, and a bunch of other things — writing is not the entirety of my identity, so it shouldn’t take up the entirety of my time.

Yes, those memes can be motivating for some people, and I’m not policing anyone who shares them. But I am suggesting you take them with a pinch of salt. Next time you see one, remember that it’s totally okay to take a break from writing — in fact, breaks are essential.