In the dark ages before the Internet, creative writing was a very personal and often disorganized hobby. When inspiration struck, writers scribbled their stories in diaries or notebooks with a ballpoint pen, maybe sharing them with a best friend or two. An occasional article might be thought worthy of the time, paper, typewriter ribbon, envelope, and postage required to type it up and nervously send it off to an editor of a big-city magazine, who would likely reject it (by way of the obligatory self-addressed stamped envelope) because there was so much competition. Writers daydreamed of being published and gaining worldwide acclaim, but most didn’t even have a small circle of friends regularly reading their work.
Now anyone can put together a blog or join an online writers’ group and share stories with readers around the world—it’s instant gratification. The old constraints of scarce publishing resources are no longer a problem. One would naturally think that creative writing ought to be easier, more fun, and less stressful than in the past. But in line with the human penchant for complicating just about everything, it often doesn’t feel that way. Instead, writing has become another sad entry in the long list of modern social pressures.
When we’re not posting new material to our lists and blogs regularly, we’re left feeling guilty and embarrassed. We compare ourselves to the most prolific writers we know, and then we beat ourselves up for being so lazy and inadequate. Like yo-yo dieters obsessing over their meal plans, we devise schedules for when and how much we should write; and inevitably we don’t stick to them. (True confession here: I meant to write this post last weekend, but instead I ended up reading a goofy novel about ghostbusting witches.) We imagine our neglected blogs as virtual vacant real estate, foreclosed upon and boarded up, with a few spambot tumbleweeds rolling down the dusty street.
How did we do this to ourselves? I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s classic observation on human nature in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where Tom has to whitewash a fence while the other boys are free to play. He pretends that he’s having great fun, and soon his friends are lining up to pay him for the privilege of helping. Tom has discovered “that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
We have, in effect, turned our writing into work—even when we’re not being paid. We feel obliged to do it because otherwise we’ll lose face with our online acquaintances and plummet to insignificance in the Google rankings. Sometimes the pressure gets to be too much for us, and then we close our blogs and quit our lists, slinking away in shame and despair—only to start all over again in a year or two.
Of course, there’s no reason it has to be this way. Like all cultural constructs, the notion that prolific writing determines our social worth has only as much power over us as we allow it to have. No stone tablet has been handed down from above commanding “Thou shalt not fail to update thy blog.” We can shift our mindset to change our stories back into the playful hobby that they originally were, once upon a time.