Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The thing that terrifies me the most about writing

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It came out of me the in a journal entry the other day, a fear I know has been swimming around inside for years now, but one that I never fully articulated, or maybe even fully acknowledged, until it was right in front of my face:

I don’t know if I want to write forever if it always feels like such an unsustainable way of living.

There seems to be a common thread among writers as I’ve so often heard people say that they write because they have to. Because it fills a need that they have, or brings them enjoyment.

And I think this is something that anyone who starts to pursue professional writing starts to figure out pretty quickly if they haven’t already. Because the money doesn’t show up for a lot of writers, so that can’t be the motivation. Neither can fame.

But damn, is the work hard.

Recently I’ve been trying to remember when writing felt good and free to me. At least with writing a book.

For years, I compartmentalized my writing. It almost became separate from my creativity. For me, creativity still felt fun. Making a collage or something on a Saturday morning just because I wanted to felt a lot different from sitting down again to write.

Writing started to feel like a "should." It started to feel like work.

And it is, and that's where I think we fool ourselves a lot of the time. For some reason people talk about any creative work as though it shouldn't feel like work at all. As though we should enjoy every moment of it and never, ever feel tired by it or frustrated. As though we have no place asking, "What am I doing with my life?"

But when you are spending yet another beautiful Saturday afternoon indoors, writing, while all around you the city lives and breathes on patios and in parks and friends laugh over brunches you stopped getting invited to years ago because your friends just know you'll say no, well, it's pretty hard to not ask what you are doing with your life.

Because you know you're missing out on other things. And if you're not a writer who's been able to make writing books a full-time gig (and most haven't, and never will), you end up spending your "free" time working on your writing, which you don't even know will lead anywhere once it's done.

I used to write an hour or two in before heading to work. If I timed out my evenings correctly, I could write for two hours from 7pm-9pm with a bit of downtime afterwards to read or watch TV or talk on the phone or just go to bed early.

On weekends I would make plans at a certain time, knowing that anything before 2pm was too early if I wanted to write while feeling rushed, but also knowing that if I spent Saturday writing I would need to squeeze in all my errands on Friday night or Sunday and then maybe try to fit in a visit with the folks, too.

I am a master planner. I look at a schedule and figure out how many things I can do in a day and if I’m really good and really focused I can make it all happen.

But I am also a person, which means I have other desires and needs that sit well out of my productivity levels, and as a result I can’t work all the time.

And somewhere along the way, between working 9-5 and writing in whatever blocks of time I could, I started to realize that this wasn’t a sustainable, or even enjoyable, way to live.

It's fine for a year or two. Long enough to finish a book. Maybe enough to do another.

But if I ask myself whether I want to be maintaining that schedule 10 years from now, well, no, I don't.

The scary part is that might mean I wouldn't be doing much writing.

But it's also scary to think that writing might never love me back the way I want it to.

And the reality is, it doesn't matter how talented anyone actually is. It doesn't matter how many hours you put into something. It doesn't pay off for everyone.

I know because I've seen it happen to other people. A lot.

And it's a scary thing to think about, that perhaps there is no change in the game for you, that there is no true endpoint. And it gets scarier when you start to feel dragged down by routines and structures and constant striving to finish one thing after the other, not even able to trust where it might lead.

This year I really started to feel that the way I was working was unsustainable. I started to picture what my life would feel like in another 10 years if I was still working full-time and writing through much of my “free” time.

I didn’t like the idea of it at all. In fact, it made me feel trapped.

I don’t want to do it that way.

I don’t want to fight with myself for that time through the years. I don’t want to feel like I am constantly torn between two identities and never having time for anything in between.

I don’t want to stop writing, but I don’t want to live in a way that makes me feel trapped by it, either, unable to explore anything new or take on new interests or ventures for fear of giving up my writing time, or fear of losing some kind of momentum that may actually be all in my head.

I was recently talking to an aspiring author who said the thought of not making money off of his work one day was very discouraging.

I really wanted to say something positive. I wanted to say how worth it it would all be in the end, no matter what. But it didn’t feel right to say that. It sounded too naïve. It is possible to work your whole life at something and never gain much from it, and that is what is so scary about committing to something long-term.

I really wanted to tell him that it would happen if he works hard enough but that theory doesn’t apply here.

I don’t know if it applies to any industry, really. People work hard at things all the time and still their educations don’t pay off, they lose the promotion, they get restructured, their businesses fail, they have to retake an exam.

It sucks, but it’s true.

But it's work, and work does that to you sometimes. You need a break from it. You need a change sometimes.

And I wish I had different answers for myself on it all but I don't. I just know that I need other ways - ways that feel lighter and freer - to keep writing so that I don't feel like I'm constrained by it at times.

And that's another thing that scares me about it: It's been so long since I've allowed myself that freedom that I'm just not sure yet how to find it again.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Liz Worth

Liz Worth is a Toronto-based author. Her first book, Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond, was the first to give an in-depth account of Toronto’s early punk scene. She has also released a poetry collection called Amphetamine Heart and a novel called PostApoc. You can reach her at, on Facebook or Twitter.

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