The Artist’s Guilt

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Most people would agree that art is very significant to a culture, especially the older the art lasts. Ironically, those same people might belittle the “starving artists” or any artist for many reasons (the main one generally surrounds an income.) But, even more importantly, artists often belittle themselves, and that’s what I wanted to talk about today: the guilt associated with being an artist.

Granted, I am a writer. I cannot draw. I definitely can’t sing. And dancing might result in a broken limb. So why am I talking about artists like we’re all the same? Because all types of art are a form of expression. With a definition as simple as this, it’s hard to remember why we–as artists–might feel guilty. There’s nothing wrong with expression, right? As long as it’s not violent to others or to the artists, I would say there shouldn’t be any guilt in expressing something, but, to be quite frank, society just doesn’t function on expression.

There are basic necessities needed for survival. There are loved one who need attention. There are bills to be paid. And then there is expression. ( Take the order however you want to take it. )

Because of this, I believe the artist’s guilt comes down to two different categories: (Since I’m a writer, I will be using writers as examples.)

1. The art is conflicting with every day life: it either prohibits life’s needs or life’s needs prohibit the art.

I see this mainly with money. It’s a necessity to life. We buy groceries, see the doctor, and get clothes with money. But it’s hard to make enough money with art, and it’s difficult to pursue art while working a full-time job. Beyond that, we see a time guilt as well. This happen a lot with parents. Mothers and fathers take care of their children first which often takes time away from writing. (This is not to say this is a bad thing, of course.) But I also see it happen with students, who feel guilty about writing instead of studying or studying instead of writing.

2. The art is unsatisfactory to the artist: that can rely on the final piece or how people react to the piece.

I think many artists feel guilty for all of the time they spent on a project if it doesn’t satisfy the viewer or if they failed to meet their own expectations. But my biggest guilt hits me when I realize some of the topics I write about are truly traumatizing to people, and I’m afraid I might offend, hurt, and/or misrepresent those very people. Honestly, I’ve seen reviews of readers saying an author was disrespectful to a topic, and I found myself wondering how a reader could assume the author hadn’t gone through it themselves and that the author was actually being honest rather than disrespectful? It’s hard to say. But I think this guilt–whether it be a reaction from the artist or the viewer–happens a lot.

So what can we do to cope with this artist’s guilt?

A good cuddle session with Bogart also helps with the guilt :]
A good cuddle session with Bogart also helps with the guilt :]

Like everyone else, I have responsibilities: school, work, relationships, etc. But writing is a must for me. My emotional and mental, if not physical, health depends on my ability to express myself. Even if it’s for five minutes, I need it. But that’s not to say I don’t feel guilty when I spend an entire night writing instead of seeing a friend or running errands that I should’ve done last week. I do. And I definitely have anxiety over a reader feeling I’ve misrepresented a group of people. But these two worries are overcome by one fact: Writing brings me happiness. It completes me. No matter how much guilt I feel, I am quickly reminded by how much happiness I feel following my dream, knowing that expressing myself through art will allow me to be the best person that I can be. 

Basically, I think it’s vital for artists to remind themselves why they became artists in the first place and what/why art brings them happiness. We can also remind ourselves that we are definitely not alone in this.

To prove this, you can look at my Facebook Author Page where I asked, “Do you have any guilt associated with being a writer?” And here were two fantastic answers: 

Patrick Dixon: (Insomnia, Nightmares, and General Madness)

“I tend to suffer from an overabundance of guilt in general, but two kinds directly relating to writing are pretty common for me:

First, that I don’t do it enough or well enough, so the concept of even calling myself a “writer” feels like a bad joke. This has been especially common in the last couple of months since personal, financial and health problems have kept me away from the keyboard for far longer than they should have. There isn’t really a cure for this other than just sitting down and writing, but that has a way of making it’s own guilt complex (“What am I ignoring to do this, which is actually just a hobby or a joke or a waste of time, hmmm?”)

Second, similarly to you, that what I write will offend, irritate or otherwise alienate readers, especially those sensitive to the source material. One of my novels deals heavily with a suicidally depressed (and possibly schizophrenic or otherwise delusional) individual and ends… well. Quite poorly for him, we’ll say. I’ve received several angry comments, claiming that I don’t know what it’s like (and, actually, given a background of abuse and mental and physical health issues, that’s kind of where most of it came from…) and some that claim it’s essentially an endorsement for erratic and suicidal behavior (when I was trying to write it out of my system, not “infect” others with it.) Again, there isn’t much you can do except stand by your work; you wrote it, the “truth” as you knew it, and it’s bound to upset somebody… but it’s also likely that there’s just as many somebodies who found something useful in it.”

Josephine Jones Harwood: Romance Writer

“This is an excellent question and topic, Shannon. I just read this post and I hope I’m not too late to make a comment: As a first-time author there has been a transition that has occurred in my life. Writing is no longer a hobby like putting a puzzle together for relaxation. I feel a true passion and need to write and keep on writing…and this is when the guilt settles in like a stone in the pit of my stomach. I am a wife, a mother, and I am also a family caregiver. Writing must take a backseat to obligations and responsibilities. I have no regrets, and I have a very blessed life. I truly appreciate the quiet moments when it is my time to write…but this is always accompanied by guilt…because it is “my” time.”

So do have any guilt associated with being a writer? Or being any kind of artist? 

Comment below and share your story!


16 thoughts on “The Artist’s Guilt

  1. Thank you for sharing Shannon. You’ve a good writer and I found your essay thought-provoking enough to examine my own guilt trips. There is almost nothing more destructive then living or writing with a sense of guilt. Give the world the finger, don’t compromise yourself and write on Shannon. All the best with your up-coming publication.

  2. Excellent post!! I know we all have responsibilities and it’s important to help others, but the older I get I realize how short life is and how important it is to do what makes us happy deep down inside. You are a fantastic writer and should devote every possible moment that you can to following your dream :).

  3. Insightful as always. I find it to be a balancing act between writing, what we do to pay the bills, commitments to friends and family, the other tangential requirements in life like – let’s say – scrubbing the shower. I know all of those things have suffered a little bit because mostly I’d rather be writing… but what I’ve sacrificed most is sleep. Of all the things I can trade off, that’s the one I miss the least. I’d say the only time I really feel guilty is when the dog sits next to me and drops her chin on my knee and gives me the big brown look. That’s when I know it’s time to take a break.

    1. I thought your comment about making a sacrifice of sleep and then realizing you miss it the least very interesting. It’s a fantastic point, bringing up the idea that sacrifices is not always a bad thing, and it reminded me of the times I might go out (thinking I’ve been neglecting it by writing) only to realize I regretted going out instead of writing. (I’m also a sucker for my pet friend, Bogart.)

  4. I agree with everyone’s comments. You’ve struck a nerve in most writers I think, to be sure I am on that list. Guilty as sin …. neglecting friends, family, household chores, not wanting to go out and so much more. Prefer to be wrapped up in my imaginary world of writing living through my characters.
    I need a 48 hour day, then I could find time to sleep too ……

  5. I think as writers/artists we all feel a little guilty at times, I agree. Trust me… I have had my share of guilty moments. I actually am able to stay home and write, because I have someone very special that is supporting my dream of becoming a well-known and successful author. There are times when I think “damn girl go back to work, help out, pay some bills, etc.” But then that special someone always reminds me… you have the ability and space to do this. Why not just enjoy it? The fact that my own mother cannot read and write, makes it even more of a special thing to me. I never really liked corporate life anyway. So my humble advice would be to follow your heart, but try to find some kind of balance as well. You don’t want to always neglect the people in your life or your responsibilities, but you are a part of this world too. So that means your goals, dreams, and wishes are important too. Keep writing, find moments of joy, and let the rest fall into place!


  6. Guilt is definitely the enemy of the writer, I suffer with all the emotions you describe and I definitely fear what people will think of some of my darker poetry. I also suffer from another terrible guilt, having spent months and months crafting a Novel, I simply fall out of love with it, which makes it hard to share it…. Something other people don’t understand, which brings us back to guilt.

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  8. For me, the guilt part of being the writer is, my mind is set to see content in almost every other things.

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