If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet in the last few years (and, okay, you’re reading this, so of course you have) you’ve probably come across online personalities peddling toxic productivity culture. Or hustle culture.
Hustle culture is that segment of our culture that values productivity, achievement, and success over just about anything else. It’s the messages that tell you it’s a status symbol to work 70 hours a week, that success always comes before family, or that only those in the 5am Club will ever amount to anything in this life.
For writers, hustle culture can also show up in admonitions to wake up super early to write, but it also lives in messages about needing to publish fast and often, or needing to hit a certain word count per day, and absolutely always posting on a rigid social media schedule, lest the god of the Algorithm look with disfavor on you. Certainly, hustle culture sells the message that you are not valid as a writer until you’ve been published, and even then, until your published book makes lots of money.
Reasonably so, there’s been a growing backlash against this call to sell our souls to the dollar. I also abhor the make-money-before-all-else attitude, and find the reminders to rest and take care of myself refreshing.
But if I’m being completely and totally honest with myself, there’s a part of me that loves the anti-hustle culture messaging for the right reasons, and a part of me that loves it for the wrong reasons. Because while I can struggle with going into overwork mode, I can also struggle with stagnation in my writing life: a stagnation brought on by my ever-present perfectionist side.
To write, or not to write?
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. As I think I’ve mentioned here before, I “wrote” my first book before I could write. (Thanks, Mom, for lending your handwriting skills.) And while I was a very prolific writer up until I hit college, with numerous stories, chapter books, and even a completed novel manuscript under my belt, my writing productivity took a nosedive as soon as I hit college.
Now, a huge part of that was because I spent so much time reading textbooks and writing papers for college that I had no time for my own writing. But it’s been almost seven years since I graduated college, and I still have never recovered that initial writing zest I had as a child and teen. I published the manuscript I wrote in high school, and though I’m getting close to being done with drafting the fantasy novel I’ve been working on since I was 17, I’ve been writing so slowly that at this rate I’ll be publishing about one novel a decade. I’m slowly but surely creeping up on 30, so if I have an average healthspan, that rate leaves me with writing about seven novels in my lifetime.
Seven novels is great, but in many ways…it’s not that many. I have so many book ideas, way more than can fill only seven novels! So what’s been stopping me from, you know, actually writing them?
As I look back on my last several years of being a writer, there is a pattern I’ve noticed: the more I’ve studied and learned about writing, the slower I actually get the writing done. And that’s because the more that I’ve learned, the more that I’ve started holding myself to impossible standards. My perfectionist side is loud and critical, and she keeps me from making meaningful progress. I could easily spend the rest of my life writing, re-writing, and editing this manuscript, and I will never think it’s good enough.
And sometimes it seems like I just can’t win.
On the one hand, hustle culture wants me churning out project after project, trying to monetize everything I can about my writing, and sending me on a fast track to burnout and cynicism. On the other hand, perfectionism leaves me paralyzed, endlessly editing my work–or just letting it sit there–until I feel it’s “good enough” for readers. (Which, of course, never happens.)
And then I’m left wondering: is my taking years to finish this manuscript simply me taking care of myself and not pushing myself too hard, like I want to believe? Or it it just me stalling because deep down, the thought of putting my work out there is terrifying?
And where is the healthy balance? How can you escape both procrastination and hustle culture? How can you plan to publish in a way that stretches you and meets your goals without leading to stress and overwork?
When I look at what’s behind the driving force of perfectionism in my life, it doesn’t take too much introspection to realize that fear is what has been underpinning my glacial-like writing pace over the last few years.
I have fear of my story not being good enough.
Fear that it won’t ever be as good on paper as it is in my head.
Fear that it’s all been done before.
Fear that everybody will hate it.
Fear over the things it reveals about myself that I know others in my life will hate.
Fear that people will read it.
Fear that nobody will read it.
So of course the natural tendency is to swing in the other direction. Silence the anxiety and just make a rigid, take-no-prisoners writing schedule. Create, create, create and sell, sell, sell without taking too long to think about it, until you have nothing left in you.
But that never seemed like a good option either. In fact, both options seemed to gnaw at this part of me that I couldn’t quite name.
And then I realized: isn’t the driving force behind hustle culture also fear?
Fear of being insignificant.
Fear of missing out.
Fear of running out of time.
Fear of not being seen as “productive” by a society obsessed with production.
Fear of creative work not being “real” until it can be bought and sold for money.
Fear of never becoming the person you dreamed of being.
Fear that others will see you as a failure.
Fear that you actually are a failure.
Hustle culture is society’s impossible set of standards that we feel we must live up to in order to succeed. Perfectionism is our own, internal set of standards that we feel we must live up to in order to succeed.
And although one is more external and one is more internal, both give us an unhealthy dose of fear that poisons our best creative work. No wonder I’ve felt so stuck over the last few years: I’ve been constantly wavering back and forth between bursts of unhealthy hustling energy and being completely frozen by my own anxieties.
But I know that I don’t want to live like this. Can’t live like this. So how do I, you, and all of us overcome the fear at both of the extreme ends of creating?
The answer, I believe, is embracing the opposite of fear. Which isn’t fearlessness.
And in this case, it’s having the courage to love yourself and your work in spite of the impossible standards you feel you’re up against.
Here comes the storyline about the usual struggle between fear and loveCloud Cult
Now I know what some of you might be thinking: Rae, I don’t need any of this woo, self-love nonsense. Just tell me how to write a good book and I’ll listen.
I promise I totally understand that: it’s what my perfectionist, Hermione-side is definitely thinking, and has long been thinking.
But the reason it’s so important to start here is because as long as you have this force of fear simmering beneath the surface, no amount of learning the craft of writing is going to help you.
Yes, I mean that. Of course there is practical benefit of learning the craft of writing, which is why I’m going to be sharing more of that this year. But the practical benefit only comes if it’s paired with a healthy mindset. If, however, you believe that you can’t do it, or can’t do it well enough, or will never be good enough, then spending endless hours learning about writing is only going to give your perfectionism an ever-growing checklist of impossible standards to live up to. It can even contribute to you feeling hopeless about your writing, or spending most of your time learning about writing instead of doing the actual writing itself.
Likewise, trying productivity hack after productivity hack to help you churn out your writing faster isn’t going to help you if your fear is keeping you trapped in someone else’s definition of what a Successful Writer is. The rigidity and pressure will have you burnt out within a month. You have to start by building the foundation of self-acceptance and love.
A few practical tips that have helped me:
- Accept and love where you’re at in your unique writing journey. It’s stupidly easy to compare yourself to your favorite writers – whether that’s their beautiful prose, their huge backlist, or their impressive Instagram following. Both perfectionism and hustle culture push you do do more, better, faster…but that comes at the expense of appreciating what you have going for you and what you like about your writing. Even if you think otherwise, your writing life has some great things going for it. Whether it’s a main character that makes you smile, a world that captures your imagination, or a simple writing practice that allows you time for the other things you love in life, spend some time considering what you already love about your writing. It’s probably more than you think.
- Remember why you wanted to write in the first place. Most of us start writing for the simple reason that we love it. We love creating characters and just can’t help coming up with new story ideas. It’s a way of processing life and the world, and it doesn’t have to be filled with expectations of approval and success. If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed by criticism or hustle culture, or by those types who think there’s only one right way to write a story, take a step back and remember what brought you to the blank page in the first place. Chances are it wasn’t fear.
- Share about your writing with a trusted person. Despite writing typically being a solitary activity, it doesn’t have to be lonely. For someone like me who feels very protective of their work, choosing one or two trusted people to tell about my writing has actually helped me come out of my head a bit and realize that there are other people excited about the creative work that I’m doing. It can even give you that extra push you to want to share your work with the world, rather than waiting for that mythical “someday” when you think you’ll be ready.
- Set a basic, very achievable goal. I’ll share more about goal-setting in another post, but a way I found to balance out the push towards over-productivity with the pull toward paralysis is to set a minimal, easy writing goal. I’m talking like, write 100 words easy, or spend 10 minutes plotting easy. I’ll go more if I’m feeling up to it, but having an easily achievable goal keeps my story fresh in my mind and keeps me feeling like I’ve accomplished something (because I have!) without falling into burnout.
So as I start sharing more to help you in your own writing journey, know that above all, what I want the most for you is for you to love yourself.
Love yourself enough to believe that you are capable of creating the writing you want to create.
Love yourself enough to believe that your writing doesn’t need to make money to be valuable.
Love yourself enough to believe that you don’t need to be perfect to share your work.
Love yourself enough to believe that you don’t need to compare yourself to other writers.
Love yourself enough to own your own writing journey.
Love yourself enough to recognize the lies that you’ve been believing, and to break free of fear.
That’s all for now. Until next time,
Do you want to learn more? Subscribe to my newsletter to get your free self-publishing roadmap and to receive more articles like this one.