The Writer’s Creative Conscience: staying Accountable

Every writer has a creative conscience.

By “creative conscience,” I don’t mean a moral compass that dictates what we do and don’t create. I mean a still, small voice that haunts us when we aren’t creating and hounds us for not achieving milestones.

The creative conscience is like an internal secretary: it dictates goals and nags us until we accomplish them. It scolds us when we become distracted. It convicts us for procrastinating. Perhaps it even belittles the goals we have set, suggesting they are too lax to make any significant progress. It is always measuring, always scrutinizing, always correcting, and—occasionally—applauding our efforts. The creative conscience defines our view of our own work volume.

I say work volume here because in my experience, the creative conscience is more interested in how much I create than how good it is. Does this sound familiar?

While many of us might not consciously recognize this voice, any committed writer has some sense of expectation from his/her writing.

For some of us, that means we adhere to tight publishing schedules. For others, that means we want to crank out a couple big works a year or various smaller ones—or even just complete that one glorious project over the next couple of years. We all have goals.

And we all see others with more aggressive goals. We all see others publishing and selling way more books than we are. We all see others receiving accolades and rankings that we aren’t. We’re just trying to keep up with our own set of goals… and our creative conscience is plaguing our heart out.

I’d like to note that the creative conscience is not necessarily a curse.

Some of us are more prone to despair and negative self-talk than others, which means that their creative consciences probably feel like internal persecution more often than not. But just as having a secretary can help keep you on track, that still, small voice can hold you accountable when it matters.

Let’s be real: not every minute we spend away from our notebooks or word documents is wasted. We need to get out and do other things. We need to spend time in the company of others, in nature, in prayer, in all sorts of activities that take us outside of ourselves and let our creative engines rest.

But let’s be honest: not every minute we spend away from our projects is well-used either. Social media (which has wired our brains to compare ourselves with others, by the way), cat videos, email checking, and a host of other activities vie for our valuable off-duty time. These activities are not bad in themselves, but I name the because they have the tendency to devour more time than we realize—and then we wonder why we aren’t making as much progress in our writing as we’d hoped. In such cases, a sharp kick-in-the-pants from our creative conscience might be just what we need.

Lastly, just like our moral consciences, our creative consciences need careful development.

What we feed our mind and what behaviors we permit ourselves affects the way we perceive right and wrong. Likewise, how we analyze others’ success and what we tell ourselves about our own work will affect how much guilt-tripping we endure. It’s nearly impossible not to compare ourselves with more “successful” writers, which means we must be mindful of the takeaways we draw from their success. Do we leave feeling like our own work stands no chance? Do we leave lamenting our own lack of marketing skills? Do we leave feeling like we will never have a large enough library of original work to maintain a steady audience?

It is easy to feel all of those things. I say this to myself as much as I say it to you: rather than let your creative conscience scold you for not measuring up, consider incorporating some of those successful writers’ habits into your own routine. Evaluate whether some of their practices are realistic for you, and try to build them into your own plan. Focus less on whether that will give you identical results, and focus more on letting your creative conscience adapt to these new expectations. At the end of the day, nothing will go 100% according to plan—so why set your heart on cranking out a specific number of works unless you can be proud of their quality?

But let’s be careful not to dismiss those internal proddings when we know we are making excuses… because we have that creative conscience for a reason.

What’s your take on the creative conscience? Do you find it more often helps or hinders you?

How do you maintain healthy expectations of your own productivity?

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2 Comments on “The Writer’s Creative Conscience: staying Accountable

  1. A fascinating topic. I never thought of that voice as my “creative conscience,” but it makes sense. Mine is quite harsh on me because no one else will be. (Well, some fellow bloggers keep motivating me, but still – it’s not too difficult to block them out.) So yes, I do appreciate it. However, you are right – it does focus more on quantity than quality but I think it’s because it’s trying to motivate me to produce something. Anything. Otherwise, I will just procrastinate and never do anything. If only I keep writing, the hope is that I WILL get better and I will accomplish my goals.

    • Good point– this part of our psyche is primarily concerned with motivating us. Probably because we alone know when we are procrastinating and neglecting those creative urges. Others can holler at us all day about how we need to get our act together (or soothe us into one more evening of vegetating), but only we can count the number of creative impulses we suppressed with a more passive or social activity.

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