Do you live to write or write to live?

Family on the deck

Whatever made me think I’d be immune…? I’d read the blog posts about pressure sapping creativity and the danger of writing for your audience instead of yourself and shrugged it off with nonchalant naïvety, “That’s not me, I write because I love it – because I get sucked into a vortex where time, hunger, and household responsibility become eclipsed by the sheer joy of creative expression. ” It was already creeping up on me…

I was covering my research study participation for CAMH, writing my monthly column for Expat Focus, and penning magazine articles and blog posts. My Klout score was great and my ranking for this, that and the other were climbing steadily. I was an itch the online community was starting to scratch! I’d found a supportive network of virtual friends and colleagues and I felt part of something vibrant and inspiring – part of the larger picture.

Then, over the summer, something changed. I had plenty of things I SHOULD be writing but I wasn’t getting that buzz anymore; something was missing. I couldn’t get my joy.

My first thought was, “burnout!” Expatlog was a year old and I’d been posting between two and four times a week, as well as managing the needs of a young family and building a new career as a freelancer. It had been pretty intense; my poor husband spent many a solitary evening on the sofa while I toiled over words at the kitchen table once the kids were asleep. As he headed despondently to bed I’d reassure him, “I’ll be up in a minute” then the next time I looked at the clock it was one or two in the morning. I couldn’t remember how I looked without circles under my eyes.

So I eased off a bit – I stopped reading and commenting on other blogs so religiously, tweeted a little less and tried to get back to my happy place. But it wasn’t working. I had fallen into the trap of letting my writing become something that defined my value. It’s natural to want to improve at something but in striving for that I’d lost the ability to accept it for what it was. I was consumed with ambition, the lust for validation. Instead of a source of joy, writing had become a way of measuring my worth. And it was never good enough.

Some serious self-examination was needed. Why was I doing this? Where did I want it to take me? What did I hope to achieve?

It’s taken me a couple of months to see my problem for what it is – I so wanted to be good, to be successful, I wanted to be talked about, to stand out from the crowd. I wanted all the things my common sense told me were trivial – popularity, admiration, all the shiny, empty stuff.

In my twenties, I had a recurring dream where I tried to speak but no-one could hear me. I struggled with my lack of voice, forcing the muscles in my throat to produce something audible, straining to shout, but never being heard. Now I had a voice, but was in danger of loving the sound of it too much! I’d become one of those people who believe their own hype. It was taking me days just to write one blog post! I was taking myself too seriously.

I needed to find a balance between self-improvement and self-acceptance and reading a post from a very wise friend reminded me how to do it. Gratitude. I’m so lucky to have a husband who supports me and who works so I can be at home for the children. I’m fortunate to have three healthy beautiful kids who inject joy into the most resigned of hearts. We have a comfortable life – there may be things we want but nothing we need and don’t have. I have friends who take time to help me and answer my questions despite their own pressing commitments. I’m so busy trying, I’m forgetting to enjoy. What an idiot!

An appreciation of what we have is the best antidote to the relentless demands of our hectic, achievement-driven lives. There aren’t answers to all problems, but there is joy in every day if we can only see it. Many thanks to Linda at Adventures in Expatland for the reminder, it came just when I needed it.

Have you struggled to find a balance between self-confidence and humility? How has being a writer tested you? Share your experiences and what you’ve learned in the comments below – I could really use the help…




Whitby Shores, Whitby, Ontario

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


    1. We must be on the same slippery slope of learning curve! Heartening to know I’m not alone in my self-inflicted misery… wonder where we’ll be a year from now…

  1. Oh Aisha, your blog has been so timely for me.
    Everything you have written resonates with my own struggles these past months.
    In the drive to achieve and to meet deadlines (always someone else’s) time has been taken away from precious things which I’ve neglected. In taking a step back to regain the joy around me, I’ve been fighting the constant itch to be at the computer, fretting about blogs and other writing projects, worried about dropping off the map.
    And what’s happened? Can’t write at all, my brain shut down. The sub-conscious finally giving itself a break to replenish and re-energise.
    I know I need this time to get back to where I want to be – writing for joy, when the words tumble over themselves to get down on the page. What other people think is immaterial, being true to yourself and trusting your instincts has to come first. Nothing else matters!

    1. Lovely to hear from you Jane, though I’m sorry to hear of your trials. I can so relate to your comment, especially the “worried about dropping off the map” part. All of a sudden my Klout score was some great achievement on my part that I was loathe to see diminish. I fretted when I awoke to another multiple Twitter follower desertion. Hours spent in front of the computer produced only dissatisfaction with what I’d failed to accomplish. And yet still I subjected myself to it, when I could have spent one day after another with the kids and a picnic lunch down by the lake. That was truly wasted time – what a muppet!!! Still, it’s some comfort that even someone I perceive to be talented, competent and self-assured experiences this too.

  2. I think my attention span must be shorter than yours. I just published my book about a month ago and immediately became consumed in “marketing” it. I spent all my time reading blogs, reading about blogs, reading about publishing, reading about marketing techniques, figuring out how to use twitter and on and on. However, I have a full time job, I’m a single parent, and I also have other hobbies. I decided, hey, let it be organic. It is what it is. I am back to blogging and just started a new needlepoint. I suppose I am not very ambitious but I figure I wrote the book for me and for family. Everything else is just icing on the cake. 🙂

    1. I wouldn’t say you’re unambitious – that’s the kind of balance I lost sight of. Kudos for staying so clear-sighted about it all and congratulations on being a published author, I’ve heard great reviews about your book and look forward to an entertaining read.

  3. Hi! You made a lovely comment on my blog about the green colour of England… it’s because we’ve had such a wet summer – running has been eventful at times (landslips; bogs; water/mud up to the knees….)… but yes, it is beautiful, especially up here in Cumbria. I used to live in Watford so not a million miles from St. Albans… reading your latest post, we have a couple of other things in common too: I have three children (8, 6-nearly-7 and 21 months – it was because of the latest that I started blogging as I was 49 when I had him); I am trying to build up a freelance writing career…. I used to be a Chartered Surveyor but there’s not much around up here that’s suitable for me, and as you say about your own life (more or less), I’m lucky that I can spend the time with the children – especially unplanned no.3 as he is so lovely, and I worked full time when the other two were tiny – and that whilst sometimes we find it very tough financially, we don’t need anything: we can afford our house, and heating, and food, and school lunches. I used to have a list of ‘things’ I thought I wanted when I was working: that’s disappeared and is now only a list of things I definitely need, and even some of them I can wait for (new sports bras was a definite must this birthday as the old ones were very old). And regarding blogging… I write my blog to keep writing. Sometimes I don’t have time to blog, but I read that you should try to write something every day, and whilst I don’t always manage it, I probably at least come up with some ideas. I’ve started entering writing competitions when I have time as well: I’ve rehashed some stuff I wrote ages ago when I worked in Norway for a while. It was really interesting re-visiting it as I enjoyed re-reading it! Anyhow I’m rambling and don’t know whether the comment will help… I think I’d just say ‘keep going’. I love writing – I need to find another way to make some money as well, but now I’ve started with the writing I don’t want to stop. Sorry to ramble. Good Luck! (oh, and by the way, we thought of moving to Canada…. I think we’re too settled here to do so but I did like the idea of skiing every winter…).

    1. Thank you Sarah for such a warm reply. It does sound like we have much in common, especially the reduced list of wants! I’ll be checking back to your blog for Cumbrian comfort-pics whenever I get homesick. (Fancy you living in Watford! That’s where my youngest was born…) Meantime, I think we just need to remember to ENJOY, our writing, our families and our lives – nothing else is as important. But hark at me! Always easier to give advice than to follow your own!

  4. I love writing. Sometimes I write a good post, at least I think it is good because of the number of comments, but it is hard. I wish I could take a writing class, but then I think I might lose something in myself. I don’t know what the answer is, but when I figure it out, I can hopefully write that book I dream of.

    1. You never know, instead of causing you to “lose something in yourself”, a writing class might help you give voice to more of yourself. Anyway, when you find that answer be sure to post it here!

      1. I’ve just proved to myself just how time consuming social media and blogging can be by leaving a lengthy comment on here and then losing it when it didn’t post!

        Basically I agreed that writing classes are a great way to get that affirmation plus learn to develop your voice. I’m enjoying the process but it is a work in progress! And just enjoy it all. When the weight of expectation starts to bear down on you, the writing can only suffer and become convoluted and over-written. Sometimes it’s great to just free-flow and write from the heart in a natural way without lashings of seriousness thrown in. As for the not-always-so-positive influence of social media, where do I begin…

    2. AlwaysARedhead, may I suggest another look at Aisha’s post ‘5 Books to Boost Your Writing’? None of those are dry and dusty grammar tomes: they are funny and witty and encouraging and inspiring. Above all, reading any of them makes you feel part of the writing tribe. You won’t lose anything in yourself, you’ll gain the desire to keep writing.

  5. Thank you so much for such a lovely written hug, Aisha, it warms my heart!

    We all, all, ALL grapple with these contradictory feelings. Your words ‘find a balance between self-improvement and self-acceptance’ really struck a chord. Chasing the right words, finding the right turn of phrase, seeing it in a hazy mist right in front of us yet unable to grasp it and get it down on paper quickly enough. Some days the words rush out in a stream of inspiration, the next a pathetic trickle.

    I’m with Wordgeyser in that the only lesson I’ve learned – really taken on both in heart and mind – is that when I am writing (or more correctly, trying to write) something that means something to me, that I truly want to inhabit, to claim as my own, then I must be patient. I’m not particularly fond of practicing the p-word, it’s one of those ‘do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do’ lessons that chafe and irritate. I go do something else, often a combination of things: something mindless, something enjoyable, something new and different. About the only minimal requirements are that they include being outside at some point (yes, even in our current cold, rainy grayness) and that I take time to reflect more broadly on life and practice gratitude. I’ve come to realize that making a conscious, concerted effort to be grateful is the best attitude reboot around.

    If the future is approached from the perspective of appreciating all that has come our way (including in our writing), then a year from now will be a very exciting, satisfying place to be.

    1. There’s nothing more I can add to that – except to say “thanks” again. It’s thought-provoking how we enter the orbits of the people we do, scattered throughout the world though they may be. I feel lucky to have connected with you.

  6. I’m surprised to read this, I figured you popped these posts out in your sleep… You’re that good!

    As for me… I struggle. I wrote a book I never intended to publish, but then I fell down ‘the rabbit hole’ and did. Now everyone thinks I’m a writer and I’m really not. I feel like a fake.

    If it weren’t for the book I would NEVER write a blog. My life has changed so much this past year because of it. I feel like I know more about the people who’s blogs I follow, than I do about my ‘real’ friends these days. It also steals time from my family. I seriously think about stopping everyday, but for some reason I can’t.

    I want to support the book and do all I can to promote it. but I also want my old life back…

    Sorry for all the venting, but you asked.

    1. Thank you for the flattery, you’re a wonderful antidote to Mondays! It seems to me from the comments, that the whole “falling down the rabbit-hole” thing happens to everyone while they figure out how to satisfactorily prioritize the loves and responsibilities of their lives. Whatever you do Maggie, don’t grow resentful – you wrote a book and that’s a fantastic achievement that should always give you a sense of joy whatever the fluctuations of rankings and sales figures. (Psssst, don’t let that publishing agent ruin your social life!) I hope you find your balance xxx

  7. I think sometimes we have to, well no need to stand back from blogging, writing and the social media hype to be ourselves and live life before it passes us by. I’ve just spent the last five days in the UK with my grandchildren and ever time I tried to sneak a peek at my PC, I was banned. The itch needed scratching! 5 days with only the bare minimum of internet – cold turkey.

    I keep telling you that you are a great writer – your words just flow! Find your rhythm in life and balance.

    Well, I’m off to spend the last evening with our son and finance . Computer off


    1. Haha! Thanks Carole for using those precious moments to leave a comment – I feel honoured. I know exactly how you feel when banned from the PC. My husband pulls that one on me sometimes and it’s agony, despite my knowing that he’s right (don’t tell him I said that!) There’s truth in the idea that you need to be experiencing life fully to be able to write. Too much time in front of the computer and the spring just runs dry.
      Thanks for the encouragement. I know you keep telling me, maybe someday I’ll let myself believe it, but then I’m sure I’d become insufferable to be around. Enjoy your evening xxx

  8. Loved this post. Do I write to live? I’m about to. There is no doubt in my mind that if the blog hasn’t earned itself a living within the next year – I’ll be heading back to the office. I think the smartest two things I’ve been told about blogging is 1) Be honest 2) Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. It’s very easy in this crazy world of social media to look at someone’s stats/followers etc and wonder what you’re doing wrong. You’re a great writer and you have a message that’s important and needs to be heard. xxx

    1. Thanks Kirsty, you have a very business-like approach – I hope it works out for you. I for one would miss your posts if you decided to throw in the towel. You know how much I admire your writing, it’s given me a real buzz to have you leave a comment here 😀

      1. I will always blog, but the business approach is something that has evolved over time. I invest a lot of time in the blog at the moment, and writing it is only a small part of the process. It only makes sense that if you find your passion and end up spending a lot of time working on it, that you will then try and make it a viable option for a career. My true passion is providing a space for women who have found themselves on the move and are trying to make sense of it all e.g.. have I done the right thing? What’s happening to my career? My family? My marriage etc. Thanks for your lovely words xx

  9. Oh I relate to this one too. I find it so hard to dance on that tight-rope that hangs over the no man’s land between the pleasure of writing and the work of marketing that writing so that I can keep writing. I’ve just been away with all these incredibly successful bloggers and though I was inspired I also came home thinking ‘I’m just so not in their league’ and that hurts. My husband reminded me of when I started and how my goal posts have changed since then. Maybe I need to remember where those posts were once, and how far I’ve come since then? Maybe we could both do with a quiet pat on the back in celebration of what we have actually achieved? Love your writing Vix x

    1. It’s so hard not to fall into the habits of valuing ourselves by other people’s standards and achievements. I love your blog and your creative energy which I think is palpable in all you write, even your emails! You’re right – let’s congratulate ourselves and give ourselves a break 🙂 Thanks for the compliment and encouragement x

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