I just got back from L.A. and the annual SCBWI summer writing conference. I got to spend a lot of time with some truly incredible human beings, I got to hear Matthew Kirby be intelligent (if you ever have the opportunity to hear him talk, go!), I got to be inspired and fired up and reminded of a critical component of my own identity.
But I’m going to talk about something that was said at the conference that I disagree with. One of the keynotes given was “The Power of Quiet,” presented by Deborah Underwood. It was a good talk about, among other things, creativity, recent neuroscience research, the usefulness of daydreaming, and the importance of allowing for quiet time in our lives. But… Towards the end, Ms. Underwood basically said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that we don’t owe it to ourselves to make time for quiet, but rather that we owe it to the children who will read our books.
[Insert appropriate noise of pain and frustration here.]
Then today I was linked to an article by Amanda Craig in which she says, “Yet putting yourself last is one of the best things that can happen to a writer.” (This article, by the way, is a great way of inducing rage in yourself as it is one of the more misogynistic and offensive pieces of writing I’ve seen. Happily the commenters seem to agree with me, which does help prop up my hope for humanity.)
Both of these examples reference writers in particular, but I see this idea of selflessness, self sacrifice, and the deprioritization of self care all over the place. Our society propagates it, and while it is a popular idea, it can also be quite harmful. It is tempting to link it to our society’s issues with gender and the role of the female as the nurturing caregiver who puts everyone in front of herself, but actually I believe it’s a universal message that simply sometimes differs in presentation depending on gender.
This is not an idea I can support. Yes, it is good to be kind and treat each other well. It is good to help others. It is good to fulfill your responsibilities. Sometimes you have to compromise or put other people’s needs ahead of your own, particularly if you have children. Sometimes you have to juggle priorities and put important personal ones on the back burner for a while. Life happens.
But having needs is not only okay, it’s human. We all have needs. It is not necessary to put ourselves last in order to be virtuous or good writers or good family members or good citizens. It is not necessary to give ourselves permission to do something good for ourselves (and in this example, good for our careers as well) only because it might help other people down the line. It is not necessary to value ourselves so little. It’s as if we’re afraid that by giving ourselves permission to take care of ourselves, the ugly Selfish Monster will burst out of our foreheads and wreak havoc on the world.
Well, guess what? It takes a lot more for the Selfish Monster to show itself.
Putting yourself last is NOT the best thing that can happen to a writer. It keeps you from writing. It keeps you from feeding your creativity and inspiration. It keeps you weighed down on the floor instead of being able to fly. It encourages you to make poor business decisions. It keeps you from taking care of yourself, which means that stress and bad health are going to take their tolls…both on you and–shocking, I know–on your writing.
Putting yourself last is not the best thing that can happen to ANYONE. Sometimes it happens. But think about it. Putting yourself last literally means you’re putting the needs of every person you know, and society at large, and probably also random groups of strangers, in front of your own. All the time. How long is it possible to survive this way? Why do we valorize behavior that leads to unhealthy perfectionism, people pleasing behavior, and nervous breakdowns? How can you be the best possible version of you, which is on its own a huge service to the world, if you’re treating yourself so badly?
Someday I hope I’ll have the opportunity to give my own speech on this subject. But in the meantime, take care of yourselves. Cherish yourselves. Respect yourselves. Not just because you’re doing worthwhile, noble work (although that is awesome), but because you allow yourself, your life, and your experiences to have their own inherent and deeply personal value.
Please believe you’re worth it.