The anvil of holiday guilt

First: we’re working behind the scenes on the Barbara O’Neal and Barbara Samuel webpages, which should be up early next week. Lots of new features, better navigation…and of course, contests will be kicking off with the release of How to Bake a Perfect Life, coming December 21. Stay tuned!


Every year, I promise myself that I’m going to stay on track with my writing goals through the holidays.  Every year, just about this time, I realize I haven’t written a word in two (or three) weeks and feel that anvil of guilt fall out of the sky to crush me.  Every year.

For 22 years of book deadlines.

This year, as the season bore down on us, Christopher Robin suggested I might want to just recognize that I would not have as much time to work, and just call it a draw.  That seemed shocking. Sinful, even!  Everybody else works and gets things done.  Why shouldn’t I be able to do that, too?  My mom works 40 hours a week and bakes cookies and decorates her house and shops.  Why not me?

So, I soldiered on.  November was modestly productive until the end, when Thanksgiving arrived.  I hosted the feast at my house this year, my son came home from DC for four days, and my other son popped in and out the whole weekend. We played games (notably Arkadia) and ate and I stayed up late talking, watching Ian teach Gabrielle to fetch. It was wonderful.

But then I tried to climb back into my routines the following morning. After a week of non-stop activity, cleaning, cooking, laughing, talking, I admit I was very tired.  There was a sad thing that happened, far away and beyond any of my power to do anything about it, which layered atop my weariness and made Monday not very productive. Then I had to put things away. And this weekend there is a party we are hosting.  Next week is the countdown to a huge spiritual retreat I’m helping to lead, and the next week, my friend and I are going to Chimayo for a couple of days to put together our vision boards for the year.

Then, well, it’s almost Christmas.

The truth is, I have not written many pages in almost any December since I began this career. Other people physically leave the house or have to clock in with their computer–I don’t. Which means I like having the freedom to do a lot of baking, to get out to the gym and the shops when everyone else is working, to have the luxury of rearranging my life around the holidays I adore so that I can devote a lot of my attention to them, and try to make memories of peace and laughter and happiness for others around me.

Somehow, I make my deadlines, year after year.

So, I am off work until early January.  My collage is on the desk, nearly complete.  I have some lists of plot points I want to work on,

a glimpse of the collage for the new book, title undecided at the moment

some more backstory character events to dig up.  I can also do something my friend Christie does: write one sentence a day, just to keep my head in the book, so that the girls in the basement can keep working, building.  In January, I’ll get back to writing pages every day, as I have done every year for the past 22 years.

Gosh, that anvil was so heavy! And I was dropping it on my own head! Silly me.

Does anyone else set up impossible expectations? What can you do to lighten your load this season?

11 thoughts on “The anvil of holiday guilt

  1. Tony

    Your Mom works 40 hours a week because someone external requires her to, rewards her for it, and would penalize her if she did not. She bakes, decorates and shops in the other hours because she wants to and she can. You have no one but yourself holding either carrot or stick over you and — trust me — you don’t want to do that to yourself. So you must do what your heart truly desires right now, with full commitment and passion, and during this holiday time that doesn’t include turning out pages. Fortunately you have objective evidence that you don’t need to in order to write your books.

    CR is a wise and patient man.

  2. Beki

    Don’t you wonder what lovely things will flow from your mind next month after an entire month of “rest” while you enjoy the holidays to the fullest? I bet it’s a much better commitment of your time this way.

  3. Barbara, you have no idea what release your words provide for me. Still struggling with this current book (my head’s not in a good place) already had my deadline extended from end of Jan to mid March and still panicking. And kidding myself I can work constructively at this time of year.
    I’m going to knock off and do the sentence a day until the wedding and Christmas are over. Then, please God – I can forge ahead with a clean slate.
    Please wing any spare words my way. And I so love the idea of vision boards and dying to hear about your spiritual retreat.

  4. Amanda Usen

    Ah, I feel that pain, too. I have four part-time jobs and 3 kids between the ages of 4 and 9. I have 2 books under contract and a sequel to finish by July. And the only thing I really want to do is go buy the ingredients for the fruitcakes I make every year – and make party mix and watch “Love Actually.” Somehow *giggle* it makes me feel better that a writer I admire so much struggles too. I can’t give myself the month off – but it makes me happy that you are doing your thing guilt-free!

  5. Fiona, so glad to be a help. Let’s both just enjoy weddings and Christmas and the luxury our profession allows.

    The new book will get done. Trust, trust, trust! The story is there.

    Thanks, Uncle. And yes, Beki. Absolutely.

  6. Shannon Johansen

    My Mother is a person that always carries so much guilt. I have been living with her and my Dad for the last year or so to help take care of my Grandfather. Just this morning we got out together to do some Christmas Shopping and I gave her a pep talk about letting go of her guilt. I told her she needed to change up her “G” words. Exchange guilt for grateful and let the guilt go.

    Why is that so hard for us, and why do women seem to carry so much of it? Happy Holidays and looking forward to the new book.

  7. Thanks, thats quite useful stuff to know! I admit I’m a bit hopeless in the kitchen, but I’m trying my best to learn. Admitting is the first step to recovery right!!? I promised to cook something for my wife this weekend for the first time – very exciting! I found some really simple recipes at this website, seems to be designed exactly for me, which is fantastic! Anyway, thanks, I’ll be sure to subscribe to your site to read more.

  8. Barbara, isn’t this all about recognising your process? How is it you can teach us this and not recognise it in yourself? Hmm? 🙂 You are not ‘other people’ (a fact for which we are truly grateful) and the only one you can measure yourself against is ‘you.’

    Enjoy your family, your commitments and the holiday season and remember you work darn hard so you “have the luxury of rearranging my life around the holidays I adore so that I can devote a lot of my attention to them.”

  9. Every December, I try to arrange my schedule so that I don’t have any books due. Sometimes it works out, other times it doesn’t. But like you, I absolutely adore this time of the year and want to throw myself into the season whole heartedly.


  10. Shannon, that’s beautiful: exchanging the “g” words.

    Thank you, Yvonne. Aren’t we lucky to have this luxury? That’s my gratitude for the evening.

    I arrange my live that way, too, Karen. A couple of times, I have had books due in January, and it was always miserable. Let’s enjoy this, now!

  11. Loved the new book gave it away for Christmas. I really loved that line in the book where you wrote something along the lines of “We are meanest to our Mothers.” It really made me stop and think for a long time. Even though my Mom and I have a great relationship there are still moments that I’m mean and I love her so much, that I know I can be because she loves me that much. But I thought why…I just keep reflecting on that part of the book and try harder everyday.

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