Why writers should never say should

I’ve given myself time to write and come away to Bali to do it. It’s scary and arguably not sensible (‘are you sure it’s a good idea to quit your job in this economic climate?’) but I couldn’t be happier about finally taking my dreams seriously.

 

I’ve stopped doing all the things I think I should. It’s not that I don’t feel the pull of it and worry, but the feeling of freedom overcomes that. I feel like a little bird who’s been set free, and I don’t care how cheesy that sounds.

 

‘Should’ is such a horrible word.

 

It’s compelling, subtle and insidious. It’s also complicated. There are many things writers think they should be doing instead of writing, like focusing on your work, putting your family first all of the time, doing the cleaning. After all, we all know how few writers actually make a full-time living so it’s a selfish pursuit for most of us.

 

But who’s really telling you you should do this stuff? Chances are that the people you love want to see you happy and fulfilled, and if that means getting takeaway on a Sunday because 3-9pm is your writing time, they probably wouldn’t have an issue with it. It’s you who feels guilty.

 

If you think you can’t write because you’re putting in overtime at work, then it might be true. You be so busy that you can only afford a small amount of time at the weekend. But think about why you’re really doing the overtime. Is it because you feel guilty about spending time on email in the working day? I’ve been there. There’s a solution to that one. Or if you’re genuinely busy and think you just have to finish this one thing before you go home even though it’ll take until 8:30… who says so? It’s you who decided you should. Will anyone literally die if that email doesn’t go until morning? If not then maybe you should consider why you’re punishing yourself.

 

Who says you have to clean the oven every month? Who cares? You decided it’s something you should do and you’re the one who makes yourself feel guilty if it isn’t done. A little slovenliness can be a good thing when it comes to creativity :)

 

My point is that we pick up ideas as we go through life about what we should be doing and who we should be. It’s part of growing up and becoming a functioning member of society, to learn what’s expected of you. But the problem is we don’t stop to question these ideas later on, we just internalise and accept them. It’s just possible that you’ve developed more of an idea that you ‘should’ do the washing or make money than that you should be creatively fulfilled and happy.

 

It’s as though you’ve got Windows 95 loaded into your brain. It’s laughably old and restrictive. What you need is to update what’s in your head according to the reality of life today (you know, the reality where nobody benefits from you being unhappy or unfulfilled so it’s pointless being trapped there), rather than working off ideas you built up years ago. That change isn’t easy. I’m nowhere near. But you can begin to notice what you tell yourself and question whether it’s really true. How important is is really for you to do that sensible, boring thing instead of using tonight to write?

 

But this is where it gets more complicated. Sometimes that should is an excuse. It masks a fear of exposing yourself, which is a necessary part of writing. So we give ourselves more jobs to do and procrastinate more because really we’re afraid. Yep, I’ve been there too. In fact, I’ve spent the last 2 days stuck there.

 

And there’s another way we punish ourselves with should. You can decide that you ‘should’ write something. You can turn this thing you really want to do into a chore and end up putting it off. I’m not entirely sure about this, but my feeling is that fear is underneath this too. It’s worth asking whether you’re writing something you genuinely want to read, the makes your heart sing, or if you’ve fallen into the trap of writing what you think you should but secretly dread. What’s the point of writing a terribly literary and high-brow tome (and probably doing it badly) if your heart lies in satire or sci-fi?

 

Even if your current project is absolutely the right thing for you to write and fills you with joy, putting it off will make it loom scarily in the back of your mind and turn it into a should. Hello, downward spiral.

 

Makes no sense, does it? None of it is logical. The only logical thing is to decide that your job is to write, and to get on with it. But people aren’t exactly noted for being logical.

 

The next time you hear yourself think that nasty little word though, just stop and ask yourself what’s behind it. Is it serving or hindering you?

 

This is only my perspective; should is my personal battleground. I’d love to know what other writers think though. What are your shoulds? What do you tell yourself that you’d be much better off not listening to when it comes to writing? Or are you free, do you merrily sail your own way and ignore all negative voices?

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2 Comments

  1. Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Yes, this endless procrastination is odd, isn’t it? You would have thought that writers, being writers, would WANT to write and put everything else aside to write and that the act of writing should be as pleasurable as a great meal out, a longed-for holiday, a new job. But no. Instead of letting other mundane tasks suffer, we put a heap of little time-consuming obstacles in between us and really knuckling down.

    I wonder whether people like painters experience the same thing…

  2. Charlie
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    That’s a really good question, Tina. Is it just writers who put it off or do painters/crafters/sculptors do it too? Hmm, might have to do a bit of research…

    Hope your procrastination isn’t too bad at the moment :)

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