Working around the Shoulds

Last weekend I found myself in Montpelier, VT, in something near a euphoric state. I was attending a novel writing retreat at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. For almost 48 amazing hours, I got to immerse myself in lectures and conversations with other people passionate about writing. With our meals prepared for us, our lodging simple and uncluttered by the nagging to-do piles and lists that seem to dog my heels at home, the weather still more conducive to being inside than out, I could set aside the rest of the world and indulge my passion for two whole days. Almost guilt free.

“Almost” for two reasons. One I’ll lay at the feet of Mr. Stephen King, who in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (one of the best – and admittedly only – writing guides I’ve read cover to cover), spends several pages questioning the value of writing seminars. Woe to the aspiring writer who turns a deaf ear to this paragon’s advice – no matter how snarky! But Mr. King also interrogates the reader earlier in this same book, ‘When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not?” (On Writing, p. 156)

Yes! Yes I do! Despite that desire and my small nook in the spare room tucked under an eave and without even a window to distract me, the world finds its way in so often that there are days I fear ever achieving the publication of a single novel – let alone the stack of manuscripts sitting in my drawer or on my thumb drive.

My husband, our son, the dogs – these are the other reasons for the ‘almost’. These are the blessed time-eaters I love as much as I love creating new worlds. These make fleeing to Vermont at the end of winter for an opportunity to hole up and be productive seem like heaven. Paradoxically, they are also what prompt me to return again, pulling at me over any distance.

There are so many other things that also pull at my time though. Those things we think we ‘should’ do. In the category of ‘self-care’, there’s get enough sleep; prepare healthy meals; take time to actually chew said meals; shower; exercise; meditate/journal/process. Then there’s taking care of your relationships: with your spouse; with your friends; with the family that is not co-located in your home; with your pets. Don’t forget making ends meet. Whether you’re the primary breadwinner or working to make sure the winnings are enough to get you all by, maintaining an income for maximum possible outcome remains at the top of most people’s lists. There’s housework, yard work, and paper work. And once you’re a parent, there’s the trump card: anything your kid needs.

One of the speakers at the retreat talked about motivation to write, relating creative methods he’s designed to trick himself into engaging with writing when his brain is throwing up blocks. I was amazed at his self-awareness, and his ability to use his brain to create work-arounds to circumvent his own mental obstacles. Genius! As much as I admired what he was saying, I realized motivation was not my main problem. Mine is guilt. Guilt tied to perceptions of where I should be investing my time. Guilt born of being able to focus on only one thing at a time, when my heart cherishes so many and wants to engage them all simultaneously, as well as guilt that comes from not meeting all the ‘shoulds’. And I realized: I’ve got to find a way to circumvent the shoulds; to trick my brain out of the guilt.

A popular internet meme quotes JK Rowling as having said “People very often say to me, ‘How did you do it, how did you raise a baby and write a book?’ And the answer is–I didn’t do housework for four years. I am not superwoman. And, um, living in squalor, that was the answer.”

How I love her for that response! Like I didn’t already want to be her. Now I aspire to not only be as gifted a writer, but as okay as she appears to have been with letting go the shoulds to focus on what matters!

As I talked to others at the retreat, I found comfort in the realization that the struggle with the ‘should’ list is at least as real as the struggle with motivation. Some of the authors I talked to have made careers of their craft, but many  have day jobs too. Some have grown children, but many have littles still. They carve writing hours out pre-dawn, before going to their day jobs. They write on their lunch breaks or when their spouses take the kids to the museum for half a day on Saturdays. Many of us write later into the night than we should. (There’s that word again!) We jot notes and squeeze time out of the random drips of day when our full attention isn’t required elsewhere (most of this article was drafted at the Crayola Crayon Experience in Easton, PA, while my kid played with the giant water table).

What I realized, talking to the talented and dedicated group at the retreat, is that if you have a passion – be it writing, yoga, quilting, photography, cooking, or burlesque dancing – expressing that passion is part of your self-care. To deny that aspect of you, that thrill that makes you hum, is to run on half a tank. You may never stall, but you’ll never truly fly either. In other words, engaging your creativity is something you Should do. With a capital ‘S’.

Here at the cusp between winter and spring, passions banked and tended through the long quiet of the darker months want to stretch, catch the fresh air, and run. Spring cleaning beckons with its promises of freshness and renewal, but only if I can work through the list of items to scrub and repair. This spring, I’m also going to focus on clearing away the guilt. To repairing the systems I use to validate how I spend my time. I look forward to tending the garden of my words at least as much as I tend the beds that line our walk.

Though until spring is truly here, I look forward to hunkering down to recreate the focus of the retreat here in my nook under the eave – working through another round of edits or perhaps even pursuing a new idea.



Another bonus of writing conferences? Meeting awesome critique partners! (I met Thea at a conference and she just can’t seem to shake me! ) Thanks, Thea, for addressing that ugly guilt we moms are so good at carrying around. The guilt that gets in the way of all those passions that make us feel whole.

I really dislike the word ‘should.’ We never say, “I should be nicer to myself” or “I should take a vacation.” No, the ‘shoulds” all have to do with cleaning, exercise, someone else’s expectations, or whatever you’d rather avoid. I’m going to start a petition to have “should” removed from the dictionary.

When I was a writing manager, I looked for opportunities for my staff to “fill the well.” You can’t keep cranking out words, or images, or quilts if you don’t take time to refill your well of inspiration. You just start turning out junk and you know it. Go to that conference, sit quietly in a museum, or get lost in a fabric store. Whatever it takes to feel like you have more to give!

One of my favorite craft books (besides On Writing) is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. If you haven’t read it, stop what you’re doing and go find a copy. (I’m not joking.) And may we all have more time in our nooks under the eave this week!


2 Replies to “Working around the Shoulds”

  1. I’m so glad you got to go to the writing conference! Time for you to write but also be among other writers. I often catch myself thinking I should be… so I try to stop myself and say I should be doing this. Kind of like listening to my heart and gut. I love that quote for J.K. Rowling! Sometimes I have to also say to myself I should be doing the dishes so we will have clean ones to eat on for dinner 🙂

    1. Thanks, Kim! It’s true that sometimes the ‘shoulds’ do have their role to play. I’m sure evolutionarily speaking, they were critical to our ability to plan for the future or something. The challenge, like you noted, is not letting them dominate but finding a way to keep them in their helpful place!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *