Years ago, as I was lamenting things I wish I’d done differently as a literacy coach, my mentor leaned over and put her hand on my arm. Shaking her head, she uttered this unforgettable phrase:
“Don’t should on yourself.”
I wrote it on the cover of my coaching notebook. I would tell it to teachers. We laughed and something was released. The work would still be work, endless and immense, but one felt a bit lighter approaching it.
There are some foundational, common-sense shoulds. One should bathe regularly. One should wear clothes in public. But many shoulds serve as self-imposed bars to remind us we aren’t measuring up, somehow. That we are less. I always loved to write but was trapped for years by the exhortation: “A writer must set a regular writing schedule.” Period. Oh, I’d think, that’s what I should do. That’s what real writers do. If I don’t, I’m not really a writer. Except that my life isn’t ever arranged in such neat compartments of time. Schedules have to change too much. Then: “Writers write every day.” —I should do that! I want to do that! When I didn’t, a niggling sense of failure tugged at my spirit. Cobwebs of despair wound round my heart. The inner critic gloated: “Toldja. You don’t have what it takes.” Scraping should off myself took a long, long time—it likes to fossilize, layer by layer. Its armor is self-guilt. Its color, regret. Should doesn’t need the sharp spear of fear; it is the deadweight of an anvil, iron forming in the soul, shard by shard.
Should isn’t battled with mere acceptance. That’s dangerous ground. I did have to accept that I couldn’t write on the same schedule, every day, but I couldn’t stop there or I would never write. The secret weapon, for me anyway, was reimagining. What do I really want to accomplish? What does success look like for me, within the pattern of my days? I wanted to write more and to write better. I had stories to tell. Eventually they led to this blog. The blog led to wanting to uplift others—there’s already plenty in the world pulling us down. I found myself uplifted in the process. I write several times a week, some weeks more than others. I write whenever I can carve out the precious pockets of time…and for the record, thinking about writing is writing, which I do in the background of my mind all day, every day. A hasty note capturing a fragile new idea before it sprouts wings and flies away is writing. On a Post-It, in the margins of my planner, in notes on my phone, eventually transferring to a notebook… whenever the idea appears, I stop for a second to see it, translucent, barely formed, and catch it. To me that’s the most important thing a writer does. One cannot spin without a thread of silk. And so I had to reimagine what writing looks like, what it really is. I shook off should and carried on with far more productivity on my own terms—without feeling guilty for stopping to rest whenever I need to.
When Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog encouraged writing as a way to “shed your shoulds,” I was reminded, once again, that should is too often an unnecessary, subconscious burden…
Shed your shoulds
like leaves in woods
Trees shorn of fragility
preserve their ability
Hear should rustling: ‘Don’t forget’
like leaves curling with regret
Spiraling, sigh by sigh
piling inside, dead and dry
Beware should’s false measure
robbing Now of its pleasure
Shed those shoulds
like autumn woods
composting for tomorrow.
The moral of the story, Friends: Don’t should on yourself.
Scrape that mess off and use it for fertilizer.
I’ve joined an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join, too.