The Deadly “Shoulds"

Just in case you're wondering, I am not going to make any resolutions for this New Year. Mind you, it's not so much that I didn't manage to fulfill last year's resolutions; in actual fact, I didn't do so badly with them, at least in their revised form. But that isn't the point. The point is, thanks to Byron Katie's insights into the way in which we cause ourselves pain by telling ourselves stories that are at odds with reality, I don't see any point any more. And this is a good thing. A very good thing.

For example, I have now spent the better part of six months agonizing over the fact that I have not yet managed to write a best-seller. I could easily keep telling myself that story for another six months (or, indeed, the rest of my life): "I should write a best-seller." After all, that's what my father always used to tell me, along with my siblings: "You kids are so smart, if you just put your heads together, you could make a million dollars," e.g. by writing a best-seller. And, indeed, maybe one day I will. Or maybe not. Who knows? But the one thing that is sure is that I will only continue to make myself miserable if the first thought that I have in the morning is, "I should write a best-seller."

This is the first question that Katie would have me ask myself of this thought: "Is it true?" Is it true that I should write a best-seller? Is it even true that I should write more than one book? I feel like it should be, thanks to what my father always used to say to me. I also feel like it should be if I listen to the way in which other people's books get reviewed. I'm smart, I'm a writer. If I were really a writer, I should write a book that sells more than a few thousand (if that many) copies, certainly one with a better Amazon sales rank than my one book has at the moment.

But, second question: "Can I absolutely know that it is true?" Well, no, it isn't true, because I haven't. Reality is that I have written one book. Maybe this is the only book that I am meant to write, maybe not. But for the moment the reality is that the one book that I have written is not a best-seller. So, clearly, writing a best-seller is not something I "should" do, because I haven't. Which is where things get ugly.

Third question: "How do I react when I think that thought?" Well, loyal blog readers, you've been reading about this for some time now. How do I react? With depression, anxiety, self-recrimination, of course. Thinking the thought "I should write a best-seller," even in its mildest form "I should write another book," makes me panic. Every day I wake up with this thought, I feel like a failure. So what if I taught two well-received, challenging courses last quarter? I haven't published a best-selling book. So what if I spent winter break clearing out eight years' worth of accumulated stuff so that we could have our kitchen remodeled? I haven't published a best-selling book. So what if I have managed to maintain a blog with a modest number of readers for a good year and a half now? I haven't published a best-selling book. No matter what I do, no matter how well-received my scholarship or how well-maintained my home, I am a failure because I haven't published a best-selling book. And so forth.

Fourth question: "Who would I be without this thought?" Oh, my, the bliss! Wouldn't it be wonderful to wake up and let the day take me where it (God) will, confident that what I am doing is already important simply because it is what is? Of course, I also have a half of a thought that if I didn't wake up anxious about writing a best-seller, I wouldn't do any work at all, but another part of me knows that that isn't true either. Look, here I am working on my blog, which is absolutely voluntary. Nothing at all requires me ever to write anything here, and yet, I do. Why am I so convinced that without some external goal (e.g. "writing a best-seller") I would never write anything else? Well, of course, I do have hopes that I might write something here on my blog that might gain my writing a somewhat larger audience than I have hitherto, so it isn't as if I have no motivation at all for writing reflections like this one, but still.

Ah, now we're getting to the heart of things. "Who would I be without this thought: 'I should write a best-seller'?" I am afraid that without the thought of failure (defined in terms of "not writing a best-seller"), I would indeed have no motivation at all. I would simply sit around all day, reading novels and eating the proverbial bon-bons (Vosges, by preference). Indeed, I came close to that some days this summer; at least, I would have, if I hadn't spent my time writing some of my better blog essays (if I do say so myself), visiting as many historic churches as I could in Santa Fe, and reading the great works of late medieval religious thought in preparation for my graduate course this autumn. Um. Okay, so maybe I'm a failure at being a slug, too. And yet, somehow I still haven't managed to write that best-seller.

"Who would I be without this thought: 'I should write a best-seller'?" I'm having a hard time letting the thought go. Katie would say (at least I think she would say), "That's fine, sweetheart. I'm not saying you have to give up this thought, I'm just asking you to imagine your life without it." I have dreamed about giving up this thought for years, indeed, ever since I can remember. Mind you, I didn't used to tell myself that I should write a best-seller, only that I should make straight As/be the best in the class/make distinction on my Ph.D. dissertation/get tenure. But it's always been there: "I will be nothing if I don't...." Nor, I am certain, would actually writing a best-seller free me from the thought; it would just feed it, like Audrey the blood-sucking plant. I can hear it now: "I should write another best-seller/be on television/win the Nobel prize for literature, or the like."

Oh, to be able to enjoy my life simply for what it is without the constant nagging thought, "I should be better than I am," with its pups: "I should be more creative. I should want to write something other than blog posts or diary entries. I should be willing to work harder. I shouldn't have any doubts about whether I am actually meant to be a writer, because if I do, it must mean I'm not. If I were really a writer, I should (you got it) write a best-seller." And so forth. If only. If only I could write what I write without constantly second-guessing myself about whether it is any good. Okay, maybe that's impossible, all writers do it. But if only I could let myself write in the genre(s) that I enjoy without telling myself constantly that I should ("should") be writing something else. Instead, I spend all of my energy blocking the very things I do want to write because I tell myself they won't sell/aren't what people really want to read/are too easy for me so can't actually be worth anything.

"Who would I be without this thought: 'I should write a best-seller'?" Well, as I imagine it, I would be someone who took pleasure in her writing as something that she simply wanted to do, believing in myself as a writer purely for the pleasure that I take in running my fingers over the keys, finding the right phrase to express this or that thought, sitting (as I'm doing now) looking off into the distance searching for the thing that wants to be said and trusting it as something worth saying. I would spend less time crippled by the conviction that "if I were really a writer, I wouldn't be writing this but that [typically, something somebody else has written already]." I might even look forward to going into my office and sitting down at my desk (I'm at home now with Joy, still trying to get the courage up to go back to my office; plus, of course, Joy needs me). I wouldn't be embarrassed when talking about my blog (e.g. as last week, when I was at the doctor's) not to be able to say that I've garnered a book contract or thousands of readers (see? Even my blog isn't immune from the pain of this thought). I would count without, as it were, having to count.

Or would I? There's still quite a few "shoulds" embedded even in my fantasy of living without the should of "write a best-seller": "should" want to work in my office (because I have such a great one; because that is what "real" academics do), "should" find writing easier (when even the best writers confess to black times when the words simply will not come), "should" be motivated by something other than the desire for fame (when why write other than to perpetuate one's voice into the future?). Time to turn it around.

To the opposite: "I shouldn't write a best-seller." Well, in fact, maybe I shouldn't. Best-sellers are not necessarily great literature, after all, nor are they typically on the cutting edge of scholarship. Perhaps my father was, quite frankly, wrong: it would be wrong for me to write a best-seller because, well, I haven't. Reality is that what I write appeals to some, but not everyone. Okay, so I'm squirming with this one: some academic work does achieve a wider audience. Am I unhappy with being an academic? Yes and no, which is something I've been thinking about for another post. Certainly, it would be a mistake (for me) to write something simply in the expectation that it should be a best-seller. And yet, on the other hand, I do have ambitions (more "shoulds"!) to be able to write, even as an academic, in a way that conveys deep truths (ha!) to others than just my academic peers. Maybe even truths (double ha!) that my academic peers are not interested in receiving.

To the other: "Other people should write best-sellers." Well, this is true, because they do. And I buy them. At least, some of them. Some of them I even enjoy. But if this is true (which it is), why does it give me so much pain to think it, when (according to Katie) it is the thoughts that we have that are at odds with reality that give us pain? Because I think other people shouldn't write best-sellers? No, that's silly. As long as people are writing and selling books, some books are simply going to sell more than others, regardless of how good (or bad) the books are. Should I be the only one able (or allowed) to write a best-seller? No, that's silly, too. There is plenty of room in the world for lots of best-sellers. Although it does feel sometimes like others' success comes at the price of mine. But is that true? Yes, in the limited context of particular prizes or awards, but, no, hardly in the context of doing the work. Although, again, in academia, it can sometimes feel this way when somebody else is working on the same material for a similar project.

To myself: I'm not quite sure how to do this one. "A best-selling book should write me"? "A best-selling book should write itself"? Do I take the "I" out of this altogether? Let the book write itself and stop worrying about the "I" who is doing the writing? Well, duh. Yes, that sounds very true. I'm getting in my own way, constantly worrying about who is writing the book rather than letting the book write itself. But I knew this already. Could it be that the book is writing itself and I am simply not aware of it? I can almost hear Katie saying something along these lines: "How do you know that you are not already doing the work that you should be doing, since, after all, it is the work that you are doing? Your reality is to be the one that got stuck this summer on the book that she thought she should write. You have already written everything that you should, which does not mean that you have already written everything that you will. Who knows? You might never write another word. Or maybe you will write multiple books. What is true is that you are writing this blog post now." What is true is that I am writing this blog post now. Yes, that is true. I am also hungry, and it's time for lunch.

To be continued...


  1. Usually when people post that they are not making New Year's resolutions, it means that they didn't think it worth the time & thought. I think this is the antithesis of that, and quite impressive.

    I also like what I read into this (not entirely sure if it is your intention): if you write along reality rather than an unfitting goal, you can write a good book. And that good book may or may not be a bestseller, but at least it won't be a poorly written bestseller. Because why would you want to be well known as the author of trash?

  2. Thanks, I'm glad that you enjoyed my musings!

    And, actually, yes, you have it exactly right: the only way to write a good book is to write along reality, and, yes, I'd much rather be known for that than for trash!


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