Skip to main content

Laying Down My Should-Shield to Follow a Could

There is a contrary wisdom in the opposite of Jeff Goldblum's famous quote from Jurassic Park: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." 

"What should I do?" is a perfectly useful question to ask in a life-or-death situation involving dangerous megafauna on the loose. The classic fight-or-flight response primes our bodies and minds and helps us narrow our focus to a brief set of options so we can answer that question with immediate action.

This response is rarely helpful in the context of contemporary, real-life stressors such as writer's block or weather that might ruin weekend plans.

Like this bombogenesis thing coming at Michigan right now.

This week, the afterglow of my family vacation to Florida has worn off, and we are facing down a fresh hell called "bombogenesis" (a "weather bomb" or rapidly intensifying sh**storm) which is affecting weekend plans, moods, body aches, and creative energy around here.

Returning to the Goldblum quote, I've found that asking myself "What should I do?" in situations like this only adds stress and restricts my ability to think and act effectively, because the should implies that there is a right and a wrong answer, and the stakes are high for me to make the right choice. My childhood religious training served to ramp up the stakes in every should question, teaching that decisions are not only practically good or bad but morally good or evil--in such a black and white way that each action (and even each thought) is tallied on a celestial board of sins and heaven-points, any one of which could tip the scales in favor of either eternal reward or damnation at the unknowable time of my death.

We might call this a high pressure system.

I rejected that framework of absolute good and evil a long time ago, but its anxious residue lingers. It helps me to come up with exercises that reframe questions for myself, such as replacing a should with a could.

Asking myself, "What could I do today, now that I know I can't safely drive across town?" creates space for fresh ideas to bubble up in a relaxed, open-minded headspace that will serve me well on yet another day stuck at home.

My husband is great at turning shoulds into coulds. He is an energetic, masculine, and dominant type of person, but not in a stupid, toxic, club-wielding caveman sort of way. I can imagine his ancient ancestors charging through the wilderness with machetes--but not to fight, nor even to flee. There's always some third choice that bursts into my husband's head in the moment. It's kind of a special superpower. My husband is neither a fighter nor a runner in the face of challenge but more of an enthusiastic explorer. He snaps into engagement with the issue, but not in a violent or fearful way. He has a lusty curiosity about everything that makes him bouncy and slippery and nigh impossible to trap in a false should binary.

The first time my husband saw The Matrix, when Morpheus offered Neo the binary choice between the red pill and the blue pill, my husband burst out, "Grab them both and chew them!!"

Instead of "What should Neo do?" my husband went straight to "What could Neo do?"

Should comes from a place of certainty that there is one correct answer. Sometimes (to soothe all you devil's advocates) that might be the case, but a lot of times, perhaps all of the times, in the trusty old Real Life, we grasp at a "should" to make ourselves look or feel like we can be sure of making the right decision when we can't.

Could comes from a place of hope and curiosity and open-minded creativity. Should comes from a scarcity of energy to imagine more than two responses or outcomes.

Of course, we should all mind our shoulds to some extent, to live ethically and get things done. But too much should can lead to stagnating perfectionism. I'm running into this as I work on my historical novel. My progress as author has slowed down at the same time as my main character's progress in the story. As the author, I'm dragging along this heavy should-shield to protect myself from fears of writing something that is factually wrong or culturally offensive. It's a struggle familiar to all historical fiction writers, who must seek a balance between historical accuracy and telling a good story--and now, in this current U.S. social climate, the added layer of considering the work's potential effect on critics who may be eager to judge its contents not just artistically but morally and politically. I do feel strongly that I should avoid hurtful stereotypes and unfair representations, for aesthetic as well as empathetic reasons, but what I really fear is that thing going on when certain keyboard warriors go mining other people's pain and weaponize it in a self-serving campaign for attention and public righteousness.

But then again, I could work on letting those worries go, because some authors who get targeted by these campaigns actually benefit materially with more book sales when the controversy draws more attention to their work. And, I think the wise and truly caring people whose opinions matter to me are wising up to the tricks of those critical White Knights.

So what's my real problem?

In my novel, my main character has reached the literal end of her road. The plan that initiated her journey is no longer working out. Now she has to decide what to do next. She experiences a moment of paralysis, asking herself, "What should I do?"

And my character finds herself lacking those moral compasses that people generally use to guide them in should questions, such as religion and culture and family tradition. She is lost in the world with none of those anchors compelling her toward a particular behavioral framework.

This is not a time when life should imitate art, but I find myself stalling with the excuse that I should take some more time here to do historical research and make sure I get every detail right about the place where my character has stalled.

What a tidy reason I have for not expanding my word count or furthering the story this week!

What a solid excuse for not completing the manuscript--that I'm just too meticulous, too careful, too aware of all that I don't know, too academically and ethically pure to finish this book.

This makes me think of my mother-in-law saying, "That and a quarter will get you 25 cents."

So, instead of stalling my work in the endless pursuit of correctness, what could I do right now?

Asking "Should I let go of research right now?" is a harder question to answer than "Could I?" Of course I could. I could push ahead into uncertainty until I tap into that creative flow state and let it take me in unexpected directions.

I could do that, and I could fact-check the important things later.

Will I?

Yes! Like my main character, I'll fake it 'til I make it. I'll keep on walking until I figure out where I'm going. And I'll get there faster without the heavy weight of my should-shield.


Popular posts from this blog

35 Great Things About Turning 35

The prime of life starts at 35! It's the best-kept secret from younger people, but your 35th birthday is a major cause for celebration. For mine, I have made my own listicle of 35 reasons why experts agree that 35 is the best age to be:
You get to say, "I'm 35." The number 35 carries so much more gravitas than 30, but you're only a few years older. At 34, I've started fudging my age--by adding a year. People automatically take me seriously, and if they don't, at least they tell me I look young for my age. (Eye roll, hair toss, "whatever.")  35-year-olds DGAF. Inner chill reaches new heights at 35. Despite its #2 status on this list, it's the #1 response I hear about what's best about hitting 35. My gorgeous friend Nerlie was beautiful and resilient and wise beyond her years in high school, but now, at age 35, she gets to fully enjoy being herself on her own terms. She writes,  "I've survived so much that I don't waste time o…

Happy Spring Awakening of the Rusalki!

The water spirits demand hard-boiled eggs.

According to MagPie's Corner on Facebook, the ancient Slavic holiday week known as "first Rusalii," when the rusalki first awaken in the rivers and streams, is happening now. Apparently, they wake up hangry for bread and hard-boiled eggs.

My family will be baking bread and boiling and decorating eggs, you know, just in case. We do live very close to a river. And traditions are important.

So happy First Rusalii to you! Happy Good Friday! Happy Easter weekend! Happy spring, no matter what or how you celebrate. Where I live, Easter is going to be the first warm, beautiful day we've had in a long time, with many warm days to follow--the perfect weather for a spring awakening.

P.S. Matka Danu Miklagarth, epic historical thriller featuring rusalki-impersonating pirates, is nearly 170,000 words long. If this book ever gets printed, it could be used as a weight to walk across the bottom of a river for real.

The Golden Moments

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone. -George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) 

The only time this is not generally true for me is in the fall. This is the golden moment when I feel most alive, aware, and present with everyone and everything around me. This is when my daughter and I begin most days with a walk in the golden hour of the morning, in this most golden season of the year.

It's also that magical time when my little golden child is still excited about school, from our morning walks to seeing her friends at recess to the Scholastic Book Fair to riding the bus home with more friends. She has already earned another "Golden Warrior of the Week" award (for exceptionally helpful behavior) and received an excellent, glowing report at the first parent-teacher conference of the year.

I've extended my "fallow period" from working on my novel, and I'…

My Alpha

It turns out my husband is a fantastic alpha reader. Who knew? We've been married for 13 years and have known each other for 21. And last weekend was the first time I ever had him alpha read for me. Turns out he's the best creative partner I could ever hope for and that he still has the ability to surprise me with hidden talents and acts of love.

My husband is not really a fiction reader. He probably hasn't read a novel since high school AP lit class. It's not that he doesn't love a good story, it's that he doesn't like sitting still long enough to read a book or watch a movie. He's a very active and extroverted man, and he'd rather have a conversation or a real-life adventure than read a book. He's kind of like Gaston if Gaston weren't an asshole.

So until now, I haven't wanted to bother him with requests to read my writing, because reading novels isn't his jam, and also because I've always harbored guilt at how much time I spen…

My Parents Bought a House in My Neighborhood

Welcome to the West Side, Oma and Opa! My family is among many who have chosen to live closer together as the Boomer generation retires. Whether or not we have children, we want to make sure our parents are within reach so that we can help them stay healthy and free to live in their own homes--and, of course, so they can help us hapless Millennials and Gen Xers with their home renovation skills.
We need each other more than ever now that health care is a nightmare, social supports have been weakened, economic inequality is rising along with sea levels and pollution, and loneliness has become a deadlier epidemic than smoking. I believe that we are also rediscovering, after a few decades of cultural emphasis on independence, the value of family bonds across generations.

Modern science reminds us that humans evolved to live well past our fertile years to give our families the power of grandparents and that close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren are healthy for childr…

We're All Gonna Die, So.

Happy All Saints, All Souls, Samhain, Day of the Dead, Diwali, or other festival of mortality! We're all gonna die, so let's love it up while we're together.

This year, my family kicked off the season of sweet sorrow by dressing as the three best members of the Addams Family to trick-or-treat at a local park. It's a good thing we took that opportunity for a Halloween "dress rehearsal," because it turned out to be the only chance we had to put on our mysterious and spooky drag this year. Our poor little Wednesday caught the public school pukes two Tuesdays in a row, held out through the next one, and succumbed to a third bout on the morning of Halloween. Sometimes, you spend all month grooming your Gomez mustache (pictured above left) or your Morticia nails (one of which I bent backwards but was able to save--oh, the beautiful agony) and then trick-or-treating is canceled anyway. C'est la vie. We shall carve a pumpkin and roast its seeds for our departed …

Ísbíltúr: When It's Too Hot for Hygge

October is here! It's time for sweaters and crackling fires and pumpkin pie and... a climate crisis heat wave. I just got out all my knits and candles and squishy throw blankets, only to endure a couple of swampy, Florida-hot days. In October. In Michigan.

This is the third year in a row we have had a sweltering heat wave in October. It does not make me feel the hygge. I feel... I feel...

...more like death metal Greta Thunberg, yeah.

So I decided that, instead of burning up fossil fuels and warming my house by cooking dinner, my family would explore a different Scandinavian concept: ísbíltúr, the Icelandic national pastime of going out for ice cream.

We ate ice cream for dinner. Outside. In October. In Michigan.

Today, it has finally cooled down outside--for now. I got out the velvet pumpkin basket stuffed with hats and gloves and put it in the foyer, by the mosquito repellent and the flip-flops. You never know what you might need on the walk to school.

No matter the season or th…

I Have Created Something!

I have completed (and rewritten and revised and revised again and edited) an epic historical dark thriller. I have written a subversive Parsival tale in contemporary style, narrated by a a teenage orphan girl of unknown heritage, raised by a hermit of unknown origin, with no particular religion, certain race, or coherent social class, a girl who seeks identity and meaning along her adventures with assorted outcasts, misfits, criminals, and trailblazers. It's a queer, multicultural, interracial, boundary-blurring brick of densely woven subplots and big themes glued together with tears and profanity and bestial love. In other words, I have produced the kind of Byzantine journey saga that only the Millennial alumnus of an urban American public school with both gang violence and a celebrated AP program could have written.

I have no idea whether this work can be packaged and sold as a consumer product (though I sure hope it can), but in this moment, I am riding that high that comes afte…

In a World of Calvins, Be a Hobbes!

My favorite season is here, and I'm taking a short break from working on my book to bask in the joys of fall. Beautiful autumn days are too precious to waste! I'm renewing my vow to be a Hobbes as part of my 2019 mantra to Be Bestial.

I'm taking author Kate Angus's advice to give myself a fallow period, even if it's short. For the next week or so, it's going to be stormy outside, which is both detrimental to outdoor activities and kind of exciting and inspirational, so I'll be back at my writing desk. If all goes well, I will soon be working on my agent submission documents!

BE BESTIAL: A Mantra for 2019

Call it a resolution, a Phrase of the Year, a slogan, a motto, a mantra. Whatever. This is my battle cry, my howl, my declaration of love for the final year of this tempest-tossed decade. This is my medicine, to be taken by myself and offered to anyone else who could use the same antidote to our zeitgeist of vapid soullessness and cynical waste.

I want to get back to nature--my nature, human nature--not in the sense of rejecting vaccines and worshiping crystals pillaged mercilessly from the habitats of endangered beings but in the sense of honoring the depths of every layer of my own mammalian brain and body and those of the people-beasts all around me. I want to get back to trustworthy instincts, back to passion, back to the visceral pleasures of real life.

This year, I'm gonna be a savage, because brutal times call for brutal humor. Ain't no shame in this filthy game. The appreciation of sick jokes is associated with higher levels of education, intelligence, and emotional sta…