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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.


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