What You Should Be Writing

At a reunion of participants in a weekend writing retreat I led in July, one of the writers mentioned that she felt guilty because she was not writing what she should be writing.

“What do you mean?” I asked her.

“I’m supposed to be writing a memoir and instead I’m writing short, humorous pieces.”

“Who said you should be writing a memoir?” I asked her.

“It’s what I’ve been planning to write for a while,” she replied.

I’ve heard this “should” response before from other writers.  “My college teacher said I should be a poet,” a client told me during one of our early meetings.  “But I can’t seem to write poems.  I keep starting to write stories, then stopping, because they’re not what I should be writing.

Another client, who hadn’t been able to write a word for months told me that her goal was to complete a novel.  In fact, she had enrolled in an M.F.A. Program in long fiction, then been forced to drop out because of writing block.

“Have you written anything besides long fiction?” I asked her.

“Oh sure.  I’ve written essays and short stories.  But those don’t count,” she answered.

“Don’t count?” I asked.

“Anybody can write those.  The only thing that really counts is writing a novel.  That’s what I should be writing and I’m not good enough to do that.”

I wonder where such misconceptions begin.  Why should any of us take as gospel what a teacher once told us?  Where is it decreed that novels are more important and demand more mastery than short stories or essays?  Just because we one day decide that we are going to write a novel, a play, a family memoir, a book of poetry, are we meant to be chained to what might have been an arbitrary decision?  Are all other genres banned?

As far as what we are drawn to write, there are no shoulds. Well, that’s not completely true.  The only should in a writer’s life involves listening to her instinct. Whatever you are drawn to write is exactly what you should be writing.  Being a writer is not an assignment.  It is a passion that cannot be quelled by anything other than sitting down to write.  And deciding just what to write—stories, essays, poems–is the most personal of decisions.  Writing is an intimate act.  Nobody should come between you and your writing, not former teachers and mentors, not parents, not friends, and not the literary culture in which you live.

1 thought on “Preliminaries”

  • i want to say how validating this is. i have been on the “i know nothing, so listen to others” jag for awhile now. my struggle has been finding a balance between feedback and intuition, always giving a short-shrift to my own sense of things. and my life has been riddled with shoulds, especially “i should write more poetry” when what kept coming to mind was this idea for a novel i’ve had since before i went into my mfa program. so i think i’ll follow my quickening heart.

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