writing through the shoulds

As a wee tot, I happily drew a tree by drawing a vertical brown line and then adding a green circle on its top. I loved it. So simple! So true! So pretty! Then the teacher stooped down to tell me my tree was “wrong.” I remember going perfectly still with shock. Then I felt a rush of horror that I’d disappointed the teacher (good student that I was), a crushing sadness as I began to mourn that little tree (I’d loved it so thoroughly), and a weary dread of what else I might do that would be wrong.

This, my friends, is no way to live.

Like art-making, writing is susceptible to early false mythologies perpetrated by well-meaning but unrepaired authority figures. We’re such mouldable bits of human clay when we’re young. Who was that teacher to tell me what a tree should look like? It was my tree. I could make it look however I wanted.

Those bossy, know-it-all voices have a killing vine’s way of clawing inward until we can’t separate the authentic from the imposter.

It’s time for a bout of pruning.

What shoulds do you have about writing? How did they get planted? What’s the earliest memory you have of someone expanding your creative world rather than restricting it? Who are the people in your current life who challenge you to do things your own way? How does it feel to be around people who consider you to be the authority figure when it comes to your creativity and your life?

“One writes best as one learns best, at one’s own pace.”
Janet Emig

Your way, the way that feels good when no one else is watching, is the best way, the right way. As your old should-vines are cut away and die, you give your creativity room to breathe and find a light source. The path becomes clearer and your view expands.

Snip. Snip. There goes another should!


The quote above is from Janet Emig, “Writing as a Mode of Learning,” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 28, No. 2, May 1977, pp. 122-128.

Related reading: Risking Exposure

2 comments to writing through the shoulds

  • The earliest memory of someone expanding my creative world rather than restricting it…5th grade, writing class. The teacher would give us one sentence, like “No one knew when the meatballs would stop falling from the sky” or “When I climbed on the bumblebee I wondered if it would sting me as I rode it.” Then she would set a timer and say go. Our only rule during that time was we had to WRITE. No editing, no crossing out, no looking up words in dictionaries. Just open it up and pour it out.

    It was totally liberating.

    • That makes me want to send your teacher, whoever she was, a big bouquet of flowers. Bless her for using freewriting on fifth-graders. And thanks for sharing an example of a positive writing experience you had as a youngster. I’d love to see the essays you all wrote. I’ll bet they were brilliant.