I Should/Could/Would Be Writing
I had a moment or two recently that brought to mind something I’ve been meaning to write about.
Creativity and English’s subjunctive mood.
Sounds pretentious, but that was going to be the title of the hypothetical post. Stick with me, and I’ll try to keep this winding story on track.
The subjunctive mood in English is a grammar construct to explore conditional or imaginary situations. We see it most often in clauses like “if I were”, and often are easier to recognize when the verb is altered with “should”, “would”, or “could”. (This is very simple. Visit the Purdue OWL guide for more clarity and examples. Its the spirit of the thing we’re addressing here.)
The spirit of the subjunctive mood is summed up in one of my father’s favorite ways to dismiss excuses: “Shoulda, woulda, coulda!”
I’m amazed at how often this attitude appears in discussion about people’s creative lives. One common meme shows up in writing groups all the time: You should be writing.
The subjunctive mood isn’t inherently bad. I only started thinking about it and what its use does to its users after listening to a TED talk by Phuc Tran: Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive.
In his talk, Mr. Tran discusses how he feels his experience with language – going from Vietnamese to English – opened up possibilities and perspectives he (and his parents) never had. The subjunctive mood doesn’t exist in Vietnamese. He suggests some of their issues adjusting to American views came from not having a way to talk about imaginary situations.
Personally, I don’t back the idea that just because a person doesn’t have a way to say something, the concept doesn’t exist for them. I do believe having a way to say something increases how it’s integrated in a person’s life and how they process situations.
I believe constant use of the subjunctive mood in the way we talk about ourselves undermines creativity (and, more obviously, productivity).
It specifically undermines our capacity to buckle down and do the work necessary to improve our craft, achieve successes, and share our work.
If, in a day, someone can say “I plan to write”, or “I will draw”, or “I should be practicing”, and they never get to the “I am working” on whatever it is, what’s happened?
We might be tempted to say nothing’s happened, but that isn’t the case. No work has been done, but the brain has been busy the whole time.
I’m going to borrow some examples from Ben C Fletcher D.Phil., Oxon, author of Flex: Do Something Different, who wrote a post on this for Psychology Today back in 2012. Do these sound familiar?
“Roger wears a safety helmet when cycling—then stops and has a cigarette.
Craig chooses a foreign holiday but is upset when he can’t get his favourite beer and there are olives in the salad.
The obese Smith family wear the latest sports clothing but never exercise.
Marty is obsessive about recycling but flies long-haul.
Carol loves watching cookery programmes but lives on take-aways.
Jim has renewed his wedding vows and is sleeping with his secretary.
Kath tries to park as close as possible to the gym where she is going to an exercise class.
Hayley has credit card debts and a cupboard full of dresses and shoes she’s hardly ever worn.”
He describes this disparity as a conflict between our “experiencing self” and our “reflecting self”.
The “reflecting self” is our concept of ourselves, which is not always based on fact and action.
The creative people who have been partying in “shoulda, woulda, coulda” land (I make trips there myself, rather often) haven’t been doing nothing. They’ve been crafting their identity as creatives on their intent, not on action toward fulfillment of their goals.
To should/would/could a project creates a feedback loop in the mind – you are a writer even if you never write a word, you are a dancer even though you rarely dance, you are what you do not do.
Writing, like any pursuit, takes deliberate practice. I’ve talked about that a lot before, so I’ll just link to those articles here instead of sound off all over again.
This all came back to my mind when I saw a post on Facebook shared by DeviantArt. It referenced a speech, a commencement speech, delivered to the New England School of Photography by Arno Rafael Minkkinen in 2004. Minkkinen’s analogy is relatively well-known. He called it The Helsinki Bus Station Theory.
James Clear shares it, and some excellent thoughts, in his post The Proven Path to Doing Unique and Meaningful Work.
I’m going to summarize here, but I won’t come close to the intricacies of it. For that, visit his post.
Minkkinen describes a Helsinki bus station, with a number of lines that follow the same path at first but diverge drastically much later down the line. He compares that with the necessary path of a creative career. There’s quite a lot of doing what other people have done before you, revising your approach, attempting new things only to be told others have done it before. At some point, as long as you stay on the bus, you will find ground no one has covered. You will find a place where who you are and what you do can be recognized. But you must stay on the bus.
To stay on the bus means to continue working, revising, pushing to be different. To stop working, to put off work, means you’ve left the bus to go on without you.
Sometimes there are excellent reasons to put work aside. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. I’ve been in both positions and the guilt trips are real.
It’s easy to slip into the realm of “shoulda, woulda, coulda”.
The point here is to catch ourselves and turn that “you should be writing” into “I am writing” as soon and as often as possible.