The Auxiliary Verb of Guilt

January 12, 2021 § 12 Comments

By Deborah Williams

The holidays are behind us and with them go the season of “should”: should send holiday cards, should bake festive treats, should go to worship services. Even though the pandemic may have altered some of our plans, I would imagine that for most of us, there were still “shoulds” ringing loud and clear in our minds.

And it continues to ring, that “should,” as we move into the new year and the onset of what I like to think of as flagellation season: all those resolutions, all those vows about what we’re going to do differently and better this year. “Should” governs all those resolutions; it’s the reason why (in the Before Time) gyms always get so crowded in early January.

Writers have their own fitness dreams, also governed—unless we’re careful—by “should.” We look at the gleaming blank page of the new year and we’re sure that we should do 1000 words a day (Famous Writer On Twitter does that) or we should get this new software program (our writing group buddy swears by it) or we should be doing a mind-map of the memoir (saw that on the internet)…

Should. It’s the auxiliary verb of guilt.

It’s great to be inspired by the writing buddy or the Famous Writer or the internet, but what if your writing goals for this new year were simply…whatever it is that you think you can do? Maybe even what you want to do?

Yoda had it wrong. “Do. Or do not. There is no should,” is way more helpful than telling us “there is no try.” Let’s face it, sometimes “try” is all we’ve got. We try to hit our daily word count or page count; we try to find the right words. There’s a reason that “essay” comes from the French essayer, an attempt. A try.

An essay is an attempt to capture something—but trying to capture anything with “should” is going to be tricky. I had a student once conclude an essay about The Great Gatsby by saying that Gatsby and Daisy should just have given up drinking and then everything would have been fine. Let’s disregard the fact that neither Daisy nor Gatsby drink and move to the idea that Gatsby becoming a teetotaler is irrelevant: the novel doesn’t offer us that possibility. But what that “should” suggests about the student’s own life? That’s an essay.

“Should” gets deployed in the scripts we think others have written for us: I should be this sort of parent, that sort of child, this type of partner, that type of writer. Should is not the verb of honest self-reflection—or rather, it’s not the “should” that matters, but whatever motivates the should.

The stories we need to tell lurk around that “should.” Maybe we shouldn’t have gone home with that person, or maybe we should have taken that job, or gotten a second opinion…but is the “should” the story? Or is the story that matters actually embedded in should-based regret? “Should” keeps us at arm’s length from ourselves; it prevents us from finding ways to unlock what matters.

We might think of “should” as the language of first drafts: we think we know what a memoir “should” look like and so we write towards whatever that “should” tells us to do. Sometimes that directive can help us move forward, act as a path through the unmarked territory of memory. But sticking to the path that someone else established may prevent us from striking out in the direction that we need to take. The obvious joke here: “We should write without should,” but I won’t make that joke. I’ll say only that when we start “should-ing” ourselves, we might think about why we’re chastising ourselves: maybe that’s where to start the story.

Instead of thinking about what we “should” do this new year, let’s find the stories that we want (or need) to tell and try to tell them—essay them—as best we can.

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Deborah Williams is a writer and literature professor based in Abu Dhabi. Her work has appeared in The Common, The Paris Review Daily, The New York Times, Brevity Blog, The Rumpus and others. She is finishing a novel based on the life of Lady Hester Stanhope, who defied convention (and Napoleon) to wander the Mediterranean and the Levant with her much-younger lover. Follow Deb on Twitter and Instagram @mannahattamamma.

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§ 12 Responses to The Auxiliary Verb of Guilt

  • Smart: “…it’s not the ‘should’ that matters, but whatever motivates the should.”

    • dwilliams says:

      Thanks! It’s tricky, right? Because I think those shoulds get so deeply embedded that we take them as truths, as if they’re immutable…

  • henhouselady says:

    I’m taking should out of my vocabulary this instant. Great post.

    • dwilliams says:

      Thanks for the comment — I’ve been trying to “de-should” myself for a long time. It’s harder than I thought it would be…

  • joellefraser says:

    Thank you for this. My mom (a therapist) used to say “shoulds are shits!” That always made me laugh. You have given me a lot more reason to admire her comment and its truth.

    • dwilliams says:

      That’s an awesome thing to say! And so so true — and yet, we are so governed by that insidious little word. Should I say that we shouldn’t be so responsive to should?? : )

  • When you put it like that… I’ll have to re-examine all my ‘shoulds.’ And, yes, I hate the gym this time of year…

    • dwilliams says:

      Yes! In the Before Time, these were the weeks when all those “I’m gonna change” folks were clogging up the classes and machines in the gym…by late February it was the tried-and-true who remained…(but I will not even mention how many pairs of “this year I’m going to start running” sneakers are under my bed!)

  • Relax... says:

    This is so encouraging!

  • Kristen Paulson-Nguyen says:

    Every word of this is helpful. Thank you. As a former french major, I always think of the word “essayer” when I write essays. I inevitably go through dozens of drafts before an essay feels “finished.” But I’m not sure if they ever are.

    • dwilliams says:

      Yes! I think some wise writer (Anne Lamott? someone else?) said that work is never “finished,” we just choose to let it go…

  • Jenny Apostol says:

    Should is the first draft– that sounds right. And then, let it go. Thanks.

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