When I was in college, one of my favorite authors, Natalie Goldberg of Writing Down the Bones, said something that confused me. She cautioned against what she called “goody-two-shoes” writing. By that she meant slavish discipline— writing at the same time every day for a set number of hours because that is what writers are “supposed to” do. She said she had friends who wrote dutifully but she claimed that their writing never improved because they were not truly present in their writing. No genuine creative desire fueled their efforts. For them, writing was just a duty, a frigid, pious chore.
She recommended that if you ever find yourself falling into such a rut, to take a break for a couple of weeks until your mind becomes full again and you find something you really want — or need — to say; then return to writing refreshed.
I liked her insight, yet I was confused. Many prominent authors had cautioned that waiting to be “in the mood” to write was no way to make a living writing; muses were a myth. What made a writing habit, which was almost universally thought to be beneficial for writers, morph into a tedious goody-two-shoes rut? And if I took a break from writing for my mind to become “full of ideas,” what was the difference between that and just putting off writing, which I was in the habit of doing anyway?
After having written three novels, I have a clearer way of thinking about the problem that I once did. For me the “goody-two-shoes” phenomenon” lies in a particular attitude toward writing that has nothing to do with the habit of writing itself. It is the problem of “should.” If I want to be prolific, the worst thing I can tell myself about my writing is that I should write. That is because usually, whenever I think I should do anything, I would most likely rather not; otherwise, why use a guilt word to motivate myself to do it?
If I need the threat of guilt to motivate me to do something, some major resistance is usually present. Using the word “should” leads me to prepare for drudgery, to commence going through the motions in a passive-aggressive, slavish, and mechanical way as the secret rebel in me squirms. To keep myself in line, I try to become my own stern parent: “Be creative. You be creative right now, Missy! And eat your cauliflower!” Self-recrimination follows imperfection. “You only wrote eight pages today. You should have written ten. That was your target. No cookies for you!”
Maybe this method of enforcement would have some merit if it actually worked. In reality it has always worked against me. Guilt, threats, and self-punishment, all “should” words, are absolutely useless to me in the realm of creativity.
I spent most of my life as a writer this way. trapped in a cycle of self-recrimination, frustrated by my apparent inability to write consistently. On the rare occasions when I did meet my ambitious writing goals, I would feel righteous, even though I may have spent much of my writing time glancing at the clock.
When it came to writing, “piety” was about making myself write, mastering my lazy or hedonistic impulses impelling to do other things. My chronic inability to make myself write became a crisis when, after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I took mood stabilizing medication that flattened my mood and seemed to butcher my creativity. For many months I tried to write anyway because I believed I should. It was painful and I dreaded it from the moment I woke up in the mornings. Especially since I never wrote as well as I thought I should or felt the way I thought I should while writing.
There are many who say it is shameful to ever quit anything. “I am no quitter,” they proudly proclaim. “Quitters are losers! They never get anywhere!” But sometimes quitting saves you.
Depressed, blocked, and hating everything I wrote, I realized that forcing myself day after day to write was not working, despite what all the professionals had advised. I hated my flat writing and every day was more miserable than the last. One day I decided to give up. I considered giving up on writing altogether. The thought felt like a sigh. I felt like I had been holding my breath for months and suddenly I could take in air again. Quitting should not have felt so euphoric, yet for a moment it did.
But something stopped me from throwing my laptop out the window. I remembered that, at one time, I had loved writing more than anything; as a child, I had never written my ghost and animal stories because I “should.” Writing was play, power, magic. I wondered how I could get back to that point, the point where I could simply enjoy writing the way I once did whether I was ever published or not, back to the point where words were like crayons, colorful, magical and full of creative promise.
In the weeks that followed, I quit trying to force myself to write because I should. I quit trying to discipline, control, punish, threaten, overpower, intimidate and manipulate myself. I even quit trying to write for a set amount of time each day.
Instead I told myself, “Just write a sentence a day” and I really meant it. Since writing a sentence was so easy, there was usually no resistance and I always wanted to write more.
I would sometimes even forbid myself from writing more than a sentence. The exercise always left me feeling unfulfilled. “Unfair! This is stupid! I was starting to have fun. Why did I have to stop?” The reckless rebel in me, the screaming inner child that had previously resisted my writing efforts, had rallied to my side.
The lesson was that the best way to want to write was to get all the “shoulds” on the side of not writing. Writing became infinitely more attractive when I told myself, “I shouldn’t write right now. It’s too late at night.” I thought I could flip procrastination upside down and make it work for me; that is, maybe I could procrastinate not writing. As in, “Dammit, I was really planning to not write today. What is wrong with me? Maybe tomorrow I will finally get around to not writing. I really shouldn’t write so much. OMG, I have to stop!”
But what about content? What does “goody-two-shoes” writing actually look like? Natalie Goldberg never explicitly says, but in my own case, whenever I used to try to write when I was blocked, I tended to write conservatively, cautiously, and defensively. As a result, my writing tended to be dull, the kind of product you get when you write the way you think you should.
if I ever catch myself writing what I “should” write, it helps to write about a time I felt sad when I was supposed to feel joy; or about a commonly accepted belief that has always seemed hollow to me; or about the way something really is in contrast to how it is supposed to be.
Writing that comes from a place of honesty is likely to be exciting, original, and memorable. Maybe that is what Natalie Goldberg meant about being “present” in writing: honesty that ignores the cultural filters of what is expected or even allowed.
Natalie Goldberg recommends taking time off writing to recharge if your work habit starts to feel like a pious rut, but I am not a battery. I like writing every day, even if it is only 15 minutes. Doing creative activities creatively energizes, rather than exhausts, me. Writing daily also helps me preserve my habit, which makes it easy to get started every morning. My habit is not a “goody-two-shoes” habit though. It is more like my coffee-drinking habit or a breathing habit. I preserve my habit not because of guilt or because I should, but because, like coffee and breathing, it makes me feel awake and alive.