Shoulds ruin your choice of topic, your tone, your writing dreams.  Heather Sellers, Chapter After Chapter

This morning’s craft chapter made me think about graduate school.  It’s been on my mind a lot this week, largely because I found out that there’s a strong possibility we will be getting a PhD program in clinical psychology with an emphasis in forensic psych–which is totally my bag.  I planned to get a PhD in clinical from the time I was 16.  Through a variety of circumstances that don’t bear mentioning now, I wound up with my Master’s and being entirely content, as I realized when I graduated that a PhD was not going to help me achieve what I wanted to achieve–to write professionally.  But the topic came up earlier this week, and it fired my imagination.  One of the perks of my job is that I can take two classes a semester for free.  I haven’t used this perk up to this point, as I’m too busy teaching to take classes.  But the option is there.  And I was fired up about the possibility of going back.  I graduated at the top of my class here, so I’m a shoe in for acceptance should the program get off the ground.  Once the first day enthusiasm wore off, I was left with more serious issues related to going back to grad school again.

I didn’t write during graduate school.  Oh I tried off and on, but mostly my time was so consumed with work and school and spouse–I didn’t make writing a priority.  I made good grades a priority.  I made learning everything I could learn from my classes a priority.  Which are good priorities to have when you’re in grad school, but not necessarily good ones if you want to write.  The most writing I did in school was on my thesis.  I rebelled against my clinical research training and did a sociological study on creativity.  It’s a topic that fascinated me–what makes a piece of writing creative?  Traditional definitions of creativity rely on the concept of novelty, but that doesn’t hack it in fiction.  A pink rhinoceros jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge is novel, but it isn’t going to win a Pulitzer.  So my nifty little qualitative study was to suss out what does make a piece of writing creative.  I won’t bore you with the details.  In any event, I busted my chops on that thesis.  I finished sooner than any of my classmates.  I poured so much of my literary and psychological background into it in an effort to make it not only informative, but interesting.

Then they made me change it.  I was being “too literary” and “not scientific”.  I was forced to take out every single thing that made the study interesting to me.  The soul of it withered up and died, as did my interest in pursuing further graduate work.  So I finished up, graduated, and came back to the writing I’d been neglecting.  For months I thought they’d ruined me.  I couldn’t find my voice.  I couldn’t get away from the dry, stilted, high-brow language of science.  I still struggle with a tendency to clinically distance myself from my characters as if they were clients instead of people I need to live and breathe.

As Sellers said, shoulds ruined my choice of topic, my tone, and my writing dreams.

Can I really bear to go through that again?  Apart from all the time and effort considerations, am I really willing to risk losing my voice again?

I don’t know for sure.  Probably not.  I know that I’d make more of an effort to maintain the writing if I went back.  But now that the “oooo shiny” new has worn off the idea, it’s not nearly as appealing as sticking to my guns and just continuing on doing what I’ve been doing.

9 thoughts on “Shoulds

  1. I heard someone once say, “I’m shoulding all over myself!” It looks funny written down, but sounds funny when said quickly. But the advice is still intact… I hope you manage to sort out what you feel you “should” so and what you feel a desire to do, and are able to make the best choice.

  2. Thanks Nicole. It’s all kind of jumping the gun at this point. It will be 2 years before the program is up and running (if it does happen) because they’ve got to recruit faculty and such.

  3. To me this is the heart of the issue of I could take classes but as long as I’m doing that, I may as well go for the degree, right?

    Well sure, that makes sense. But in light of what you’re saying here, no, it doesn’t make sense. It’s not necessarily one or the other, program or writing. If you can take the classes without going for the degree, then you can take them with writing as your priority. You can concentrate on getting as much out of them as you can to inform your writing, put your fiction first, and not put all your effort into being academically excellent and top of your class.

    The real question is whether or not your ego can handle not being the best at what you’re used to being the best at while you work on being better at what the rest of you really wants.

  4. Which one of us is the trained therapist? 😀 I actually think I am psychologically incapable of going back to school and NOT being the top of my class. It’s too much a part of me as a student. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right. Part of it will depend on how much I have left. If it will be simply taking all the forensic focus classes that I want to take anyway and writing a dissertation then it seems foolish to take the classes and not get the degree. But if there’s a lot more to it than that, then yeah, I’ll just take the classes because they’re darn cool and interesting and go on my merry way.

  5. That sounds like a reasonable analysis of the situation. I don’t think I could ever write a thesis on anything. I don’t particularly care for people coming in, trying to bulldoze over my voice.

  6. Can’t say I took it graciously. 😀 I was one of the more outspoken members of my class… Outspoken…yeah…that’s the polite way to put it…

  7. Hello there Seanchai!
    What a great post. PLEASE don’t allow other people’s shoulds to drain of you creativity and passion. I actually wrote an entire book about the consequences of “shoulds” called, “Absolutely Should-less.” It will be released on November 1. Until then, I’m blogging about the every day destructive shoulds I encounter. If you’re interested, I would love for you to stop by my page at

    And I had no idea Peter Sellers ever said that! Thanks for letting me know.

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