That ‘Should’ Word

I met a new writer this evening. He’s working on a memoir, and just to pique your interest, he was famous from the ’70’s on. When the memoir comes out I’ll tell you his name but for now you’ll have to forgive me for honoring his privacy. Besides, this isn’t about dropping names. It is, of course, about the story.

He’s almost done with the first draft, handwritten in tiny words across several notebooks. Recently a relative told him, ‘you should put more family in there’. And you can guess what happened. He rewrote the first chapter and added to it and everything ground to a halt. Which is when his wife asked me to come talk to him. I told her I’m no expert, but she’s pretty hard to say no to. He didn’t know that she had talked to me about the problem. He only knew another writer was going to visit.

This afternoon I climbed steps to their A-frame in the woods, composing all the things I’d say. You writers will recognize these clichés. Don’t accept criticisms until the first draft is done and edited by you. Write what you want, what resonates with you; don’t write for an audience.  And so on. When I sat with him, this brave man pulled out the revised first chapter and started reading to me. And all the things I planned on saying faded.

When he was done I told him that I could pick out his revisions and pointed to one particular passage about a brother. And then I told him why that passage stood out so starkly. The previous vignettes started with a humorous story that captured you and had you smiling, until they very seamlessly segued into things like an essay on Vietnam and war in general, on how that war impacted him, his way of looking at life, and the things he did and came to do. I went from laughing to getting teary. In those pieces, he pulled up his emotions, placed them in front of the reader, and made the reader feel them.

The added insert was a simple, ‘he said this, he did that’ type of family story. He was telling, not sharing.

To prove my point, I told him that I bet that insert was a lot easier to write than the rest. He agreed, surprised. I said that was because there was no emotion, no connection, no soul. We talked about how you can’t get a reader to drop tears on the page if there are no tears in the words.

We also talked about how, when someone says ‘you should do this’, what you really need to do is run the other way. I used to work with a therapist who would say, ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda; the paving stones to hell’.

So I didn’t give him all the writing advice I’d planned on, but when I left, we’d decided that for the way he writes, from now on, anytime this memoir is coming easy, with no effort, then that’s a flag for him to go back and see if he’s there in the words.

I’m no expert but I feel pretty good today. My friends have supported and helped me with writing and it was wonderful to pass a little of that on.

And I can’t wait for the book to come out.

10 thoughts on “That ‘Should’ Word

  1. Now I can’t wait either.

    Reading this post makes me wish I could get cool and get some sleep. Everything about this way too hot weather is making me feel woozy and stupid, when all I want to do is finish the WOH book and get back to my novel. I’d rather be back in there figuring out what works and what doesn’t.


    • I can’t imagine breathing in the heat wave you’re in, let alone sleeping. We complain when it hits the mid 70s here. I think our brain cells hibernate in the heat like a bear hibernates in the winter. Hope it cools off soon.


  2. This has left me wanting that book, as well! Being an expert or not – I don’t think that matters. You offered him a different point-of-view, and from the sidelines you had a glimpse at something he may not have noticed being so up close.

    “We talked about how you can’t get a reader to drop tears on the page if there are no tears in the words.”

    I love this; something I always try to keep in mind when I’m writing. If there is no passion in our words, how can we expect others to feel passionate about them?

    Great post. 🙂


    • Exactly. Nothing to do with being an expert or not. It’s simply fresh eyes, distance, and no bias. I feel I fall short when trying to get that passion onto the page and dread that feeling when re-reading/editing, that the words are flat. It’s a constant challenge.


    • What we need is some sort of writer commune so we can all huddle together and help each other face our words! Not a retreat, a hidey hole. And every so often we can shove each other out, kicking and screaming, into the real world for a while before scuttling back to the supportive hands of fellow writers. Can you picture it? Writers with all our neuroses, clutching our paper and pens? Seriously though, where would we be without the support of each other?


  3. I can’t wait either! And that advice is wonderful, really wonderful. I love that you said “for the way he writes” because a big component of shoulds is one-size-fits-all. I think that’s the best kind of help/support/mentoring: when someone can take a look at what you’ve written and what kind of writing you are, and give you a suggestion that fits with both. Any writer (heck, any artist, any PERSON) can use that kind of help, anytime, and it’s such a gift both to be able to receive it and give it when it’s needed!


    • I am very strongly against one size fits all and also against books on writing that state I must write a specific way in order to be a success. And you nailed it when you said a component of ‘should’ is one size fits all. I now try very hard to not let that word into my world. But you’d be surprised how often it sneaks in.


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