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Pam (Neal) Dudley, MSW, LCSW

New Year's Day 2019, I packed my little green car with all of my worldly possessions and headed from Maryland to Texas; on a journey to live as a writer. Unencumbered by the high cost of living and the hustle and bustle of the DC area, I took the leap of faith and began my 2,000-mile drive.

Across Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and finally, Texas. I limited my driving to six-eight hours per day, enjoying music, podcasts, the skyline, conversations with God, and calls with friends, including calls from the man that would become my hubby. I stopped at a few historical landmarks along the way. I loved the freedom on the open highway and thoughts of my future as a writer in Corsicana.

I received a warm welcome from the 100W artist community: lovely dinner parties and artist events, and lots of time to write. But three weeks in, something happened.

In part seven of my series on Cognitive Distortions, the ways our thinking gets derailed and causes us life problems, I’ll explore the distortion, “The Shoulds.”

One month into my leap of faith, it hit me: Was I crazy? Who closes a successful therapy practice to drive halfway around the country to become a gainfully unemployed writer?

The other residents at 100W, and others I met in town, were all established artists. They had been awarded several residencies and grants, taught at universities, won competitions, and published or had gallery showings. I was over 50 and just beginning.

I collapsed under an onslaught of negative thoughts.

You can’t write a book. You should have kept writing after college. You should have stayed in Maryland. You should have saved more money first. You should have majored in writing.

The shoulds were paralyzing!

I spent one week of my two-month writer residency finding things wrong with the pages I’d already written. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. I broke the cardinal rule of every writer: write first then edit. As I edited, I became convinced that I should not have moved to Texas because I am a terrible writer who will never publish anything.

I was “should-ing” all over myself!

I reached out to friends and learned that many writers feel like incompetent-frauds at times. Other friends reminded me of the articles I’d helped them write and the funny skits I’d written over the years. My confidence growing, I read an article. It suggested that I didn’t have to listen to the shoulds that told me the first draft should be amazing. The article suggested I simply write a crappy first draft, then edit.

When we practice the shoulds, we put tremendous pressure on ourselves to get it right and live up to unrealistic expectations. When we apply shoulds to others, we set ourselves up to be disappointed when they don’t meet our expectations. The shoulds are fraught with anger and resentment.

Since the residency, I’ve published almost thirty of these commentary columns and another fourteen human interest interview articles. I’ve had two one-act plays accepted by competitions. A few months ago, while lamenting about what I needed to do to be a writer, my hubby said, “If you’ve done all that, you’re a writer.”

The shoulds almost took me out of the writer game. I continue to work at it, fighting the shoulds. My current shoulds tells me that I should have won a Pulitzer by now. Fortunately, I turned that “should” into an aspiration.

I started my writer journey prayerfully with God. Praying to use my writing gifts as God desires. When the shoulds start dragging their nails down the chalkboard, I remember that God isn’t limited by my past or what I should have done. Anything is possible.

I took a break from a major project to write this article today. I’m excited to share the news that the Warehouse Theater commissioned me to write a play to be performed virtually in a few months. I’m hard at work on it, and can’t wait for everyone to see it. This over-50 newbie writer will soon have a play produced by a theatre! The shoulds almost prevented that.

I’m learning to change my shoulds into cans. Instead of, “I should have already…” I say, “If anyone can be a writer, I can.” “If anyone can have a play in a theatre, I can.” Nothing is stopping me from writing wonderful plays or winning a Pulitzer one day. And even if I never win a Pulitzer, I’d rather spend my life working towards it than being paralyzed by the shoulds.

Life is so much better when I stop should-ing and start can-ing. I am resisting the urge to comment about not should-ing on the cans. But this is a family-friendly paper, so I won’t.

Pam C. Dudley, MSW, LCSW, is a playwright, stage director, and CBT certified psychotherapist pursuing the creative life in Corsicana, Texas. She is most passionate about sharing the love of Christ, helping people heal from hurts, and writing musicals! She is the owner of My Write Mind, PLLC Counseling Center, now offering virtual therapy sessions.

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