Knowing What You Don’t Want

In my previous post, Making Lemonade from Those Writing Lemons, I wrote about discarding an approach to writing that didn’t suit my temperament. One of our readers was so passionate on the topic she wrote a response worthy of another blog post. Please welcome our guest, Judith Shaw.

Image © Milli Thornton

Image © Milli Thornton

IT’S EASY TO HAVE the feeling that to get anything out of a class or clinic you have to agree with the teacher or with what is being taught. I learned how wrong that assumption is when I was a horsewoman trying to improve my skills and the proficiency of my horse.

As with writing courses, every horse trainer has the “answer” that will revolutionize everything. You will become a stellar horse handler/dressage rider/carriage driver—whatever it is you want to learn—if you only follow her instructions. And it’s SO easy to think that there is a key, a magic formula to make it all—whatever it is—finally work well.

There’s good news and bad news.

Good news: You can always learn something from any teacher you have, regardless of the subject. Bad news: It often isn’t what you wanted to learn. Sometimes what you learn is that you fundamentally disagree with what the course leader or teacher has to say.

It’s good news, because it’s just as important to learn what you don’t want to do as it is to learn what you do want to do. Disagreeing with something or someone is a signpost to its opposite.

For example: I unexpectedly popped in on a horse trainer of mine, to find her sitting in the indoor arena with a spud gun. She had 5 or 6 horses tied up to the wall of the arena, and she was casually shooting at them with the intent of de-spooking them from sudden impacts and loud noises. I’d been working with her for quite a while with what I would have called good results, but when I saw this training method I knew: Whatever else she had in mind, it wasn’t for me.

It’s not always that dramatic. I signed up for an online course about how to plot a novel. By the time I worked my way through registration and the mechanics of signing in, I had an inkling that perhaps it wasn’t for me, but having paid my money I was going to have a go.

The basic premise of the course was this: Plotting novels is easy. You need a protagonist, an antagonist and a conflict arising between them. The plot lies in resolving the conflict.

I tried really hard to make the novel I was working on fit into that nutshell, but I couldn’t do it. To begin with, the antagonist of my coming of age novel was life in the world, not a villain with a handle bar mustache. The teacher said that wouldn’t fly. It had to be a person. By the time I realized I could not fit myself or my novel into that schema, I had fallen so far behind there was no catching up.

The course presenter had a lot of good things to say about character development, plot lines and what-have-you, but his method wasn’t for me. Period.

The downside was the course fee down the drain. The upside: I knew one writing strategy that wouldn’t work for me. That realization was worth way more than the $225 I had paid.

I know the lemons to lemonade maxim is a clichéd way of making the best of a bad deal. But it’s also true. Knowing what you don’t want puts you squarely on the path to what you do want. Or at least points you in a useful direction. And it quenches your thirst at the same time.


Judith Shaw

Judith Shaw

JUDITH SHAW is a freelance editor who lived for many years in Asia and Australia and has a deep and abiding love of dogs and horses. She has been a student of the Fear of Writing Online Course and the Fear of Writing Grad Course and is now a happy client at Writer’s Muse Coaching. Judith lives in western Massachusetts with her Australian husband and her Jack Russell Terrier, but sadly, no more horses.

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5 thoughts on “Knowing What You Don’t Want

  1. Leigh

    A spud gun???? Argh! Horrible!

    Sometimes I’ve felt like I was being shot at with a spud gun, after a particularly painful “educational” experience. Your article reminded me that even when experiences are painful/difficult/boring or just-not-for me, they are all valuable. Grist for the old mill.

    You are right. Knowing what you don’t want is as important as knowing what you want, and these are often the experiences that lead us to the latter.

    Thanks for this well written and engaging piece, Judith!

    PS — do you have the address of the spud gun lady? Maybe we could pay her a visit. With our own spud guns.

    1. Judith Shaw

      Thanks for the comment, Leigh. It means a lot to me.

      I have crossed that trainer off my list, although she sometimes sends emails inviting me to de-spooking clinics. I’m getting out the Bell, Book and Candle, and maybe the silver stake.


  2. Sandra Williams

    Well done and so true! Your point of learning from each experience and not taking the black/ white, good/bad perspective is wise. Life is what you choose to see and become. Brava.

    1. Judith Shaw

      Thank you, Sandra,

      You were my very first responder. It’s thrilling to know someone actually read my blog and liked it!



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