In her lovely book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro tackles a subject that will be familiar to many writers and other creative folks: the feeling that we somehow need "permission" to pull ourselves away from other tasks and sit down to do our heart's work.
"If you're waiting for the green light, the go-ahead, the reassuring wand to tap your shoulder and anoint you as a writer," she says, "you'd better pull out your thermos and folding chair because you're going to be waiting for a good long while. Accountants go to business school and when they graduate with their degrees, they don't ask themselves whether they have permission to do people's taxes. Lawyers pass the bar, medical students become doctors, academics become professors, all without considering whether or not they have the right to be going to work. But nothing and no one gives us permission to wake up and sit at home staring at a computer screen while everybody else sets their alarm clock, puts on reasonable attire, and boards the train....
"Sure, there are advanced degrees in writing and various signifiers that a career might be underway, but ultimately a writer is someone who writes. A writer who writes is someone who finds the way to give herself permission. The advanced degree is useless in this regard. No writer I know wakes up in the morning and, while brushing her teeth, thinks: Check me out, I have an MFA. Or, for that matter, I've published x number of books, or even, I've won the Pulitzer Prize. There is no magical place of arrival. There is only the solitary writer facing the page."
"Whether you are a writer just mustering up the nerve to sign up for your first weekend workshop," Shapiro continues, "or filling out your MFA applications, or one gazing moodily out from a big poster in the window of your local Barnes & Noble, you are far from alone in this business of granting yourself the permission to do your work. Masters of the form quake before the page. They often feel hopeless and despairing. They may also fall prey to petty musings. They have days in which they simply can't get out of their own way.
"But when we give ourselves permission, we move past this. The world once again reveals itself to us. We become open and aware, patient and ready to receive it....We give ourselves permission because we are the only ones who can do so."
Shapiro's good advice actually applies to many things in life besides writing, for there are all sorts of ways we can hold ourselves back from the things we need most to be doing. Most importantly, we must give ourselves "permission" to be the person we truly are -- as opposed to who we thought we'd be, or were raised to be, or who others would very much like us to be -- and no one else can do this for us. Teachers, mentors, partners, friends can provide support in various ways, but permission has to come from within if we are to own our lives, and our art.
I started this post with a photograph of my studio door, which is where I write a favorite poem each month. (The gold ink washes off with white spirit, allowing me to change the poems as often as I want to.) Many of the poems Jane Yolen has shared on this blog have ended up here...including the one below, chosen for the month of March. It's been on the door before, but it's worth repeating, and it feels just right today.
In the photo above, Tilly looks out over the hills and waits for spring to arrive. The poem on the studio door, "Taking My Own Hand," is © 2012 by Jane Yolen, all rights reserved. The Bunny Girl on my desk is by Wendy Froud.