If I don’t do it, who will?
If you’re walking down an empty street far away from the nearest fire station, and come upon a burning house, you’re going to have to ask yourself this question if you suspect someone inside needs rescuing. The question is also going to come up if you’re the only adult in the house and a (relatively) giant spider needs to be removed from the bathroom wall. There are times when we as individuals have to act–or the job just doesn’t get done.
But when it comes to writing, the question hardly ever needs to be asked. There are plenty of people capable of writing novels, essays, news stories, video games, treatises, poems, etc. And there’s only one meaningful difference between a writer who has a book, or books, on the shelf, and the people who only imagine that they might: the writer has given himself or herself permission. (This also applies to any artist or craftsperson.)
Permission is a funny thing. We first look for it from our parents, then try to elicit it from our peers as we try to validate our first timid choices. As adults, we sometimes continue to look for permission and validation from other people, even though we are supposed to be the authority in our own lives. I’m talking about giving other people the power to decide if we should be allowed to act. And I’m not talking about permission to do something dangerous–climb a mountain, jump out of a plane or race motorcycles. I’m talking about asking for permission to use our creativity. Permission to sit around and MAKE STUFF UP. Do mental fingerpainting. Amuse or edify ourselves and others. How messed up is that?
The worst part is that there isn’t really anyone there for us to ask. Seriously, has anyone ever said to you, as an adult: “You want to draw a picture/compose a song/make up a dance/make stories up and write them down on paper? No way! That’s stupid. No one will like it. No one will want to see it, or hear it, or read it. What are you thinking?” If they have, my advice would be to get away from that person very, very quickly. Chances are though that there is no one telling you this stuff except the voices in your head. (The secret is that they’re all your voice, disguised as other people. Weird, huh?)
I battle those voices every day. Every day is a new opportunity to shut them up and give myself permission. Okay, opportunity is a bullshit way of saying it’s a really big challenge that I come up against every time I sit down at the computer or open a notebook. The writer who says he or she has never had that experience is either a freak of nature (in a good way) or a sociopath who is incapable of self-doubt and introspection. It’s a huge deal. It’s that moment when I have to take a deep breath and say, “All that matters right now is that I get the words down on the page.” It happened the first time for me when I was 22 and sitting at a banged-up, used desk in a St. Louis studio apartment that I couldn’t afford without my parents’ help. It was only a handful of words, and I was scared to death that someone might see them. And scared to death that no one would ever see them. I was alone, but I felt like every person I had ever known was watching, and judging. Finally, the pencil met the paper. Nonsense ensued, but no one stopped me. I was stunned and giddy.
The act of creating is reliving that moment every day. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember that shampoo instructions always read, “Lather. Rinse. Repeat.” (Eventually we learned that just one lather and rinse per shampooing was necessary–the repetition was to sell more shampoo.) The act of creating is new every time you sit down to do it. It only starts to feel natural if you make it a habit.
Some days I give myself permission readily. Some days I screw up and find myself divided, withholding permission from myself as though I were my own rotten parent. But if I want to keep getting those books on the shelf, I have to be the adult who gives herself permission every time.
But if you just can’t do it, if you absolutely cannot give yourself permission to create whatever the hell good stuff you want to put out there today, I have something for you: You can borrow my permission until yours is ready. Here it is. Take it. It’s free, and it’s real. You don’t really need it from me, but you can have it until your own is ready. Think of it as a head start.
(Fiction words written: 350)