Having Permission to Write

I may have told this story before. If I have, pretend it is brand new to you, because I think it is worth repeating, and I’m going to add a little something to the end of it.

The story goes like this:

I attended Seton Hill University, taking the M.A. (now and MFA) in Writing Popular Fiction. This is a low-residency program, meaning I attended in person for a total of five weeks, one in January, one in June, over two and a half years. The rest of the program was done online. Seton Hill’s program is also one of the only programs in North America that focuses soley on genre fiction, as in horror, science fiction, fantasy, young adult, inspirational, romance, mystery. Nothing that would be considered “Literary.” It’s a great program with amazing people. I highly recommend it.

OK. So. Every student is paired with an instructor who will be their mentor/advisor for the program. There is a switch after the first year to a new mentor. Barring any unforseen extensions, each student has a total of two mentors for the program. At each residency, that’s the week actually on campus, the students and mentors meet to discuss progress, and anything else that needs to be talked about that hasn’t already been done via email. The first meeting with a mentor is where students plan out their thesis for the program, which is to say, they go over the novel they plan to write for the program and the mentor gives feedback.

Enter me. I’m at my first residency. I’ve been writing for forever, and I’ve been working on this epic fantasy novel for a good five years. It has had the first few chapters critiqued a few times, and is by now on its fourth iteration. Each re-telling has been about 100k words. You’d think that they’d be getting better, more original, and that I’d have the story nailed down. Nope. Each one was objectively getting worse. But I was determined. This was the one. It was serious. It was epic. It was the kind of story “real” writers wrote.

As the week progresses, essentially every interraction with a classmate went like: “Hi, who are you? What do you write?” My answer was always that I was writing this epic fantasy, and then my entire demeanour changed, I got animated and smiley and said, and I’m also working on this book about a female dwarf and… and then I’d go on about Mabel.

My first mentor meeting arrives. I was paired with Anne Harris. I think I bought her a box of chocolates as a thank you as was the student custom. Anne, too, was new to the program. This was her first time there as an instructor/mentor. I was her first meeting time slot. 

We get down to business and I tell her about this epic novel I’m going to write. I have the outline and everything, which I give her. She looks it over and says, “Well this has been done before.” Admittedly, this was not what I wanted to hear. I’d put a lot of time into this monstrosity. Me being the extra-sensitive person that I am, a few tears may have started to well. And my mind is racing.

Anne, seeing me upset, says, “It can be fixed.” My stellar reply: “How long will that take?” That’s never a sign that this is a project worth continuing. Anne asks if I care about the characters. I think I looked at her like she was a bit crazy. Why would I care about the characters? I think I said something lame about that the main character had a good personality or something. That wasn’t what Anne meant. We talked about it a bit more. No, I don’t care about the characters.

And the tears have started falling now. Anne runs to get some tissue and I’m feeling horrible, absolutely embarrassed because first of all, I seem to have only two ways of showing emotion which are laughing or crying. But I’m also embarrassed because Anne, rightfully so, thinks I’m upset.

Anne gets back and I wipe my eyes and I say, “You don’t understand. I’m not upset. I’m relieved.” 

I think she was a bit shocked by that.

I went on to explain how I’d been telling everyone about Mabel, that that was the story I wanted to write, but that I thought I had to write something so epic and serious to be a real writer, and now I finally, finally felt free of that epic monstrosity.

Anne said that it sounded to her like I needed someone to give me permission to write what I wanted to write. I agreed. She said she gave me that permission, and I asked her to write it down in my notebook, make it official. Yes, we were laughing by now. So she did. She wrote me a permission slip in my notebook, and signed it “A real writer.”

When I defended my thesis by giving a reading and answering questions, Anne introduced me. She told the story of our first meeting, and gave me another permission slip, this time on water-proof paper. I keep it framed in my office. It says, “In perpetuity, Sherry Peters has permission to write whatever she damn well pleases.”

I think a lot about how I needed permission to write something light-hearted, to write, well, whatever kind of story I want to write. How I still look to that permission slip as a reminder that I have that freedom. I think, too, of my clients who have needed that kind of permission from me, or from someone else.

I don’t know if it is because we are too afraid to disappoint people, to step out of social norms, or to bend the rules, but so often we need permission from others, to do what we believe most passionately about.

We need to learn to give ourselves permission.

Permission to write the kind of story we want to write, to tell it the way we want to tell it.  And to be imperfect the first time and the twentieth. We need to allow ourselves the freedom to explore new ideas and new paths, and to take the time to research and develop those ideas and our skills.

We need to give ourselves permission to take time for ourselves to write, and to give writing the priority in our lives that we want it to have. To say no to unwanted distractions and unnecessary obligations. 

Giving ourselves permission isn’t easy. If we don’t do it, who will? Not everyone is fortunate to have an Anne Harris who will write them a permission slip. I have that permission slip, and I still look to it, because it is easier to point to it, than it is to give myself that permission. But I’m working on it. 

If you need someone else to give you permission until you can give it to yourself:

“In perpetuity ___(Insert your name here)___ has permission to write whatever they damn well please, to be an imperfect writer, to edit as often as they need to, to take time to write, and to set the boundaries they need, to achieve their writing goals.

Signed,
Sherry Peters, A Real Writer”

Have you needed permission to write, to pursue your writing goals? How have you given yourself permission?

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