chipped cup

“Sure, there are advanced degrees in writing and various signifiers that a career may be under way, but ultimately a writer is someone who writes. And a writer who writes is one who finds a way to give herself permission.” – Still Writing, Dani Shapiro

As a child, no one “gave me permission” to write. I just wrote.

Because I personally find stories about childhood mind-bogglingly uninteresting, and almost always skip over them when reading memoirs, I’ll say: I began reading at two, began writing shortly thereafter, and quickly decided that I was going to be an author when I grew up.

In my early 20s, I cut short my career path as a research-oriented clinical psychologist, and chose to pursue an MFA in Fiction instead. I was giving myself permission to abandon SPSS, the tedium of constructing abstracts. But to “be a writer” — this involved a new kind of permission, and one that meant the opinions and decisions of top programs in the field. To receive an acceptance email from one of my top choices — and, in my mind, it had to be from one of my top choices to matter — that was another kind of permission. Someone had decided that I was Good Enough.

That feeling of permission, as I learned over the years, becomes increasingly difficult to keep. As Dani says in another section of Still Writing, “The more we have at stake, the harder it is to make the leap into writing.” And there was always more at stake.

For example: my MFA program had a yearly awards program. Several of these prizes were worth, at minimum, ten thousand dollars. My peers and I longed for, and dreaded, the season in which we all went sleepless and prepared our submissions. We never knew the exact date of when prizewinners would receive email notifications prior to the actual ceremony, which was, essentially, as fraught of an event as I imagine the Oscars to be for an actor living in Hollywood; the environment, even among friends, became toxic with anticipatory envy and fear.

To win one of those awards was, of course, another kind of permission.

And then we graduated, and we forgot about those awards (mostly), but then it began: the publications in Harpers and perhaps even The New Yorker, the acquisition of literary agents, the acceptances to various prestigious fellowships and residencies, the six-figure book deals, the recognition by Oprah. A few of these things happened to me, but I saw them happening to some of my friends in abundance, and to me that meant — permission! Permission! More permission for them! All of the gold stars — and isn’t it true that there are only so many gold stars to receive? And didn’t it mean that I wasn’t fit to be a writer, a real writer, if I wasn’t receiving that permission as well?

As Dani says, a writer is someone who writes. I frequently forget this.

This doesn’t just have to do with writing, either.

What, then, is an entrepreneur?

An artist?

A teacher?

Whose permission are you waiting for?