Last year, my book was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. I was invited to a reading in downtown Denver. When I got there, I felt so overwhelmed and confused—surely, I thought, a mistake has been made. I’m not supposed to be here. These people are artists, and I’m…me. Art talk was thick and heavy. People were talking about inspiration and muses and visions and their identities as experimental poets, or flash fiction writers.
And then there was me, a person who wrote my book in stolen moments at the mall, for chrissakes,, who went to an arts high school but has never considered myself to be an artist. I was at a total loss. I may even have gone into the bathroom and texted a friend something along the lines of “omg these people are all artists omg they will all discover that I’m here by mistake omg can I please leave now?” I’ll leave it to the phone records to tell.
It struck me that my problem might be one of permission. See, I’ve always been insecure about taking up too much space, physically and emotionally. Writing a book is a pretty dramatic statement on space, isn’t it? And pressing for its publication is a very public way of saying “Move over. I have some ideas to share, people.” I spent many years writing to escape my life. I did it surreptitiously and in secret. So coming clean with my identity as a writer meant I needed to find a sense of permission for both the act of writing and the even bigger act of going public with my words.
We’ve all seen examples of great writing that occurs without permission. Passed notes in high school. Secret diaries of people undergoing the most horrific experiences. Without permission, my writing remains trivial and small.
The word “permission” sounds weird, now that I’m using it. It means someone needs to grant it. Over the years, I have learned that only I can grant myself permission to enjoy my work (or not to enjoy it), to struggle, to experiment, to step out into the world as a writer. When I get caught up in envy, comparison, and other fear-based habits, I’m telling myself I don’t have permission to try it anyway, to struggle and to learn. In those (frequent) moments of weakness, I have to wrest permission from my own petty, clenched fists. I have to give myself permission to write as myself, sloppy, undisciplined at times, fear-driven, ridiculous. I’m the only person who can grant that to myself.
What can I say—every writer I know struggles with a sense of their worth as a person. And every great writer I know gives themselves permission to be themselves, to sit at the table and to do it anyway.
A few weeks after the reading, my book won the Colorado Book Award for the Nonfiction-General category. And I stood up on stage, bewildered and still feeling like a mistake had been made, but marveling that space was being made for me. The presenters moved aside, gave me the mic. The room quieted and people leaned forward to hear my words on my book and my experiences. And I gave myself permission to stand there and speak.
What about you? What role does permission play in your writing?