Getting The Message

I had a strange experience last week. Back in January/February, I booked an Arvon course called Editing Fiction. My plan was to use the opportunity to finish my novel and start submitting it to agents. The course was last week and it was amazing — I learnt a lot and felt inspired. However, by the end of the week, I had decided to abandon my novel.

Notebook

To say I hadn’t expected this outcome would be an understatement. One of my 2018 goals was to get The Novel up to a decent standard, making it the best I could. I was persuaded to read the opening chapter to my writing group and got encouraging feedback. I had redrafted it 4 times since I wrote the first draft 3/4 years ago. I was sure that working on this novel was what I should be doing.

And that was the problem. I was no longer enthusiastic about The Novel. Had fallen out of love with it.

The realisation came during a tutorial with one of my favourite writers. I went in babbling about not knowing whether I should be prioritising The Novel and feeling like an utter idiot. Luckily, the tutor is an excellent teacher and reader of humans: she saw something I hadn’t yet realised. She recounted her experience of writing a novel and losing it when her laptop was stolen. After the initial shock, she was relieved.

She asked me how I would feel if the same happened to me. My answer? Free.

Permission

The Novel isn’t right for me. Not at the moment, anyway. As the course tutor pointed out, if it had been right for me to keep working on it, I would have been offended and defensive when she suggested I quit. Instead, I was delighted to receive permission to stop.

I have thought a lot about permission in relation to writing. Like many other writers, I struggle with confidence and the paradox of assuming my work isn’t good enough and being arrogant enough to want people to read my stories. However, I had never considered seeking permission not to write — to abandon something in which I have invested a lot of time, effort and even (thanks to an online course on plot) money.

I don’t think twice about casting aside short stories that aren’t working for me, but The Novel felt different. I have never written a novel which is good enough to publish; perhaps I thought I had to prove myself. A lot of the writing advice I came across said to keep going, to finish projects, so I felt obliged to continue. To keep redrafting, even when I was no longer motivated.

Quitting feeds into a lot of my fears and negative beliefs: that I’m a failure, lazy, simply not good enough. Yet what is the point of pursuing a goal which I no longer want to achieve?

Lessons

The tutor reassured me that I hadn’t wasted my time on The Novel. It’s  an experience which has improved my writing and will help me to clarify my goals as a writer. I have learnt a lot through writing it, from the fact that spending 3/4 years on a project probably means I’m not lazy, to the Writers HQ course which developed my plotting skills. I’m not upset about giving up on it; I’m happier, lighter.

Although it’s early days, I believe that I will learn a lot from putting The Novel aside. It has made me wonder what else I’m clinging to in my life.

Signposts

The strangest part of this experience has been finding evidence that I knew — unconsciously — I should abandon The Novel before it was pointed out to me. In my lists of current goals, I have not prioritised The Novel. I was reluctant to show the other course tutor, an editor, my synopsis because I thought it was crap, which I now translate as knowing I didn’t believe in it, since it would have been sensible to ask her how to make the synopsis less crap. In my tutorial with the editor, she asked me questions about The Novel which I hadn’t considered. Why hadn’t I considered them? Because I didn’t care.

Other people on my course talked about their projects with enthusiasm, but I didn’t enjoy talking about The Novel. I was too ashamed to show it to the writer I admire — instead of my first chapter, I submitted a short story which I actually quite like.

With hindsight, it is clear I shouldn’t be working on The Novel. Yet I ignored the signs for months.

Again, it makes me wonder what else I’m overlooking. I am trying to trust my intuition, but I get swayed by what I “should” be doing. I “should” finish The Novel. I “should” focus on The Novel because its premise is commercial. I “should” be better at promoting myself and my work.

When I act on my intuition, the outcome is usually good. I can’t think of a time when I have regretted following my intuition; just loads of times I wish I had, but didn’t.

Doing

Forget what I “should” do. That’s the main lesson I took from the Arvon course. I can’t waste time and energy trying to be a different kind of writer, a different kind of person.

I’m not sure why I fight against my intuition so much — or why I fail to see the signs which point me towards what I really want. I think I’m getting better at recognising what I need to do, but this experience has taught me that I’m far more likely to listen to people I admire than to myself. It’s something I need to change.

Another issue which was mentioned in my tutorial is confidence. The self-doubt will never go away, says the writer whose books I buy as soon as I can (in print, no less). And it can be a good thing, because the best writers are those who are continually trying to improve, not the ones who believe their work is perfect.

Again, this is something I kind of knew, but it was reassuring to hear from one of my favourite writers. If I wait to feel confident before doing anything, especially writing/submitting stories, it won’t happen. I need to take action despite lacking confidence, to make it a habit.

When I take action towards goals which are important to me, I feel energised. Even if I was exhausted and demotivated before doing anything. I stopped feeling energised by The Novel long ago. I just needed someone else to give me the message.

Permission to Be Fabulous

Two weeks ago today, I was panicking. It was the first day of my Arvon short story course at Totleigh Barton and I had no idea what to expect. Meeting new people is nerve wracking for most people, but it’s one of my biggest triggers for anxiety, which has been severe in the past, so I was especially worried.

My fears were somewhat allayed by the Arvon staff and my fellow students, who were all warm and welcoming. As the week went on, I grew increasingly comfortable around everyone. Our tutors, Clare Wigfall and Tod Wodicka, were also friendly and supportive. It was a fantastic week — intense, challenging and inspiring.

As my anxiety shifted its focus from whether everyone would hate me and think I’m stupid (aided by vast quantities of wine…), I became preoccupied with my major concerns relating to my writing. These can be summed up as:

• Who the fuck am I to try to make a living from writing?

• Who the fuck am I to write this particular story?

• Who the fuck am I to have goals and dreams?

I realised that these issues all relate to one concept:

Permission

Permission to write, permission to write what I want, permission to take myself seriously as a writer.

I recalled an interesting blog post by Tania Hershman about permission and was surprised to find, upon rereading it, that she refers to an Arvon short story course she taught at Totleigh Barton. She discusses how permission can be gained from the example set by other people’s writing — how other writers have found ideas, written in certain styles or formats, about specific subjects, etc. All of which I wholeheartedly agree with; I have been inspired by various writers to experiment in my writing.

In fact, during the short story course, I hit upon an idea which made me uncomfortable because I felt I didn’t have permission to write about the topic at its core. Strangely, when I consider other writers, I am adamant that anybody can write about anything — as long as they seek the emotional truth at the heart of their story. Nobody owns a particular story until they write it; you can write about your own experiences, of course, but you can also write about experiences which are vastly different to your own. However, I find it difficult to give myself permission.

External Permission

My course tutors were brilliant at giving me external permission to write about whatever comes up. Their tutoring styles were contrasting but complementary: Clare reassured me to continue exploring my ideas and Tod challenged me to think more deeply about my ideas. I continued to work on my story and will complete it at some point (hopefully) in the near future.

I also received external permission when I won the Devon prize in the Exeter Writers short story competition: somebody thought my story was good! Maybe I’m not completely deluded in trying to write. Ditto whenever I receive any encouragement in my writing — it feels like I’m being given permission to continue writing.

Yet as much as I enjoy receiving external permission, I know that I need to give myself permission.

Internal Permission

The more I think about this, the more parallels I find between writing and recovering from mental illness. I spend so much time seeking permission from others, too scared to push my boundaries without it, that I often play it too safe. I shy away from risks, despite experience having taught me that the biggest risks have the biggest payoffs.

There simply isn’t time to hang around waiting for somebody else to give you permission to pursue your goals. Most people are too busy worrying about whether they have permission to follow their own dreams to stop and give you permission to follow yours. Even if you have close friends or relatives who act as permission givers, encouraging you to take risks and push your boundaries, you ultimately need to give yourself permission.

No matter how we pretend to be mature and sophisticated, I think most of us have internalised aspects of fairy tales which do us no favours. We might not literally believe that Prince Charming will rescue us from a life of drudgery, but we bestow this wish onto other things which we (mistakenly) believe will transform our lives and make everything better — winning the lottery being a prime example. We know we don’t have a fairy godmother, but we still wait for someone else to give us permission to go to the ball.

I need to give myself permission. Both in writing and in life. It also needs to be continuous, rather than letting myself take risks sometimes and letting myself hide behind my anxiety at other times.

Consistent Permission

Consistency is key to any success. As a big tennis fan, I see that what divides players at every level is not innate talent or luck, but consistency in training, mental attitude and skill. Every aspiring writer gets told about the famous examples whose manuscripts were rejected many times before hitting the big time (JK Rowling, anyone?), but that’s merely the most visible kind of consistency.

Success in writing usually depends on consistently practicing and improving your craft, finishing projects and submitting work. I need to keep giving myself permission to write and to be a writer.

The same is true of any goal — giving yourself permission every once in a while is not enough. You need to give yourself permission every day to prioritise what matters to you. Even if you don’t actively work towards your goal every day, the permission needs to be given on a daily basis as a reminder that your goals are important.

All-Encompassing Permission

Over the past week, since finishing my Arvon course, I have been learning about how permission applies to all areas of my life. I have realised that part of managing my mental health is giving myself permission, every day, to monitor how I’m feeling and to work with my symptoms, not against them. Sometimes this can be counterintuitive — it’s hard not to berate myself for being lazy when I know that I’m not well enough to work. Sometimes it involves challenging myself more than I find comfortable, because I know it’s better for my long term mental health.

Giving yourself permission isn’t easy, but it is necessary if you want to lead a fulfilling life.

Think of the people you admire most — your heroes and role models. Whoever they are, I bet they didn’t wait for someone to give them permission most of the time. I bet they gave themselves permission frequently and consistently.

Imagine if people like Helen Keller, Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, Marie Curie, Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks waited for someone to give them permission before they took action. None of them would have achieved as much as they did. In all probability, they would have led unremarkable lives.

So who are you not to give yourself permission?

You could be just as amazing as the people I mentioned above and anyone else you find inspiring. How can you know if you don’t give yourself permission to achieve your goals? The only guarantee is that if you don’t give yourself permission to do what you want to do, you will be lucky to fulfil 1% of your potential.

That’s my single piece of clarity as I struggle towards my goals: my chances of success might be low, but if I don’t try, my chances are zero.

So I will continue making the effort to give myself permission, though it’s never easy, because it’s the only way I will achieve anything.

And that Arvon course I have been talking about? It took me over 3 years to give myself permission to apply. I kept making excuses, thinking I couldn’t cope with completing the course or that I stood no chance of getting a grant which would cover enough of the cost. I was wrong. Giving myself permission to do the course was one of the best decisions of my life.

Go ahead — give yourself permission to be fabulous!