Giving yourself permission to write.

William Zinsser’s most recent entry at The American Scholar struck a cord with me, as I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin. Linchpin is concerned with, among other related things, giving yourself permission to practice your art (broadly defined) despite obstacles and expectations. Godin’s primary thrust is to convince the reader that the present-day workplace demands and rewards those who are willing to figure out what their “art” is, do the emotional labor of connecting with others, and find ways to make oneself invaluable (hence the title) by pursuing that “art.” That’s a very brief summary; the book seems to me more a book along the lines of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift than some “four hour work week” “captain of industry” business book nonsense. 

Zinsser touches on some of the same ideas, but with a focus on writing. Excerpts: 

…permission is a scarce commodity in this land of multiple freedoms. I’m also in the permission business. As a teacher and as a mentor I give people permission to be who they want to be, and sometimes I think: How did I get stuck with this job? Isn’t that what our schools are supposed to be doing? The answer, I’ve found, is that most Americans look back on their education as a permission-denying experience–a long trail of don’ts and can’ts and shouldn’ts.I’ve made that point in talks to college presidents and school administrators, and not one has ever argued back. All of them remember the prohibitions that were put in the path of their own advancement: the niggling caveats of dissertation committees, the envious gibes of peer reviewers, the dire threats that they will perish if they don’t continue to publish… 

 …In the adult memoir class that I’ve long taught at the New School, in New York, teasing memories out of bright and accomplished women eager to make sense of their lives through an act of writing, I’m struck by how apologetic they are, how unconfident of the worthiness of the story they want to tell. They want to be given permission to tell it. 

Women writers! You must give yourself permission, by a daily act of will, to believe in your remembered truth. Do not remain nameless to yourself. Only you can turn on the switch; nobody is going to do it for you. Nobody gave George Gershwin permission to write “Rhapsody in Blue” at the age of 25, when he had only written 32-bar popular songs. Nobody gave Frank Lloyd Wright permission to design a round museum.

The whole article is worth a read, as the above excerpts are presented in the context of a great anecdote regarding a letter Richard P. Feynman wrote to an admirer.