The Liberating Power of Self-Permission

By Spike Gillespie

I have been leading memoir writing workshops now for a very long time. So long I can’t remember when I started. I do recall that, in the beginning, I had a notion each six-week session would bring a new batch of writers and that each new group would have the same expectations as the one before it. I suspected they would want to know the basics of publishing—how to find the best places to pitch and how best to pitch to those places.

Instead, very quickly, I recognized that many students were less interested in getting published, at least not right away, but rather they wanted to figure out how to put their stories down. I adapted my plans to suit my students’ needs. This is when I started telling all classes the same thing at the first meeting of each session.

“I can’t teach you how to write but I can give you permission.”

Once, I even wrote a student a permission slip in which I noted that she was allowed to write during her downtime at her day job. Even though she was productive at this job and getting things done quickly enough to have downtime, she assigned unnecessary guilt to her desire to use this time productively for her own work.

Disallowing oneself to write might be a self-created obstacle, procrastination’s simplest tool. But I suspect it goes back to early memory when, as children, many of us had to seek permission from some authority to do whatever it was we felt most passionate about. Faced with the blank page, it’s easy enough to conjure those old voices holding our young fate in their didactic hands. Often the voices take the form of discouragement— You can’t. You shouldn’t. You’re wasting your time. Find something more productive to do.

My real life prevented pursuing anything like that though. I was very young when I had my son, whom I raised on my own. I was perpetually hustling day gigs to pay the bills and support my burgeoning writing career. When I was more established, I did apply a couple of times for a Paisano residency but never was accepted, suspecting my lack of MFA was the major disqualifier.

Many years ago, I applied for and was accepted to a two-week writing residency at a bison ranch a couple hours west of Austin. As a very young writer I’d read about the antics of famous writers who gathered at places like Yaddo to ply their work among their peers, long days of quiet writing followed by boisterous, booze-enhanced dinners where they could discuss their progress and feel camaraderie (and, perhaps, some competition). I fantasized about getting to one day experience something like this.

But those two weeks at that bison ranch? They were made all the sweeter because at last I had been accepted. Because the people who offered it to me were clearly demonstrating that they believed in me. Their belief was a form of permission. Time spent there was expansive and luxurious. I could write or not write. Nap. Think. Edit. Mull. I was not pressed with producing anything that had to later be presented. I was simply allowed to do the thing I have been passionately doing since I was a little child.

Now I have my own ranch. Paying forward my thanks for my long ago opportunity to retreat and write, to give myself permission, I offer the same to other writers. There is nothing fancy here. A converted shed filled with horse tack and a comfy futon. A tiny cabin on the edge of a pasture, facing east to invite the morning sun in, gentler than an alarm, quieter, more organic. There is also a little chapel, mattress on the floor, coffee pot, water pitcher, colorful light show provided by the sun’s rays dancing through the antique stained glass windows.

I love welcoming writers enthusiastically and then leaving them entirely alone. For some this requires adjustment, so acclimated are they to city sounds and the bustle of people all around. Here the sounds are different. Donkeys braying, chickens clucking, sheep bleating, and a pair of pigs that bark because as piglets they were raised in a dog kennel and do not understand it is their job to oink.

Some people get lots of work done. By work I mean words on the page. Some, I suspect, do not achieve what they think they might. But even if one leaves having managed just a few paragraphs, I know they take with them so much more. They have learned to take themselves seriously, to believe in their work, to gift themselves space for that work, to grant themselves permission to pursue their dreams now, rather than continuously postponing those dreams, waiting until time magically presents itself.

I have a dozen books published and at least half that many that will never see the light of day. Over the course of writing these I learned—over and over because amnesia with book writing is a thing—that time never magically presents itself. The effort to create the time, to administer self-permission—these are two of the mightiest tools an accomplished writer wields.

Louis Pasteur famously noted that “chance favors the prepared mind.” Carving out a stretch of alone time to truly dig in is mind preparation at its finest. It is proof you care for yourself and your work. It is the ultimate form of self-permission.

Thanks Spike for sharing this article!

You can find more from Spike and learn about her retreat space on her website here:

Search Scribe By Category
Email Subscription