The other day I met the daughter of a recent acquaintance, and she shared with me her deep desire to be a writer. A fiction writer to be precise. A little further digging - she wanted to write fantasy books. The problem? She was not doing well in her English assignments in school - she was getting bad grades and she felt miserable, because she took it as a sign that she might not be able to become a writer after all.
I remember well this feeling, of thinking that doing badly in school means the death of one’s ambition in a certain subject or field. I even wrote an entire book about it. But hearing it from a young person was strange - the argument sounded so obviously flawed to me. How can your grade when you are 13 determine whether you can successfully accomplish something at 30? Or 20? But this is how the human mind works. We aren’t rational or logical, or perhaps we are rational and logical, just using a different set of facts.
I have been listening to Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert on audiobook, and its fascinating. I love it, and I hope to discuss it in detail later on. But for now, something that struck me deeply was her section on Permission. With a capital P. She describes her views of going to school to get an MFA or to get further education in the arts. Not necessary she says. Definitely not necessary if it gets you into debt. You don’t need it to become an artist, whatever that means for you. And I agree.
But first, hearing that was so deeply freeing. Even though when a 13-year old tells me that she is devastated by a grade in English class, I know in my bones that that is not a real obstacle to being a writer, I tell myself that perhaps I would be further along in my quest to become a writer / author / novelist if I had taken some creative writing courses in college.
Why the dichotomy? Well, for one, there is a difference in our ages. No grade is truly devastating at 13, not unless you use it as an excuse to completely give up. Its a different issue at 30. But then again, why should it be? What stops me from taking courses now if I so choose, or taking up writing fiction? Is there an age limit for writing? I would have thought not.
And this comes back to the issue of permission. Somehow it is easier to give permission to someone else than to ourselves. It is easier for me to see that the possibilities are endless for a 13-year old. It is easier to think that she has the time ahead of her to take multiple paths and find the right one. That she has time to learn all that she needs to write the books she dreams of.
It is not so easy to give myself the same permission however. To see that I have the same paths open to me as she does - just different entry points, different hurdles to step around, different flowers to admire. They might not even be of the same distance. But they lead us to the same destination - the realization that perhaps for those wanting to live a creative life, there isn’t really a set end point, a set goal. We aren’t all walking towards winning the same goal. Some authors will write 20 books, finding a small but loyal audience. Others may write only one or two, but hit critical acclaim right away. Some will write many books or short stories or plays, only publishing a small percentage of their work. Some works will win prizes, others loyal fans, others will go unnoticed. It isn’t a certain life, and definitely not one for the faint-hearted.
So then I come back to the question - what advice would I give that 13 year old? On the spur of the moment I did say some encouraging things, some platitudes and assurances. But now with hindsight what would I have liked to have said? That there is no set path for a writer. That while no one teacher’s opinion can stop her from being a writer, there are in fact a hundred things that can stop her. Other people’s opinions. Rejections. Other people’s successes. Her own failures. Her own successes. Family. Life. And maybe this is what I should have said. If you really want to be a writer, nothing and no one can stop you. You don’t need permission. You don’t need perfect circumstances. You don’t even need inspiration. All you need is a notebook, some reliable pens, a head full of stories and a heart full of love. Love for books and stories, for the process of story-telling, that will transcend the fears and objections of the world. And these requirements are the same whether you are thirteen or thirty.