I had big plans for this week’s blog. I was going to write about the state of the world, about how to forge ahead when everything seems dark and sad, about the light and shadow that exists within each of us, about the time I got into a white van in Sri Lanka and what happened next. It was relevant, trust me. It was going to be VERY inspiring. But I’m going to leave that for another post, because what I want to write about today is Permission. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a bit lately, probably ever since I wrote ‘Writer’ on my departure form at Colombo airport and the customs man grilled me on what I was working on. The idea of Who Says. Of Who Decides.
During my term of teaching, I noticed something interesting. All kids need positive reinforcement, but some need a lot more than others. In one class there were two girls, best friends, who would bring me their work every few minutes. ‘Make a poster about a Chinese Festival’, I would tell the class. I would put all the necessary elements up on the board. It needs to look good. It needs to answer these questions. It needs to be clearly written.
For some kids, that was enough. They chose a festival and got on with the job. I could leave them to their own devices. But these girls would put up their hand over and over again. ‘Miss, is this right?’ they would ask. ‘Am I allowed to do this festival?’ Yes. Yes you are. ‘Can I draw a picture like this, Miss? Am I allowed to use colour? Can I write in pencil? May I draw a Chinese character?’ They constantly needed to ask permission. When I praised them on their work, they beamed. They needed my praise as much as a baby boomer needs to talk about how much their house is worth.
Our school system works along those lines. You do what the teacher says, you aim for high marks, you complete the criteria, you get a pat on the head and a shiny report to take home to Mum and Dad. University is the same. There is a formula for doing well. Include X, Y and Z in your essay, write it just so, include X number of references, and you’ll likely get a high distinction. That is your measure of success. An ability to meet a set of prescribed criteria. As J.K Rowling said in her famous speech to Harvard University graduates, “I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.”
When we’re spat out at the end of that system, high school certificate and degree in hand, we look for the next set of criteria, and for someone else to take the role of permission-giver. Perhaps it’s your manager at work, saying you met the performance criteria and deserve a promotion. Perhaps it’s the artist-in-residence grant you received, allowing you to work on your craft, giving you the right to call yourself an Artist. Perhaps it’s a scholarship from the government telling you that your silly idea of going to study Chinese for a year is, actually, not crazy but contributing to cross-cultural understanding. Without these things, we begin to doubt. Am I doing the right thing? Am I good enough? Am I allowed to do this?
I have a good healthy dose of this within myself. I like being told I’m smart. I like being told I’m talented. I like getting 100% on my essay. I liked getting that scholarship. But I don’t like what this says about me. It’s a little icky. It’s a little pathetic, mooning around waiting for someone to tick the Yes box for me. I’m an adult. Why do I need this?
Last week. the building where I’ve been working had an open evening. Hundreds of people lined up on the street outside, wanting to poke their noses into the artist studios that make up our building, to see where jewelry is made, paintings are painted, books are written. Some of the people who work in my studio had their work on show: beautiful paintings up on the walls, hand-painted silk scarves hanging from the ceiling.
What can I do, I thought. As a writer, I was happy for people to take a peak at some of the quotes and drawings I have on my wall, but I didn’t want to give a reading or anything. Not yet. I had an idea – a game. People would be looking for something quirky, something fun. I grabbed a sheet of butchers paper and drew up a grid of 26 squares, marked with the letters of the alphabet. I grabbed a Travel Scrabble set, turned the letters over so they were facing downwards, and placed that next to the paper. Then, I got out my writing pad and wrote down 26 quotes, things that resonate with me, quotes from books, things I found on the internet. I cut them up and placed a quote on each square. And I wrote a little sign:
Play the Quote Game!
- Make a gold coin donation
- Pick a letter
- Read your quote!
I made $60. One woman, who had picked a quote about friendship from Charlotte’s Web*, started crying. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just that I’ve been nursing my friend, she’s very sick, and it means a lot to me, to read this.”
I thought I would look like an idiot, a bit pathetic, asking for money for quotes I’d copied out on bits of scrap paper. And who am I to even say I’m a writer? Who says I can be?
I say I can be. I say so. And once you believe it, guess what? Other people start to believe it too.
I know I bang on a bit about The West Wing on this blog, but there’s a wonderful scene where Leo and Bartlett are walking to the car after a campaign speech – it’s a flashback. Leo has decided that his friend is the perfect man for the presidency, but Bartlett is scared.
“They say a good man can’t get elected President,” says Leo. “I don’t believe that, do you?”
“You think I’m that man?” says Bartlett.
“Yes,” says Leo.
“Doesn’t it matter that I’m not as sure?” he says.
“Nah,” says Leo. “Act as if ye have faith, and faith shall be given to you. Put another way – fake it til you make it.”
Here’s the scene:
There are a lot of things I would tell my 18-year-old self, but one of the main ones would be this: you don’t need other people’s permission. You think you do, but you don’t. It’s a mirage, a game you’ve been playing since you were little, but guess what: you’re free now! Be who you are without worrying if it ticks some imagined set of boxes. The only boxes that matter are those that you create for yourself. And you can change them any time you want. How exciting is that?
Life is short. Do the things you want to do. Do them now. Fake it til you make it.
Happy faking to you all!
*It was this quote:
“Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.”
― E.B. White,