Over the years I’ve learned that you need two things in order to sustain yourself during long projects: an intention and permission slips.
In 2014, I attended a book talk with Dr. Rosenthal, the psychiatrist who first described seasonal affective disorder and the author of The Gifts of Adversity. During the question and answer period, an audience member asked him what he felt was the most important aspect of writing a book. His answer: You have to have something you really want to say because writing a book takes a lot time. It’s easy to get sidetracked.
As I’m working on the second draft of my memoir I’m internalizing this wisdom. I consider revision to be the Act Two of the writing process—you know, the part with all of the obstacles. There’s the flagging motivation, the boy am I sick of this feeling that sometimes tickles the back of my throat, the pressures on my time. When writing the first draft, everything felt like new territory. My only goal was to write towards an ending. Now I’m embroiled in research, staring at the page more often that I’d like to admit, and digging deeper both into the text and inside myself.
It’s hard work.
But this isn’t my first book-length project. Over the years I’ve learned that you need two things in order to sustain yourself during long projects: an intention and permission slips. Intentions, particularly those unrelated to accolades or commercial success, give your work the meaning necessary to sustain you. When I encourage someone to set an intention, I always use the invitations I’ve learned in my years of yoga practice: make it personal and for the greater good. When starting my memoir, my intention was for the work to heal some of places inside of me that hurt the most. During my years of therapy training, and my personal healing journey, I’ve found that there’s only one way to heal those places—you have to walk through the pain, not around it.
Memoirs worth their salt traverse difficult terrain. They dig into the ugly mess of human relationships and our inner worlds. They confront the places that scare the writer most and delve into topics that are difficult to discuss—sexuality, vulnerability, our difficulties with anger or forgiveness. If I didn’t have my intention, and I didn’t know the importance of walking through the pain, I would have quit a long time ago. But I want to heal those painful broken places, so I tolerate the challenges of Act Two.
This is a one-day-at-a-time approach, because Act Two takes a while. When I heard Nick Flynn, author of the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, talk about the challenges of carrying a book in your head at a reading this past March, I nodded in agreement. He said that carrying a book in your head is a weighty proposition. You get irritable because you’re constantly trying to keep those pages in the correct order. You’re fighting against the wind that’s trying to knock them over. Anyone working in Act Two knows that those winds are always blowing. In other words, my crankiness over the process is completely normal.
That’s why you need to give yourself permission slips. This is an idea I borrowed from Brene Brown, the psychological researcher and author of books on leading an authentic life, including Daring Greatly and Rising Strong. I’ve taken several of her courses. At the beginning of each course, she asks you to consider what you need to give yourself permission to do in order to keep going. Often these permission slips involve making time for your work, valuing your efforts, and setting appropriate boundaries with others. But sometimes it means giving yourself permission to move at a slower pace, take breaks, or practice more self care. Her courses challenge core beliefs and assumptions about vulnerability and shame—no small task. She revisits these permission slips right before her most intense lessons.
When I started my memoir, I needed to give myself permission to make time to write, to practice self-care, and to develop some affirmations that would keep me going. I needed to find a community of people working on book-length projects because there’s power in numbers, and an excellent leader who would help me traverse that difficult terrain.
I’ve got all that down pat.
The permission I need right now is to take it slow, to allow my work the time needed to marinate so I can get it right rather than get it done. The writing (and healing) process takes time. If I want to live up to my intention, I need to allow all of the parts of myself time to speak—the wounded kid, the rebellious teenager, the wise adult. They all have important things to say that will inform my final draft. In order to hear them, I have to write all those pages that are necessary to the work, but perhaps don’t belong in the book. Sometimes I need to stare at the wall. When I’m feeling weighted down by all those pages in my head, I have to give myself permission to see this time spent listening and staring as a necessary part of the process.