Giving Yourself Permission to Write

Woman writing on sofa; image copyright Yuri Arcurs, 2013. Used under license from

Image copyright Yuri Arcurs, 2013. Used under license from

Some days, when I have no agenda and the hours ahead threaten to spin out before me in epic blips of distraction, I taunt myself with questions like these:

Why did I ever decide to become a writer? Wouldn’t it have been easier to become a fire fighter or a flying trapeze artist or an open-heart surgeon?

So recently when a friend told me she wondered how memoirists give themselves permission to tell their stories, I understood her question. This is what I told her:

The process of writing gives writers the courage to write. When writers encounter the voice inside that tells them, “You can’t say that!” they may talk to that voice. They may say, “Well, why the heck not?” Or they may ignore that voice. Sometimes they will set the work aside until they can go on.

Tell Your Story: Permission Granted

Giving yourself permission to tell your story is a process. In the beginning you might tell yourself that you’re just exploring, you’re not going to show anyone your work until you’re ready, you’re simply following this urge that you have that’s swelling up inside you to share your experience, you’re writing only for yourself for now.

As you go on, just write as much of the story as you can and when you hit a wall, when it’s too stressful to continue, stop and take a walk or do a dance or call a friend. Put the work aside for a little while and come back to it. When you come back to it, often you’ll find that it’s not so scary and you’ll wonder why it seemed so terrifying last week or last month or last year.

Writing is about taking risks, but you don’t have to push yourself further than you’re willing to go. You just do what you can, keep writing, go deeper when you’re ready.

Writing is about discovery. As you write, you’ll discover what you mean to say.

Writing is about letting yourself not know the answers, letting yourself make mistakes, focusing on the process rather than the results you anticipate.

Stay present as much as possible. Listen for your writing voice. Don’t try to contemplate the whole shape of this work now; just look at a little section at a time.

Better Questions to Write From

On my unscheduled days, I feel a whole lot better when I take questions like Can I really write? Why is writing so hard? Does anyone care what I have to say? and restate them in these terms: What would happen if I gave myself fifteen minutes to write right now? What if I wrote without concern for outcomes? What if I just stayed in the moment, talked to myself, asked myself questions I can have fun answering, questions that don’t bear the weight of judgment, questions that invite me to explore?

Sometimes asking myself better questions is all I need to do to find my writing focus and turn my day around.

What are the best questions you’ve asked yourself this week? How do you give yourself permission to write?


  1. Cherilyn says:

    This is really great stuff. Can we all implant a bit of Barbara-writing-coaching in our heads? Thanks for this blog.

    I think that once craft is more or less mastered, 99% of the challenge of writing is just getting beyond one’s own anxiety about it.

    • Thanks, Cherilyn! I agree that getting beyond anxiety is key. At the Northeast SCBWI Conference in 2005, fiction writer M. T. Anderson said that he channels his anxiety into his work. Part of his process, he said, has to do with avoiding the writing and grappling with the way to tell the story. He suggested that writers “find and live in your weaknesses, discover the holes in your positions, and live in your anxiety as you write.” I wrote down almost everything he said during that session. It helped me rethink anxiety.

      • George Yoder says:

        I was sleepy when I started to read your inspiring reflections. Now I’m wide awake. Thank you for your guidance here and on the phone. As I read I felt as if you were writing directly to me. Keep it up!

        • Well, when I was really little you gave me permission to be anything I wanted, so I have give you credit for giving me the inspiration gene. One day when we saw the fire truck go by, I said, “Daddy, is there such a thing as a fire lady?” You said, “I’ve never met a fire lady, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.” This was long before the profession of fire fighting was open to women. I said, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” Today I actually think it’s easier to be a writer than a fire lady … probably because I’ve been giving myself permission to write. …. Happy to wake you up. Talk to you soon!