Signs of spring
Being normal is over-rated

Taking Our Own Hands

Studio door

In her lovely book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro tackles a subject that will be familiar to many writers and other creative folks: the feeling that we somehow need "permission" to pull ourselves away from other tasks and sit down to do our heart's work.

"If you're waiting for the green light, the go-ahead, the reassuring wand to tap your shoulder and anoint you as a writer," she says, "you'd better pull out your thermos and folding chair because you're going to be waiting for a good long while. Accountants go to business school and when they graduate with their degrees, they don't ask themselves whether they have permission to do people's taxes. Lawyers pass the bar, medical students become doctors, academics become professors, all without considering whether or not they have the right to be going to work. But nothing and no one gives us permission to wake up and sit at home staring at a computer screen while everybody else sets their alarm clock, puts on reasonable attire, and boards the train....

"Sure, there are advanced degrees in writing and various signifiers that a career might be underway, but ultimately a writer is someone who writes. A writer who writes is someone who finds the way to give herself permission. The advanced degree is useless in this regard. No writer I know wakes up in the morning and, while brushing her teeth, thinks: Check me out, I have an MFA. Or, for that matter, I've published x number of books, or even, I've won the Pulitzer Prize. There is no magical place of arrival. There is only the solitary writer facing the page."

In the studio

"Whether you are a writer just mustering up the nerve to sign up for your first weekend workshop," Shapiro continues, "or filling out your MFA applications, or one gazing moodily out from a big poster in the window of your local Barnes & Noble, you are far from alone in this business of granting yourself the permission to do your work. Masters of the form quake before the page. They often feel hopeless and despairing. They may also fall prey to petty musings. They have days in which they simply can't get out of their own way.

"But when we give ourselves permission, we move past this. The world once again reveals itself to us. We become open and aware, patient and ready to receive it....We give ourselves permission because we are the only ones who can do so."

Studio desk

Shapiro's good advice actually applies to many things in life besides writing, for there are all sorts of ways we can hold ourselves back from the things we need most to be doing. Most importantly, we must give ourselves "permission" to be the person we truly are -- as opposed to who we thought we'd be, or were raised to be, or who others would very much like us to be -- and no one else can do this for us. Teachers, mentors, partners, friends can provide support in various ways, but permission has to come from within if we are to own our lives, and our art.

I started this post with a photograph of my studio door, which is where I write a favorite poem each month. (The gold ink washes off with white spirit, allowing me to change the poems as often as I want to.) Many of the poems Jane Yolen has shared on this blog have ended up here...including the one below, chosen for the month of March. It's been on the door before, but it's worth repeating, and it feels just right today.

Door poem 3

Tilly in the studioIn the photo above, Tilly looks out over the hills and waits for spring to arrive. The poem on the studio door, "Taking My Own Hand," is © 2012 by Jane Yolen, all rights reserved. The Bunny Girl on my desk is by Wendy Froud.


This struck home. Giving permission to yourself is so hard, especially as the role of provider, parent and partner gulp up time.

But it is so important to gift yourself creative time (particularly if you provide the income to dependants). I firmly believe I will be no good at wearing my other roles in the house if I don't have time for the creative me.

Honored to be on the door (again) but today's poem is almost the exact opposite of that one.

Getting Out of My Own Way

So I am standing there, looking in the mirror,
in my own way again, placing me before the work.
The Muse whispers:, Move away, jerk!
But still I stand there, thinking about breakfast,
about dinner, if I can con a friend for a movie date,
watch another Castle rerun, make a doctor’s appointment,
worry about cleaning the house, doing the laundry,
taking another pill for my aching back.

It’s just Life, I hiss back at her. It has to be lived.
She laughs at me. Story first, life after.
It is an old argument and I always lose,
wondering later if the poem has been worth
the empty refrigerator, the dirty laundry,
the mouth unkissed, the empty bed.

©2014 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Thank you once again Terri for the company of others alone, and at work being a writer. The words and the images of your work space and Muse are reassuring and inspiring. Jane Yolen's poem 'on the door' a living example of being given permission to write anywhere!

And about Jane's poem today: I woke standing in my way fretting about the cloudy eyes that need an examination, an appointment with the unknown. This segment ... "It's just Life, I hiss back at her. It has to be lived. She laughs at me. Story first, life after..." That old argument, I know that one. Cloudy or not I write.


My Muse smokes a pipe,
Wears boots,
Tells jokes that would make
A Viking blush
And tents her skirts
Over knobbled knees
As wide apart as canyon walls.

In short,
A lady she certainly ain't,
But as a Goddess
She doesn't care,
And when her fist
Punches my chest
My pulse won't slow
Til the story's told
Or the picture's made.
And then she'll laugh
A bronchial cough,
Drink her pint
and puff her pipe
And tell me she's nothing like
My Gipsy gran
Who smoked a pipe,
Wore hobnailed boots,
And told jokes
That made the Vikings blush.

Actually it was my Great Gran, but it didn't scan!

"The mouth unkissed"! Oh, Jane, you broke my heart with that one.

But I adore the March poem "Taking My Own Hand." Both sides of the blade are beautiful, both moving. There's no easy choice.

I'm not sure if this is an entirely appropriate poem for the day's theme, but for some reason I am reminded of Jane Hirshfield's "Each Moment a White Bull," which I had the privilege to hear her read in person a few years back.

You can hear her read the peom as well:

I have that very poem printed out by my dayjob computer currently; I rotate those, too. But this one has stayed on top for awhile.

Thank you all for your encouraging and inspirational words this morning! I am taking them all to heart.

I really needed this post today. After a month of putting others and other things first, front and center, the reminder is well taken. I have to stop hiding. My Muse hits me in the chest less obviously than Stuart's but the blow is felt. "It's just Life..."

Thank you for the wonderful quotes, musings, Muses, and the poems. So many wonderful poems on this screen. Such a privilege to be privy to them.

Thank you!

Excellent post, Terri, and Jane, this poem is marvelous...has our art been worth the dirty laundry, sink full of dishes...are we allowed to repost your poem with your attribution. I know several people who would be quite glad to know of it.
Thank you both!

Laura--the poem is in an early stage and still in flux so I don't want it posted where lots of people can see it. IF you want to send it personally to the few people who would be "quite glad to know of it" tell them I am still workshopping and revising it. So they should not post it or send it further without explicit permission from me. And always include the copyright notice Thanks.


Oh, Teri (and Jane), thank you for the gift of this post today, the poem on the door, and the poem-in-progress. Just last night in sangha I perked up at a piece of wisdom I've heard so many times, but suddenly a fresh insight arose--we don't need to DO anything with what's happening around us at this moment. I heard permission to nod at the world and return to my work, spinning the tale, happy to let the world dance about me without my silly attempts at control. When I push back from my desk, then I can take up that other dance. But for now, the dance is here, in my heart, flowing out my fingers.

To check in and discover you expanding upon this liberating thought--such serendipity! It seems no accident. Thank you!

Greetings All,
What a lovely way to put it. While writing is not my art, I understand the guilt of pursuing art because dog gone it, it just won't leave you alone. Okay I stitch, needlepoint, embroidery, knit, etc. just image telling folks that you stitched all weekend. But after many years and three kids grown and gone I finally don't have to justify spending the day stitching. I have a keep the roof over my head job that occupies my weekdays, but I still manage to stitch about 2-3 hours a night then Sunday is my day.
Then I am recharged to do the things that need to be done. But seriously cleaning!! Really don't they have people who for a price will do that and take out is always an option. As I used to tell people "I don't bake, but I buy really well."
Have a great day!! Gwen

I read this hours ago, but some tech thing prevented me from making a comment. So here at almost 7 PM in the American West I got to reread the poem and I just love it. Your muse
is a little like my sense of being lucky to be female in the American Wes,. We too had such
tough, strong grans and aunts. It came about in our history that in times of crisis, the
barn is burning or the bread is, either way, whoever is nearest, male or female, fills the bucket. And when the cattle somehow escape the first one to get on a horse is not
gender specific. So I salute all the "Gipsy grans" and wish I'd known yours.

Hi Phyllis, thanks for your comments. It's interesting what you say about the strong women of the American West. I've always thought that Hollywood's portrayal of American history must have missed out an obvious, powerful, and purely female strand of the narrative.
Your comments also reminded me of my childhood in which I was surrounded by powerful women who were never restricted by gender roles. It wasn't until I was much older that I realised why this was: the true and traditional Romany or Gipsy community is Matriarchal. In times of trouble members of the extended family would travel for miles to ask the advice of my Gran, who was known by everyone as 'Aunt Nell'. She was a formidable lady and I must admit that as a young boy, she terrified me. It wasn't until long after she'd died that I realised what an amazing person she was and how I'd missed an opportunity to get to know a truly fascinating woman.

This poem is both wise and true, Jane. And I'm sure all your readers are grateful that you always lose the argument...

Love this. It reminds me, in a good way, of Jane's "The Muse in the City":

That's a stunning poem. I adore Hirshfield's work.

Absolutely love the poem. I think all our Muses should and do reflect the societies they work in and the people they inspire.

Size nine birkenstocks would fit me...though I draw a line at the long skirt and paisley shawl.

Thank you for this one. It creates so many pictures in my mind that I may have to paint one!

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