Give Yourself Permission

November 24, 2014 § 28 Comments

indexThe Savoy hotel ballroom is very blue and white and gilt. It’s full of mostly-older music industry types, the kind of people whose program bios feature casual snapshots of themselves with Beatles. I’m here as a plus-one, my best friend runs the organization that stages the British Grammy-equivalent. Over the fancy luncheon, risotto with fennel (yum!) and quince sauerkraut (just as not-good as it sounds), there is a lot of chatting, a lot of Oh you’re from the States, what do you do?


I used to say ‘trapeze artist’ because I was, and that was easy (you’re already starting that conversation in your head, right?). Now, I’ve published essays and won prizes, had my byline in the New York Times and here on Brevity’s blog. But compared to my friend and his book deal and my other friend and his three-book deal, I feel like one of the stepsisters trying to get her size 11W into the shoe. I haven’t sold any books, how can I possibly say I’m a writer?

So I get it. I can see how my friends farther back on the publishing trajectory may not feel like “real” writers, how finishing a piece and publishing a piece and getting an agent and getting a book deal are all badges that say I did it or I am it and each of those things punches our ticket, validation. How claiming the title before the accomplishments can feel like misrepresentation.

But at the same time, I remember how, before circus, I first became a theatre director.

By telling people I was one.

I worked community theatre gigs and high school gigs, and eventually college guest artist spots and professional positions. Every time I met someone in theatre I’d say, “I’m a director,” and when they asked what I’d done lately I described one of my shows without being specific about the level I was working at. “Oh yeah, we put Puck in a mask and the whole stage was a giant bed.” And they were sophomores.

It’s not a lie.

It’s starting a conversation.

Sure, you may not be a published writer. You may not be a full-time writer. You may be an early-career writer. But you know what? Published writers don’t get everything they write published. People who make a living writing almost always teach or edit or freelance on the side.

You are what you present yourself as. You have a right to define yourself, and project that definition to others. Every time you say what you want to be is what you are, you help move yourself ahead and you let others help you move ahead. Like dressing for the job you want to be hired for.

Imagine you’re chatting with, say, Cheryl Strayed and the guy who owns your local indie bookstore. When they ask if you’re a writer, and you say, “Oh, no, not yet,” the conversation ends there. But when you say (modestly), “I’m early-career, but I’m working on a memoir about my time in the military,” or “I’m excited about sending around my new travel essay series,” that opens a door for them to help you. They might say, “Oh, nice,” and smile blankly, yes. But they might respond with, “I’d love to see a few pages when you’re done,” or “Make sure you query so-and-so, I hear they’re looking for that,” or “Do you know about our reading series for local authors?” All of those responses create dialogue. They help you bond with the larger community. They make connections.

Being a “writer” is like being a “dancer” or a “parent”. You are a dancer when you dance—you are a parent the entire life of your child. Because our work exists in a recorded and fixed form, we tend to use production of fixed forms—books—as benchmarks of our success. But being a writer is a process. When you show up at the page, it is like showing up at the barre. It is like listening to your child when you’re not sure you’re about to make the right decision. Writing is a process rather than a destination.

There is no certification for writers, no governing body, no guild. We have permission to define ourselves, and we should define ourselves as worthy. Presenting ourselves as part of the group helps others see us as worth their time and energy. Worth, eventually, their dollars and their reading.

Yesterday I ordered new business cards.

They say, Writer.


Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her @GuerillaMemoir or

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§ 28 Responses to Give Yourself Permission

  • Jess Alter says:

    I really enjoyed this article. You gave great advice on how to slide over the stickier details of answering “What do you do?” in social situations, and your tip on how to open the door to let someone in to help was fantastic.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thank you – so glad you found it useful! It’s such a relief to finally feel like it’s OK to own what I do 🙂

  • janeydoe57 says:

    Reblogged this on Janey Does Blogging and commented:
    Allison Williams’ message was so welcome. I am a writer. I AM A WRITER! I hope those of you who have the time to check this out enjoy and appreciate it as much as i did. I imagine some of you already get this, if so, consider it a good reminder.

  • janeydoe57 says:

    Thanks for this Allison. I reblogged it with a comment there. I hope that’s okay.

  • dhonour says:

    I needed this today. It was a big deal to me when I changed my Facebook status to say ‘writer at XXX (blog)’ when I found out my first short story was getting published. For me, I think it has a lot to do with growing up with that very 1970s sense of Free To Be You and Me/’not tooting your own horn’–something that from over here in my 40s, the up and coming generation has in spades. Confidence, chutzpah, delusion, whatever–I need a little of it. Thanks for the boost.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      You’re welcome – thanks for sharing your experience, that’s such a neat thing to think about! And it’s amazing how much difference a label makes, isn’t it?

  • pamkirst2014 says:

    Love “early career writer”!

  • Don Royster says:

    Unfortunately no matter how published you are or how proficient you are, you are always competing with amateurs when it comes to writing.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      It’s a blessing and a curse – on one hand, it’s a crowded market and it’s tough to get seen and stay seen among the clutter. But being a writer has always required a fair amount of tenacity, and competition is part of that. And as they say, professionals built the Titanic–amateurs built the Ark.

      • Don Royster says:

        Think it was amateurs that built the Titanic. It sank.

      • Jan Priddy says:

        It was professionals (Harlland and Wolff Shipyards) that built the Titanic, and a professional (Thomas Andrews) who designed it. Everyone involved was in a position to “know better” but they failed anyway. The Ark, by contrast, was a one-off.

        It’s an excellent analogy. A reminder that experience isn’t always a guarantee of success.

        In any event, the world needs more writers, always more people capable of expressing themselves in words. Language is not the only way of communicating, but narrowing the market for words is not the direction I would choose, not even to give myself a better shot at publication. Unfortunately, people seem to assume that having a way with words also implies having a profession in words. It would be better if we were all encouraged to express ourselves clearly, but the blessed few wrote beyond that clarity into magic.

      • Allison K Williams says:

        Thanks, Jan – beautifully said.

  • Ramona says:

    This was good, and in addition to my writer friends I will share it with a friend who is going through the same thing as a dancer. This summer I finally got cards that say I am a writer. Thanks Allison!

    • Allison K Williams says:

      You’re welcome, and thank you! It’s so hard as artists to feel like we own our profession and have a right to call ourselves that title when we’re not wildly successful (yet)!

  • fdhicks says:

    Thanks for the encouraging article. I’m barely published, but when people ask what I do, I tell them, “I’m a writer.” With all the hours I spend at the computer, it feels like the truth.

  • thanks for the very encouraging article it helps a lot knowing I am on the process.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you. Saying I am a “writer” always requires quotes, as if there is a silent winking face at the end, as if nothing so far quite counts because others have done better, and as if, yes, I write, but not enough people care for it to count.

  • Excellent post! Thank you. 🙂

  • It’s just great! Loved it!

  • […] Give Yourself Permission, by Brevity’s Allison K. Williams, November 24th 2014 […]

  • Giana Nguyen-Utgaard says:

    So thankful for your encouraging article. I needed to read it, especially today. Looking forward for more.

  • […] came across something on Brevity that made me feel quite a bit better about this. It’s titled Give Yourself Permission by Allison Williams. And it made me feel so much better about not only writing, but about being […]

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