Discover more from Notes From the Margin with Wendy Pratt
How to Give Yourself Permission to Write
Older Women Writers Exist, Plus Bookclub News and Five Substack Newsletters I Recommend
Expectation as a Block to Potential
One of the hardest things to do, as a writer, is give yourself permission to write; to give yourself permission to prioritise your writing. In my experience, as a mentor and facilitator, and as a writer, this is most obvious in women, especially older women; who tend to take on the burden of caring responsibilities for home and family, and then, as they get older, for ageing or ill parents too. Obviously, this is not always the case and of course men face challenges to reaching their own writing potential. I’m going to focus on the older writer today, and particularly on women, but I do think what I have to say is relevant to men too, not just because men are writers, but because men share the earth with women, and we need all the allies we can get.
It’s not just the practical blocks - lack of time, being interrupted etc - it’s the psychological blocks, and the societal blocks that prevent people, particularly older women, from writing. There is a prejudice in society that says that older women are, at best dull, at worst invisible. When I searched the stock photo database, pexels, for a header photo for this post, I searched ‘older woman writing’ and found virtually nothing. When I searched ‘older man writing’ I found plenty. When I searched ‘writer’ I found plenty of young women with beautiful nails holding pastel notebooks, and lots of older men at gnarly wooden desks grumpily screwing up pieces of paper. I use this as an example because these stock photos are the pictures that the media uses as an example of what is present in society: as examples of products, as examples of aesthetic lifestyles to strive for, as examples of, you might even say, what is the acceptable face, or the seen face, or the most associated-with face, of a product, a person, a genre, a section of society.
We know older women writers exist. Just looking at my own over filled bookcases I can see them everywhere - Hilary Mantel (God, I miss Hilary Mantel so much) Margaret Atwood, Maggie O’Farrel… but somehow the perception still seems to be that older women at the beginning of their careers, those not established yet, do not exist.
I’m making a very roundabout point here and that is that older writers and I would argue, particularly older women writers, need more support to begin their writing careers, to find their writing joy. Part of that change needs to be helping people give themselves permission to write. As well as all those outside assumptions and expectations, there is also something internal that stops a lot of writers from giving themselves permission to write.
What Does Expectation as a Block to Writing Look Like?
The biggest block to writing is expectation: The expectation that you will prioritise someone else over yourself. The expectation that, as an older writer, women in particular, you have nothing to say. The expectation that you are too late in your years to even think about writing. The expectation that you’d be no good at it anyway. The expectation that there is a designated path for you through life which is defined by gender, class, financial solvency and doesn’t involve you as an instigator of your own fate.
When I talk about writing here, I’m talking about the bigger dreams - to have a book published, to have that book sit next to other writer’s books on a bookshelf in a shop, in a library. These are big dreams, hard-work dreams, hard-won dreams, but not impossible dreams, as long as expectations are managed and happiness and contentment sought over any sense of what a ‘writer’ looks like. This is the other expectation that acts like a block - the expectation of what a writer looks like, and the horrible feeling that you might not match up to that image. I give you again - the young, nice-nailed stock photo lady with the pastel notebook. Oh, how I’d like to be her. But my nails are raggedy, I’m 45 and my notebooks are many and varied, rarely pastel, my hand writing is unintelligible, my desk is a mess. But I am writing. I am a writer. I exist.
How to Give Yourself Permission to Write
The permission cannot be sought from an external source. People will always want you to be their vehicle to success, their vehicle to their own happiness - they’ll do it without meaning to, but they’ll subtly ask you to put their needs first. And even when permission and reassurance are sought and the nice people you know cheer you on, that permission will mean nothing if you don’t, or can’t give yourself permission to deviate from the trends.
Here are three books I’d recommend to read as inspiration if you are someone struggling to give yourself permission to write. These are not ‘self help’ books. They are women writers who gave themselves permission to write. Read the books, see what can be accomplished.
Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Nan Shepherd is probably best known for ‘The Living Mountain’ but when she wrote it she was dissuaded from publishing it because the viewpoint - a woman nature writing, a book that was not about conquering nature but living within nature - was not seem as something people would want to read. Thank God she did publish it.
Victoria Bennet’s All My Wild Mothers . This is Victoria’s first non poetry book. She was a carer to her parents and her son, and had to find a way to incorporate her writing, to give permission to herself to pursue her own dreams. The result is this wonderful book.
Tanya Shadrick’s The Cure for Sleep. This book was one of the puzzles in my own writer life jigsaw. In the book Tanya chooses a different kind of life, she allows herself to take a different route, to deviate from the path of traditional mother and to seek something else, something that would wake her, allow her to take responsibility for her own ambitions. It was a life changer for me, to see someone doing this and writing so eloquently about it. I’m lucky enough to have The Cure for Sleep as my May Book club choice. I have an upcoming book chat and author event planned. I would LOVE to have a chance to chat books with others who have read it at our lovely Sunday morning book chat group, but you don’t have to ave read it to enjoy the book chat. If you’d like to join me on the 14th May on zoom, for an hour chatting about book love, books in general and Tanya’s book, click the button for more info:
If you can make it to the author event where Tanya will be chatting about the book, it would be lovely to see you, here’s the link, it’s on the 26th May 7-7.45pm UK time. Both events are pay what you can, and you get 15% off at the wonderful Poetry Pharmacy online shop when you sign up.
Practical Solutions to Giving Yourself Permission
Vik Bennet opened a notebook and wrote until she was interrupted and needed. She did this consistently, repeatedly. She wrote an 80,000 word book just taking that simple step. I’ve talked before about the early morning writing hour. I’ve been running the Dawn Chorus again this week and once again, it has been a great way to fit quality writing time into my life.
Giving yourself permission is sometimes easier when there is nothing pulling at you and honestly, the hour before the day starts, if you can get to your desk or your table or simply switch your bedside light on and pick up a notebook, before the To Do lists, before the children, before the first phone calls and emails and work and the emotional labour of managing everyone else’s needs, if you can just do that, in that hour, you have given yourself permission to write. You have validated your writing voice. This might be enough: to take control of your writing life. But you might use that to go further, to deviate from the expectations of your life, of society and give yourself permission to be a writer. Good luck!
Finally - Five Substack Newsletters I Recommend Reading
Avril Joy’s Writing Days. I first met Avril years ago when she won a poetry competition that I was shortlisted in. We met at the awards ceremony and I’ve followed her career ever since. For insights into writing and general, gorgeous thoughts on the process, esp. as an older writer:
Dave Bonta’s weekly Poetry Blog Digest will bring excellent poets and their thoughts and words directly to your inbox weekly.
The Unhurried Reader - book reviews, thoughts on books, literary culture and reading.
Kathryn Anna Writes. My current mentee, writing about writing and wellbeing amongst other topics. Show her some love.
Tanya Shadrick - on her wonderful The Cure For Sleep substack, Tanya invites people to create with her. A generous expression of solidarity in the writing world.