Thursday, January 12, 2012

Permission to write: Thou Mayest

Image found at Archaeolibris

My good friend and ruthless crit partner Bernice Buresh just sent me an email from California that I feel compelled to share here:
We stopped at the John Steinbeck museum in Salinas... Glad we did. In one display, there was a carved wooden box and a copy of East of Eden. This is what the description said:

When Steinbeck was writing East of Eden, he began each day's work by writing a letter to his editor Pascal Covicí. He made a box with the Hebrew word Timshel carved on it. It means Thou Mayest. When Steinbeck finished the book he sent the manuscript in the box to Covicí.

This is how I interpret this. Steinbeck needed a daily check-in, so he created one. Steinbeck needed permission to do this project. Since the story was about Cain and Abel he found an old testament word that he could use as a talisman to give him permission.

Conclusion: Steinbeck needed the same things we do to do his work.
An excerpt from those letters to Steinbeck's editor (which filled a journal over the better part of 1951) confirms Bernice's hunch:
I must get into the book again at least try to even though my mind is badly cut up in all directions. Very hard to concentrate today. But I must try for my own safety.Take things in stride and particularly don't anticipate trouble before it happens. One of my very worst habits is the anticipation of difficulties and vicariously to go through them in advance. Then, if they do happen I have to do it twice, and if they don't happen I have done them unnecessarily. I know this is my habit... but not to do it requires constant watchfulness on my part. I have the recurring tendency. I guess I am what is called a worrier.
In my first blog post of the new year, blood on the page, I wrote that you don't need permission from ANYONE to write, and that in seeking permission, approval, or encouragement from outside sources, you may be giving away power you should keep for yourself. Great writers aren't immune to self-doubt, fear, or writerly obsessions -- I read somewhere that Hemingway's manuscripts were found with numbers written in the margins that turned out to be tallies of his daily word count -- but perhaps these writers were able to give themselves the permissions and structures they needed to defeat those doubts long enough to get the damn work done.

Timshel. Thou mayest. If you choose, go write. No one else can move those mountains for you.

How do you give yourself permission to write?


  1. For most of my life, a steady gig paying the bills was foremost in my mind. When I had time off, I wrote to keep busy and got hooked. Now, I need to find time to write.

    Having said that, when I sit down to write what I've been thinking (I seem to write when doing other tasks), I *do* feel a little guilty. Strange. I never thought of it as needing permission to write before now. Interesting post Carrie.

  2. Is there a Hebrew word meaning "Thou must"?

  3. I have this book on my shelf (my parents got it for me on their trip to Salinas). Must get to it!

  4. Elisabeth, I think we just have to go straight from "thou mayest" to "chutzpah." (Used in the non-traditional, non-negative way, of course.)

  5. I keep finding other tasks that feel more necessary to the daily workings of my household. I need to give myself this permission EVERY DAY.

    There must be a way for me to manage this... to put my writing first.