Waiting for Permission

My dad is writing a novel. I didn’t expect him to do this. He’s a 75 year old retired mechanical engineer with stage 4 cancer, whose writing accomplishments include passing “English for physics majors” at Berkeley in the 60s.

He announced his plan to introduce retiree-generation-post-apocalyptic fiction to the mainstream by bringing chapter one with him on a family vacation last month. He printed out a couple copies and left them on the counter in the kitchen.

The first day, I walked by it and pretended I didn’t see it. I saw the cover sheet (“Nowhere to Hide,” Chapter One, The Reckoning) and I suspected my dad had taken up fiction writing. I just couldn’t believe it.

The next day, the manuscript had migrated to the breakfast table. People were reading it over morning Cheerios and coffee. My husband asked me if I knew my dad was writing a novel, and if I had read it. I shrugged, pretending not to be interested.

“Is it any good?” I asked, feigning indifference.

“It’s fun,” he said. “Actually, it’s pretty interesting. There’s a lot of stuff in there about different types of nuclear weapons.”

Inwardly, I was cringing. My dad was writing a book. Something I had always wanted to do. Something I had talked about doing quite a lot. Something I hadn’t actually really totally started yet.

That afternoon, I picked it up and flipped to the first chapter. It had words formed into sentences. It had some characters and a plot. Rolling my eyes like an annoyed teen-ager, I put it back down.

Who does he think he is, writing, I thought. He’s a mechanical engineer with expertise in microwave technology, who is obsessed with watches and bridges and geographic formations revealed by road cuts. He’s not a WRITER.

Yep. I thought that.

I admit, and I realize now, a big part of me was envious. And that had translated into Olympic-level resentment.

I sat down with him that evening. I wanted to figure it out. How had he found out he wanted to write? How had he figured out he was any good? Who had told him that he should write?!

“It’s a hoot to write!” he said enthusiastically as I stared at him across the table. The manuscript sat in front of us, carefully collated and stapled.

He smiled, and tapped his pen on his notepad.

“These are the notes I’m taking for chapter 2,” he announced. Survivalist magazines (“Outdoors: How to Survive [and thrive!] in an Apocalypse”) sat next to the notepad, in addition to his iPad mini, where internet searches for nuclear bomb technology and bunker-building could be found.

And then I had a revelation.

For the last two years, I have worked at my job and bathed kids and watched tv and done dishes. I have written a little bit. I wrote for assignments for my writing group. I wrote for some fiction contests.

But I still haven’t sat down to write my book. My. Book. This thing I was supposed to do, according to just me.

I realize now I was waiting for someone to tell me I can do it. I was waiting for someone to tell me I am worthy. I was waiting for someone to tell me I have something, anything to say.

Meanwhile, my dad just sat down and wrote. There was no angst or questioning. He sat and struggled, like all of us do, I’m sure, but he didn’t stop before he started. He jumped in. He was doing it because he enjoyed it and he felt like he had a story to tell.

I realize now I have been waiting for permission. To write my own story.

And guess what? No one out there can give that to you. Of course they can publish or not publish your work, they can decide you’ve won a writing contest, or give you $100. But there isn’t a soul out there who can give or deny you permission to write.

You can’t wait for someone to tell you that you are “good,” or that the world needs your contribution.

I’ve spent too much time waiting for that time to come. I expected I would pass some threshold, when universal acclaim of my nonexistent writing will give me the right to write.

So, be this guy. Be the guy who plucks out each word, and turns each phrase, and creates each character, because the beauty of writing is no one needs to give you permission. Be the guy who writes because it’s fun, or because the world is scary, or because you’re full of passion for nuclear physics.

You have permission.

a photo of Anna's father John standing outside of his family home.
“Be this guy.”
John Nidecker III at the house his father built in Beach Haven NJ

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