In which we welcome Nova Ren Suma to the blog for a guest essay on writing, self-permission, and her New York Times bestselling novel The Walls Around Us.
“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.
Today we are delighted to host Nova Ren Suma as she talks about the writing and self-searching process behind her newest novel, The Walls Around Us.
Please give a warm welcome to Nova, folks!
The Permission You Need Is Right Here
When do you get to call yourself a writer (or an artist, or that Thing You Want to Become that you’ve been dreaming about for years and years and years)?
If you’re alone in your room writing and no one reads your words, let alone cares, are you someone who deserves to be read?
If no one wants to be your agent, or wants to buy your book, does that mean it’s now time to give up… for good?
I’ve been thinking about permission lately, because I recently gave myself permission to write the kind of book I most wanted to write—the most wildest and strangest thing I could dredge up out of me. This was The Walls Around Us, out in paperback as of this month. On my blog I confessed to how I got unstuck, and what it’s like to let go and allow yourself to be yourself on the page, no matter what anyone else might think.
That was a long time coming.
I’ve been thinking about how we often have to give ourselves the permission to write what we want to write. To write true. To write about real people we knew who influenced us or shaped us or hurt us, and real events we lived through… To write at all.
There are so many obstacles, and often the largest one lives inside us. It’s the one holding us down by our ankles and keeping us from making a move.
For years, I was shy about calling myself a writer, especially outside writing circles. During the day, Monday through Friday, I was something else.
I worked a day job in book publishing, and in the office I wasn’t a writer. I was the copy editor, the only one in the department at that time. I was the person who cleaned up real writers’ books. I was the one with the red-pencil shavings all over her pants. The one with the grammar books and four kinds of dictionaries on her desk. I worked hard at this job, and it was important to me. But there was something I kept hidden for a long time from most of my coworkers: I was a writer as well as a copy editor. I was a writer first.
At work, admitting I was a writer felt almost embarrassing. I had no agent. I had no book contract. These were the first two questions people who worked in publishing always asked. All the while I was helping other books through the production process, I was facing down rejections and wondering if it was time to give up.
I tended to keep my writing separate. I would get up as early as I could lift my head and I’d write in a café near work for an hour or two before work. While at work I didn’t let myself think about my endless novel in progress, my latest rejection from my latest dream agent, the hopes I kept bundled up in my chest.
You can guess how this story ends: I did publish books—you can see that in my bio. I did end up finding an agent. I no longer work as a copy editor anymore, even freelance, and instead I now teach writing. I think of myself as a writer now—first and most and all, and every single day, not just on weekends. I didn’t then.
I look back at that time and I know how much I was writing, how hard I was trying, and I want to shake myself. You WERE a writer, just as much as you are a writer right now! You were always a writer… because you WROTE.
I guess, back then, I was waiting for some kind of permission.
You have to come to that moment of permission on your own. No one else can shove you up against a mirror and make you recognize yourself. I can’t give permission, not to you or to any of the writers I work with when I teach my workshops or when I teach in different programs at universities. Sometimes, former students email me and ask, Will I make it as a writer? Should I stop? Should I give up? (Another email like this just hit my inbox last week.)
I will not be the one to tell you to give up or keep going. I can’t. If this pursuit means anything at all to you, you already know the answer.
Say it with me: You can call yourself a writer when you write.
The permission comes when you’re alone in a room and no one’s watching. The permission comes from you.
And this permission is something you’ll need to find in yourself again, and again, over your career. Sometimes it’s a matter of picking yourself up after a boatload of agent rejections and trying again with a new, shiny manuscript. Sometimes it’s a matter of making all the rounds with the editors and hearing no and trying to revise to make it a yes. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of sitting down and writing the novel you are walking around saying you wish you had the time to write.
After publishing three previous books and facing a new roadblock, I did give myself permission to write the novel that became The Walls Around Us. Letting go of what everyone else thought of me was what somehow got me unstuck.
No matter how that may have ended, or what people thought ultimately of the book, I would rather look back and know I tried. Know I didn’t give up.
About the Author
Nova Ren Suma is the author of four novels, including the #1 New York Times Best Seller The Walls Around Us, which is an Edgar Award finalist and was named the #1 Kids’ Indie Next Pick for Spring 2015 and a Best Book of 2015 by The Boston Globe, NPR, School Library Journal, the Chicago Public Library, The Horn Book, and Book Riot. She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and teaches in the MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is from various small towns across the Hudson Valley and now lives in New York City. Visit her online at novaren.com.
The Walls Around Us is available now in paperback and ebook.