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The Only True Genius in the Family - A Novel by Jennie Nash
Three Intangible Elements : Permission

Three Intangible Elements Every Novelist Must Bring to Their Work

Part 3: Permission

continued from part 2

My friend with the colorful house gave me permission to paint the walls — and permission was exactly what I needed. I could imagine colored walls, and I had faith in colored walls, but I needed someone to tell me that it was okay to start. I didn't know how to give that permission to myself. As adults, we're programmed to hold down a job and do the laundry and make dinner and shuttle the kids around; it's easy for our days to become filled with responsibilities. How audacious, then, to tell your family and friends that instead of doing something obviously productive you're going to shut yourself up in your office, close the door, and put a few words on a page. In The Creative Habit (one of my all-time favorite books about creativity), Twyla Tharp says that "creating anything new and fresh is a brazen, presumptuous act." In order to do it — to sit down and write — you have to give yourself permission that it's an acceptable way to spend your time. You have to give yourself this permission at every turn.

I began The Last Beach Bungalow with an idea I had on a school bus. After writing a memoir about breast cancer, and speaking a lot to breast cancer groups, I wanted to write a book that didn't have anything to do with cancer. When a man on a bus told me a story about his wife and a house, I knew that was going to be my topic: a woman who falls in love with a house. This was before my husband and I decided to remodel, and before I painted the walls. It was during a time when I thought the perfect house was out there waiting for me, and that all I had to do was find it. I searched for two years for that house, but it didn't exist. I was about to give up. And then, one day, our realtor called from the sidewalk in front of a house about a mile away. She had found the deal of the century — a great house on a great piece of property in a prime part of town, priced slightly below market value. I jumped in the car and sped over to meet her. She was standing with a crowd of people in the front yard. I recognized several friends of ours in the mix — friends I knew to be looking for houses, too. My husband and I made a bid, but by the end of the day, the price of the house had skyrocketing out of our reach.

In the weeks that followed, I heard a rumor that the house had been purchased for $100,000 over the asking price by a realtor who had bid against his own client. I found myself wondering about him, from time to time, and about all the other people who had bid on that house — what their stories were, and what they had gained and lost. A few months later, I climbed onto a yellow school bus to chaperone a school field trip and took a seat next to the man who had purchased the house. "You don't know me," I said, "but you bought the house I wanted."

He turned to face me. "I actually do know you," he confessed, "My wife had cancer, too." I sometimes forget that anyone outside my family has read my cancer memoir; I was completely disarmed.

He smiled. "So do you hate me?" he asked.

"I don't hate you," I said, "but I wonder why you did it."

"My wife wanted a home where she could live and a home where she could die," he explained,

"She decided that was the house and I would have done anything to get it."

I knew in that instant that I would write a story about a man, a woman and a marriage, and the fierce feelings we bring to the search for home. I completely ignored the cancer part of the story. I veered off to tell the story of a house and used all these different voices — the voices of the people who wanted to buy the house. What happened, however, was the book didn't work. It didn't hold together. I spent three years and I still couldn't get it right. I finally went to a friend of mine who is wise about these things, and begged for help. "There was cancer in the story on the bus," she said, "so put cancer back in your story."

This simple directive gave me permission to do the thing I had vowed not to do — which was to write about cancer again. My story clicked, and it became something that I loved and that other people responded to. I needed permission to go back to cancer. Sometimes writers need permission to open a new file, permission to send a story out the door, permission to stay up late and obsess about their story. If you feel that permission is the thing that is holding you back, give it to yourself — and let the creativity flow! •

Start Again: Part 1 — Imagination »

© 2009 Jennie Nash. All rights reserved.

Jennie NashJennie Nash is the author of three memoirs, including The Victoria's Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming and Other Lessons I Learned From Breast Cancer, and three novels. More »