What gives YOU the authority to write? Not a nice question, but it’s certainly one writers ask ourselves. I’m asking it afresh as Hannah, Delivered heads to the book stores next month. Was I deluded to think this novel belongs in the world? Surely I’ll be found out to be a fraud!
I’ve yet to work with a writer who doesn’t question his or her right to tell a story, or to devote tremendous time revising it, or to launch it into the world. A colleague of mine wrote a gorgeous memoir which her agent had difficulty selling. At long last she got bids from two different publishing houses. Later she told me how relieved she was. “If I’d only gotten one offer, I’d have thought they made a mistake.” I found my colleague’s comment deeply disturbing, but indicative of the strange mental games writers play with ourselves to convince ourselves we really do have authority. One pat on the back’s not enough, but two? You’re in!
External authority (from a publisher or reviewer or grantor or a single, generous reader) is important to seek, especially if we hold these authorities in high regard for their work or values. Writers are in the business of connecting with readers, and others’ acknowledgement of this connection is significant. But real authority rests in the connection, not in the reputation that results. This is so hard to remember!
If an author draws her authority from outside of herself, she won’t stand long. Certainly she’ll never push boundaries in society that need pushing—she’ll never Question authority! We need a balance between external and internal authority, between recognition and deep, personal trust—in our desire to write, in the writing process, in the resources we bring to the project, and in the story itself. Our authority, our identity as authors, is something we can cultivate. “The moon you are describing is the one you are creating,” writes William Stafford. “From the very beginning of your utterance you are creating your own authority.”
It’s this more invisible authority that’s trustworthy, I believe. I’m struck by how the words “author” and “authority” come from the same Latin root: augere, meaning “to increase.” Yes, we create something, enlarging the body of written language, but we ourselves are enlarged by this creation as well. Authority comes from creating, from increasing.
This mysterious, generative force makes of us and our work more than we know. As I step out as a novelist next month, I’ll be working hard to locate my authority there.