Permission To Make A Mess



I write a lot about creative permission because permission is a big deal. As kids we have to obtain permission to do things. As adults, the permission must come from inside of us.

Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, I heard a woman tell a story in a counseling group. It moved me deeply, and I’ve never forgotten it because it feels elemental to the notion of creativity and giving oneself permission to be creative. Let’s call the woman Eleanor (after one of my favorite, very inhibited characters from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House).

Eleanor had a much younger brother named Joshua. Like many oldest children, Eleanor was a rule-follower, cautious about interacting with the world because she wanted to do everything just right. Joshua, she said, was a free spirit and into everything. She loved him, but she didn’t understand why he seemed to be allowed to get away with doing things that she wasn’t allowed to do. One thing that truly tormented her was Joshua’s habit of building pretend “fires” that he set up around the house. The “fires” were heaps of toys and shoes and pillows that he gathered into great, unwieldy piles. I imagine what it must have been like, gathering all those things, pretending that they were a giant blaze, right in the middle of the living room. It kind of sounds like a lot of fun to me. Kind of is an important qualification here. While I am no neatnik, the idea of making a mess on purpose stresses me out.

Because Eleanor was older, she was required to help Joshua put out his fires. Read: clean up the mess. From a parenting perspective, this is problematic. While it’s a great idea to let kids have free reign with their creativity, it’s not fair (maybe not quite the word I’m looking for) to make your other kids pay for it. Eleanor was not invited in on the fun of building the fires. Ever. They were her brother’s privilege, and she felt like–indeed she was–the clean up crew. As the adult Eleanor talked about the fires, her anger, frustration, and sadness were in her voice and written on her face. Inside, her little kid was obviously heartbroken.

The leader of the session suggested that Eleanor build a fire in the middle of our meeting room. She was reluctant, but we cheered her on and contributed our shoes, neckties, purses, notebooks, coats…anything we had on hand. It was fun and silly and interesting to watch another adult playing that way. Her tears disappeared as she built the fire. They were back after it was all over, but they were happy tears.

Those of us who often feel inhibited creatively can come up with a million reasons why we feel that way. I’m a big fan of psychological therapy because it helps answer the why questions. It feeds the part of my brain that wants answers and loves to build a narrative. But what happens after you recognize the whys? Recognizing them doesn’t make them go away. We’re still Eleanor, angry at ourselves and often others because we can’t seem to give ourselves permission to build fires, write books, paint pictures, dance…dream.

Eleanor received permission from the counselor to make a mess. But she didn’t have to do what he said. She made the choice to gather up our things and put them in a pile in the middle of the room. How easy it would be if we all had a counselor, a therapist, a BFF, a coach, a PARENT there every moment to tell us it was okay to go ahead and DO THE SCARYFUNWILDINTERESTINGCHALLENGINGPROFITABLERISKY THING. But, no. It’s not healthy for adults to have someone tell them what to do every moment. It has to come from inside us.

Where’s the self-trust to do risky, creative things if it didn’t come boxed with our Adult Operating System? That’s a toughie. Sometimes you just have to fake it until you make it.

Sometimes we have to play a role. Fool ourselves. Pretend that we don’t think that what we’re going to do will be an utter and absolute failure and that someone is going to yell at us if we leave a big, flaming, awesome MESS right out there where everyone can see it. That we don’t care if someone else has to help clean it up. (Writer Protip: professional editors!)

We have to be Joshua. Joshua unleashed. Joshua at play.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent an awful lot of time being Eleanor. Afraid. Worried. Even angry. As much as I write, I’ve never quite been able to be Joshua. Joshua never holds back. Joshua has a great time, and his only concern is the height of his fire. I’ve held back, even when I thought I was being my most creative and pushing at the limits. They were limits, yes, but they were limits set by the Eleanor inside me. Safety limits. Comfort limits.

Here’s the thing: If you’re Eleanor, and you decide one day you’re going to take a chance and let your inner Joshua out to play, don’t worry that you’ll go too far. Eleanor will still be there, watching, setting limits, not letting you run out into traffic (even if sometimes she secretly wants to throw you into it). You have nothing to lose. I promise.

As writers, we need to play, play, play. That’s what we’re here for–to entertain. To have fun so our readers can have fun with it too.

Are you Joshua? Are you Eleanor? Both? Do you have to reign yourself in, or give yourself a big kick in the permission pants to get those words on the page?


Happening now over at Goodreads: To get ready for the October 11 release of my latest gothic suspense novel, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel, enter to win all three standalone books in the Bliss House series.

This entry was posted in advice for fiction writers, creative process, creativity, Writing and tagged , by Laura Benedict. Bookmark the permalink.

About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at

19 thoughts on “Permission To Make A Mess

  1. It’s easy to end up an Eleanor. You have to fight it, like most people have to fight off extra pounds as they grow older. But it’s worth the fight.

  2. I’m the elder child, too, and I recall wanting to do everything just right, but I guess I was lucky, (exceptional parents who taught me it was okay to make mistakes, among other great teachings) and I also learned to play and be a bit crazy.

    But you might not want to play cards or a board game with me, because I’m a stickler for the rules. (I think I’m nice about it, however.)

    Somewhere along life’s journey as an adult, probably when I was in my 40s, I made the decision to make my life about finding joyful moments, as many as possible, and to refrain from doing things without the potential to bring me joy. Writing fiction is one of those joyful things. Dancing is another. Can you imagine a 70-year-old woman going to a dance place in Mexico with some much younger women friends, and being asked to dance by guys of all ages, as happened just last night? (Don’t worry, it was just dancing.)

    I believe the joy we feel and the ability to play makes us more attractive as people and as a friends, because those things are contagious.

    Of course, we don’t always have the luxury of doing only joyful and playful things, but if we try to do joyful things, we’re already taking risks, and we have a better chance of being happy.

    And the side effects are that we become less materialistic, and life becomes less complicated, less stressful.

    Being able to take those risks can only improve our writing. I think it’s one of the ways we find our voice and the voices of our characters.

    • Sheryl, thanks so much for this. I love that you focus on the joyful moments and the potential for joy. It’s the only way to live–if only it were easy for us to make that choice. Good for you, doing it. Dance on, write on, sister!

  3. As the eldest I thought I would be an Eleanor only it turns out my sister is much more controlled and rule-abiding. When I was growing up I was definitely a Joshua but gradually (and in order to be successful at school) I morphed into an Eleanor. Deep inside though there was a Joshua waiting to be set free once more:) As soon as I started giving myself permission to focus on my writing, I managed to release that creative creature inside (that doesn’t mean I don’t still have an Eleanor on my shoulder as a critic though!).

  4. Great post, Laura. And may I add: It is easier to obtain forgiveness than permission. Just plead ignorance if you get caught.

  5. Right on, Joe! As the first born in my family, I’m afraid I was much more like Joshua–if there was a rule, I wanted to find a way to break it. I’m better about that now that I’m older, but not totally. I’m also ADHD so my mind is constantly looking for ways to build those fires. Thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks, Patricia! From one ADHD gal to another, sometimes everything looks like a fire–less a creative fire than something that has do be dealt with right away. Prioritizing is my big challenge. I love the image of your ADHD mind constantly scouting for ways to build fires. I’m going to start thinking of my ideas as potential flame-starters. : )

  6. Oh geez, can I relate to this. Am definitely an Eleanor (oldest of three girls raised by a divorced dad who had custody so I was always pseudo-mom.) But have spent most of my adult life trying to learn NOT to clean up other’s messes and, maybe more important, set a few fires of my own. Yes, this affects my writing life because I am a perfectionist who has trouble grunting out a rough draft. (Am getting better at this!)

    “The Haunting of Hill House” is one of my favorite stories of all time and I loved the original movie. (“Whose hand was I holding?” Deeply scary!) But I didn’t realize until I read your post, Laura, why I loved the neurotic Eleanor so much.

    We all need to be able to let go and be Joshua, but without an inner Eleanor, Joshua just flails around in a fury of blind talent and intent. I find inspiration in Picasso who started out as a detailed realist and “grew into” his abstract true self. His famous quote is branded into my brain: “It takes a lifetime to grow young.”

    • Rough drafts are the worst. I’m working on this, too. What’s your favorite trick for hushing up your Eleanor?

      Poor Hill House Eleanor. In a way she’s the perfect character because she’s in conflict with everything–inside and outside her head. I really cheered for her when she took the car. Definitely an underdog.

      LOVE the Picasso quote. I guess I’d heard it before, but it feels perfectly perfect today. Thank you!

  7. Laura,

    This post spoke to me. I was an Eleanor, and my younger brother a Joshua who set REAL fires…then graduated to the big time. Spent years cleaning up messes made by him and other family members. I suspect I’ll always be an Eleanor and that’s okay.

    BUT…in my fiction, characters run wild. In my current WIP, an “Eleanor” protagonist faces off against a “Joshua” antagonist who’s on meth and steroids– literally. I am having a blast, turning this naughty character loose to wreak havoc on everyone around him. Acting vicariously through him, I can set all the wildfires I want without the risk of arrest.

    Then, being the God of this story universe allows me to dispense a little justice and karma.

    Writing is my joy!

    • Wow, Debbie. What an astonishing story. Thank you for telling it here. How hard it must have been for you–both as a child and as an adult. It’s wonderful that you’ve turned those challenges to the good in your art. Keep writing, stay joyful, my dear!

  8. Great post, Laura.

    I grew up a Joshua with parents who let us be creative kids. I elected not to have kids so I never had to be anyone’s role model of a stellar human being. As an adult, I can embarrass my niece/nephews and take great pride in tapping into my inner child, pronto.

    But with my personal space, I’ve grown more Eleanor. I like keeping my house clean & organized, even if no one else sees it. It’s crazy.

    In my writing, I’m pretty daring to try anything for the challenge, but I live with an inner Eleanor.

    • What a blessing to have had parents who fostered the inner Joshuas of all the kids, Jordan. Lucky you. I bet you are everyone’s favorite aunt.

      You are always right there with an inventive story that’s beautifully organized! xx

  9. [[Joshua has a great time, and his only concern is the height of his fire.]]

    Oh, this. All the this. What a spectacular metaphor for the creative life.

Comments are closed.