How to Make a Beginning

It’s hard to start to write. No matter the number of chapters or scenes or even emails I’ve written, when I have a blank page in front of me, I stop in my tracks. I see half a dozen different directions I can go, my brain buzzes with the excitement of all of them, and yet I find myself writing and deleting the first two sentences hundreds of times before I finally settle on the idea I want to follow. Even then, I will probably change my mind later and repeat the process. I will outline. I will talk aloud to myself on long walks. It is all the work I do to avoid a simple question: have I given myself permission to write today?

Usually the answer is no, I have not given myself permission to write. I can tell when I preface anything I share with a disclaimer. You know, I haven’t really figured this out yet or Well, this is something new I’m trying. I can tell when my notebook is filled with scribbles and crossed out words. I can tell when I’m reading someone else’s work and my immediate reaction is “Oh this is so good. How could I ever write anything that compares?” They are all symptoms of a common writerly struggle—a reluctance to give myself the space, time, and patience to nurture an idea.

Like most writers, I have had ideas that marinate and slowly reveal themselves. I’ve had ideas that appear in a flash. I’ve had ideas that have scratched at me for years. When they are floating around my head, ideas can be so exciting and special. When I’ve finally sat down with those ideas—when I’ve finally let them leave my brain and make their way onto the page, they can also be deeply disappointing. It is the worst round of Pictionary ever. It is hard to reconcile the gap between what I imagine and what I’m able to craft on the page.

So this is what I find helpful sometimes: I set a timer for ten minutes and I write whatever comes out. Then I share it with a dozen other people and they don’t tell me what is good or bad. They don’t tell me what is working or what isn’t working. They tell me what resonated with them, whether it is an image or phrase or a character. There is not always something that resonates with them, and that is okay. I have only given that idea ten minutes of my time. What I find helpful is giving myself the space to make something without any expectations. To give an idea or a story the room to be. To witness it and notice the parts that draw other people in.

This isn’t what I have always done. This is what I found when, struggling with writer’s block six years ago, I went to the first gathering of a writing meetup in Brookline. The organizer gave us the prompt “stoplight” and the five of us strangers had very different ideas. An older person from Quincy wrote from the perspective of the stoplight. A younger person working in tech wrote about a stoplight in the rain. I wrote about how stoplights tell people what to do. It was so fascinating to see what our brains could come up with in such a short amount of time. It was even more fascinating to see how encouraged we were by sharing our young ideas with each other.

We were giving ourselves permission to write—because writing is hard enough. What we had in common is that we were all trying to share the tiny unspoken parts of ourselves in our own tiny ways. We were trying to be vulnerable with one another.

We were vulnerable when we took a prompt and started to write the first thing that came to our head. When we wrote that idea to the fullest possibility we could in ten minutes. We were vulnerable when we nurtured that idea without any expectations. We were vulnerable when we chose to share that tiny idea with people we didn’t know and asked them, “Do you see a part of yourselves in this part of me?”

We are vulnerable when we trust people to answer.

1 comment

  1. You express this common struggle very well, Suzannah. Here’s another approach: instead of thinking about a “beginning”, start in the middle, or the end. When you do try to start at the beginning, think of it as setting the stage. In novel writing, your true beginning is often not where you start. So allow yourself permission to play around with words, sentences, and image until you find your way back. Good luck!

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