Here's the thing about the writing life: We're always starting. Starting up, starting over, starting for the first time, starting for the hundredth time. Restarting after a break, an illness, a catastrophe, a trip, a block.
One of the most valuable skills to learn as a writer is just that: the skill of starting again.
So here's a handy little list of mindsets and tricks to help you dive in--whether it's for the first time on your first day, or you're coming back from a break (as I am, this morning, after beating off a cold), or you're renewing your interest in a project you put on pause.
1. Embrace it.
I can't tell you how many hours (days, weeks?) I've wasted being frustrated over starting. Starting can be hard, y'all! And given the choice between diving into a new project or, say, eating all the cheese in the kitchen, I tend to vote for the cheese.
I don't like fighting through all the cobwebs in my brain, all the creaking noises as my word engines warm up. I don't like facing my own ignorance about the best way to dive in. But if starting is a fact of the writing life (and it totally is!), then why not make it a friend instead of an enemy?
When I shift my focus, I start to see how the break has made me better. The time away has given me a richness that I will bring to this new project. Whatever growing I've done will only benefit the work. And I probably have better ideas now.
So I decide to be patient. In spite of the cobwebs.
Beginnings are the perfect time to entertain a lot of ideas. To cast around for unusual options. You're not bound to anything just yet.
Sometimes I've been so afraid of these early stages of beginning that I sprint through them to get to the much more comfortable phase of mundane work and crossing off to-do list items. But I think a bit of adventurousness pays off at the beginning.
Go out to museums, ramble a bit at your nearest state park, meet new people and see them like a writer would see them. Notice everything: it's a writer's job, after all, to pay attention. To everything.
When you look at the world with a writer's eyes, you never know what you might discover. And you might stumble on an even better way to start.
In a way, this is part of exploring. Beginnings are excellent times for writing exercises.
To be totally honest with you, I'm a long-time hater of writing exercises. Really. It's true. I bristle at most prompts, and usually don't feel any kind of idea tugging at me, other than "I'd rather not be doing this."
... Until I came across Judy Reeves's book, A Writer's Book of Days. You guys. This is the exercise book (among other things!) for people who hate exercises. Her prompts are beautifully open-ended. Intriguing little nudges to get you moving. You almost can't help but write.
And the beginning of a project (or a writing practice, or a writing week) is a wonderful time to do a few warm-up exercises, to get the ink and the ideas flowing.
My advice? Grab her book, pick a prompt, and write for ten minutes. If that makes you feel sweaty and anxious, start with five. Five minutes, picking out a path down a new road with your pen.
It will help bring new ideas into the work you're about to do. Or, if you don't know what you're about to do, it might give you a new story to pursue. You might even get hooked on the buzz of unraveling some new images, some new prose, on the spot, right out of your funny brain...
4. Make lists.
Lists are one of my favorite tools for jumpstarting a writing project.
I don't mean lists with items like "Research the setting" or "Decide on inner conflict for Josie," although those are important.
I'm thinking more like: "Ten sounds she hears in the woods during this scene--at least three sounds should be unsettling," and "Twelve weird places where the opening conversation could take place," and "Four reasons why she has a bad reaction to country music."
I like listing out ways to add interest to my scenes, or ways to get around the cliched first attempts that my brain is sure to fling on the page. It's a way of getting more than one option, a way of tricking yourself into a more interesting writing session than you might have otherwise had.
5. Interview yourself.
This is what I do when desperate times start begging for desperate measures.
When I'm really anxious about the beginning of something, I start talking to myself (and taking notes). I do this in a document devoted to exactly this kind of conversation. I call it a work journal, but you could pick a snazzier name if you like.
I start asking myself what I'm so worried about. What's making me anxious. What I can't stand about the beginning, why my characters make me nervous, why I'm getting a twitch. I let myself go on and on, typing down the complete answers.
Or I start poking around trying to figure out why I had this great idea that led me through weeks of daydreaming to this starting moment--only for it to abandon me. I start asking why this story or this new enterprise matters to me. What captures my heart about it. What images do I keep seeing. What is tugging at the back of my brain.
So many times, this has gotten me around a huge boulder that was sitting at the beginning of my writing path. Because the more I talk about what I care about, the more I imagine the one thing that got me to my desk in the first place.
And then I know my true starting point.
I start with what I care about. Even if it's not the "first line of the book," or the first technical stage of brainstorming, or whatever. Interviewing myself helps me find out what my guts are telling me--and then I go with my gut.
So, try this. You might be surprised at what you find out.
6. Don't get stuck.
It's good to embrace the start. It's good to explore a bit, do a few exercises, make some lists, and ask yourself questions.
But it's not supergood to turn the beginning of the path into a campsite.
Beginnings can be scary, but you can also get used to them. It gets tempting to just stay there, entertaining options for weeks, once you've realized that middles are plenty scary themselves. (And don't even get me started on endings.)
I've caught myself again and again staying on the first step: mired in the first chapter of a new novel, caught in the first paragraphs of an essay, or even just paddling round and round in the pool of research.
Dare to let go. To not make your beginning "perfect" before you move on into the middle.
Remind yourself that you can fix it later, or make it better some other day. Leap.
7. Trust the mess.
So many artists and creatives recommend that you "trust the process." And it's taken me a while to figure out what this means.
... Maybe because I was too busy shrieking, "But I don't trust the process! I don't trust anything about it!"
The process of creating is messy and confusing. It doesn't always follow logical steps, even when we think it should. It's not easy to explain. You don't always write a piece--or revise one--in a clear and orderly fashion. The route that takes you from "person holding a pen" to "person holding a story" is a bewildering road, most of the time.
(If it's straightforward and easy for you, then you're very lucky. You should probably buy a lottery ticket.)
What "trust the process" has meant for me is: Don't flip out when it gets messy. The mess is part of it.
And that's okay. Take deep breaths. Go with your gut when you can. Do the next tiny piece of work in front of you. And don't be afraid of the mess.
Beginning a project with some degree of grace: it's a skill I keep relearning.
Each of these list items has saved my bacon more than once. Any of them striking a chord with you?
What have you been doing to ease through the beginning steps of your work? Which list item do you want to try this week? Share your thoughts in the comments!