A few weeks ago, I shared a blog post and video titled Five Lesser Known Writing Problems, and number one on the list was ‘Being Between Projects.’
Here, I spoke specifically about how starting energy is different to finishing energy. A lot of readers connected to this idea, so I wanted to unpack it a little further.
Starting a new writing endeavour, whether it be a long-term project such as a novel or a short-term project like an article or essay is always a little tricky.
Recently, I’ve become acutely aware of this as I work on my dissertation in which five chapters (not including the introduction and conclusion) will present the past three years of research.
Even though I know what my investigation is about, every time I set down to begin work on the next chapter, my mind scatters.
It’s similar to when you have an idea for a fiction novel or short story.
You’ve got the basic premise figured out, and maybe you’re loosely aware of the topic you want to explore. You know you want to write about grief or female friendships, but you’re not entirely sure what the theme is. That is, you don’t yet know what you’re really trying to say, or how you’re going to say it.
And that’s why beginnings are so tricky. We may have everything we need to begin writing– an idea, a pen, and a slither of time–but launching headfirst into an open word doc. isn’t always the best strategy.
Obviously, this is why people create outlines or storyboards or cover their office wall in barely legible sticky-notes, because they need a little direction. We need to pull our scattered thoughts and the overwhelming number of possibilities back into something manageable.
Beginnings are exhausting because there are so many decisions that you have to make, but outlines and sticky-notes allow you to play with all of these possibilities before you commit to a single structure.
That being said, outlines are not fixed.
They can be treated as a tool that is used to help you get started as if they were a map you only need to refer to when first stepping onto the track, but then abandon once you feel confident you are on your way.
Of course, you can always tweak the outline, or completely dismantle it, as you write, because we all know that knowledge and insight is gained through the act of doing.
Something that I’ve noticed in writing this dissertation is that the beginning of every new chapter feels impossible. Even though I understand my topic, research, and ultimate conclusion, I have no idea how to form that mass of ideas and information into a neatly constructed, accessible, and convincing argument.
I wind up spending a couple of days word vomiting on sticky-notes and various word documents, wondering what to include and what to leave out. Eventually, something clicks, or I get sick of chasing my own tail, and I set down and just start writing.
I give myself full permission to be bad. While other writers prefer to be as efficient as possible, I am a big supporter of Anne Lamott’s ‘shitty first draft’ philosophy. I don’t mind if I have to cut or reshape the first thousand words of throat-clearing if it leads me into a groove and argument that I can actually use.
I use the same approach with fiction writing too. Once I’ve figured out the basic premise and story arch, I let intuition lead the way.
While thinking about what it is you want to say can make writing easier, it is the act of writing that forces you to clarify your message.
Beginnings are hard because your message may be simple, but the exploration of your topic may not be.
When we speak about the theme of the novel, we can usually whittle it down to a single sentence or statement. And yet, the purpose of a novel isn’t to give us a tidy Instagram quote but an experience. We need to live through the lesson that the conclusion arrives at.
How you are going to explore the nuances of your argument, regardless of whether you’re writing an essay, novel, or dissertation, is yet another thing that you need to figure out. (And here, we cycle back to the idea of outlines and shitty first drafts).
Strangely, we often forget how hard beginnings are.
We forget how researching a new topic can make us feel like we’re stepping into a very important conversation with no context.
We forget that beginnings are about gathering materials and storing them in the linen cupboard until we eventually find a use for them.
More than once I’ve stood on the precipitous of a new chapter while looking longingly over my shoulder at the chapter I’ve just completed; I am convinced that the last section wasn’t nearly as hard as the one I’m now faced with. And that’s true because the finishing of the last chapter was easier than beginning the next.
But that’s okay because I’ve got an outline and a permission slip to write a shitty first draft. These maps may not lead me all the way to the top, but they’re enough to get me started.
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