For the next few weeks, I’m going to be writing about what I see as the writer’s process. I’ll be sharing my experience of the writer’s life, offering some of the things that help me along, and pondering questions about why this work is sometimes so very hard. I hope you’ll stay tuned to read the whole series, and please, ask questions and share your own thoughts. I’m eager to hear them.
For the past week, I have been in my garden for hours each day, a book playing in my ears and my hands covered in the blend of cow manure and red clay that is our soil here in Virginia. I had planted lettuce and radishes and potatoes weeks ago, and then I got busy with others things and let the garden go.
So last week, my father’s wedding here on the farm just three weeks away, I knew I had to get things under control. The thing was, though, that the ground ivy and henbit had already spread into carpets, and if you’ve ever pulled carpet, you know that work isn’t easy. So I put it off.
I’d look longingly from the porch to the garden and think about workarounds – could we till it? Was there a way to use vinegar to kill only the weeds? Maybe the veggies would outpace the weeds and shade them out?
I was suffering from gardener’s delusions.
But finally, I made the choice, headed out, hoe in hand, and struck the first blow at one corner of the garden. And really, that’s all it took. When I started seeing clumps of ground ivy coming away from the tiny radishes, as I watched the straight rows of lettuce come to light, I couldn’t stop. I was on my way.
Writing is, for all the tendency to make cliches out of gardening and writing metaphors, the same way. When we look at the whole task ahead of us, we think of alternatives: we could read more books about writing; we could work on our websites; we could share more on Twitter or Facebook; we could write a complex outline for every plot point. We would like to think those things are writing, but they are not. (They are part of the writing process, and they can be very necessary – but they are not writing.)
Only writing is writing.
Thus, the key thing is for us to start somewhere with something. We have to pick a corner and go to town.
Here are a few ways I get started:
- I sit at my desk and get to work before I do any other reading or surfing. I don’t check email. I don’t peek at Facebook. I don’t even turn my phone over and read texts. I just sit down and write.
- I make that starting up with the writing easier by leaving each day’s words unfinished. For me, this means usually stopping mid-scene, but some writers stop mid-sentence. When we come back with an obvious place to pick back-up, it’s easier to slip into the story stream again.
- I take whatever idea has been spinning in my head. If I’m starting something new, like a blog post, I latch on to whatever idea feels richest. Maybe it’s a photograph I saw recently or a tidbit from a podcast that set my mind ringing. Maybe it’s a story about a grandparent or a question someone asked. I take something that’s come up in my mind over and over and write down what I know about it already.
- I read one poem, copy down the line that stood out to me, and then keep going. Sometimes, I play into the line itself. Sometimes, I let it carry me into other things I’ve been thinking. Sometimes, I just ramble on until I feel the latch catch like a hook on a cable car, and then I keep going.
- I give up on the idea that I have to know where this thing is going. I often try to think through what I have to say, but that doesn’t work for me. I’m a verbal processor, so the only way I can know what I’m saying is to write it or say it. No amount of brainstorming or planning or sketching will get me to the actual words (and in fact, those exercises often drain all the energy from my writing; it’s dead by the time I get to it). I just have to sit down and give in to the this sentence and then the next and then the next.
You have to give in to the fact that the only way our book, our blog post, our essay, our story is getting written is if we actually write it. Then, we have to sit down – butt in chair – and begin. No reading, no fiddling with graphics, no elaborate planning of a writing calendar – none of that will get the writing done. Only writing is writing.
I don’t know what gets in your way of starting, but I know that many writers struggle with this part. (Some of us struggle with finishing, so we’ll talk about that in a few weeks.) If you do, try one of those things above, and see if you can get 500 words down. They don’t have to be perfect – in fact, they WON’T be perfect, but they will be written . . . and just like striking that first blow with the hoe was all I needed, I’m willing to bet that if you get started and keep starting as many days you’re able, you’ll find yourself hooked on the process.
So what gets in your way of starting? What helps you get going?
Kelly Chripczuk, Shawn Smucker, and I are busily planning what – I humbly suggest – will be an AWESOME writer’s retreat at the farm in July. Check out the details and reserve your spot here – http://andilit.com/writers-retreat-at-gods-whisper-farm/.