EVENT HORIZON: How to write past self-doubt (with space analogies)
Beatrix Potter once said "[t]here is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they'll take you."
But we don’t all experience those first moments of writing something new in the same way that the lovely Beatrix did. For some of us, the act of beginning a piece of writing can be a daunting—even immobilizing—experience.
Whether you’ve sat down any number of times to write and never made it past the first line or you’re sitting down to begin your fourth novel, the complexities of the experience are inescapable and affect every writer, in one form or another, plenty of times in their lives and careers. Often our own good taste can be our greatest enemy . . .
You write a line. You read it back.
You tap the keys lightly in thought for a moment, then punch and hold delete ‘til all you see is white space once again.
You pause, then write a line [and repeat above on an infinite, soul blasting loop].
You have standards. You take it seriously. You know, in your mind, what your voice looks and feels like on the page, and yet each time you write a line it feels contrived. Those words feel like the empty eggshells of your best intentions, so pale in comparison to what you feel capable of that it grosses you out, and you feel like a sham. You're disappointed in yourself.
No one speaks better to, nor provides greater comfort on, the subject of how intellect and good personal taste can adversely affect our creative egos than the voice of contemporary American public radio, Ira Glass (I don't think I'm exaggerating. Ira: You're the cat's meow, and I really like cats). So I won't try. Instead I urge you, if you’re unfamiliar, to listen to “The Gap” right here and now.
So then. When you’re just beginning, every word is a catalyst—perhaps for the next, or, just as likely, for self-doubt, criticism, and giving up. So many people don’t get past these first lines to become writers; so many lines don’t get past their beginnings to become stories.
In essence, there is no greater foe to writing than the first line.
And why not, because at that point, your work is all potential: its possibilities sprawl infinitely ahead of you in every direction like constellations . . .
In my research for this post, a friend of mine recalled attending a reading by Dionne Brand, a Canadian poet, novelist and essayist, and Toronto’s Poet Laureate for a term. While paraphrasing, she remembers the statement vividly enough:
“Every time you write a word, what you don’t write multiplies.”
No wonder, then, that so many would-be writers find themselves defeated by this stage. When you begin a new creative work, whether a piece of writing or of music, or a work of art, you stand—okay, we’re not all Hemingways and Angelous—you sit on the very edge of infinite possibility. All avenues present themselves; it’s your duty to choose one.
[A word of solace among the many at this juncture: so many people fail to take decisive action in their daily lives. If you find yourself upon the brink of infinite creative possibility then congratulations! You’ve made it further then so very many!]
Because creativity—and writing in particular—is a black hole of sorts: if you, the intrepid explorer of unplumbed mental and white space, do make it past the event horizon of that first line; if you are sucked into it, then you face the mind-bending and often lightless period of writing a thing. It could end in an hour. It might take a decade.
When you do enter into that negative space and begin to write, whether creative or professional, most often the work you end up with is not the piece you imagined writing in the beginning.
Why not, though?
Because even if you’ve plotted your entire tale ahead of time (a nigh on impossible strategy to begin with), your creative mind has so many other ideas.
Like the actions of every one of us each day characters, events, and arguments in writing arise best and most naturally when they come organically from those that precede them. (That’s not to say it’s not worth planning your novel--or indeed your business book; that level of improvisation is best left to those with the time and resilience to create a thing that may come to nothing.)
But while the unpredictability of the writing process and what will come out of it is certainly daunting, it also plays into your favour when it comes to getting past that very first line.
While the logical mind may plot out your story like a road map, the place where that story finds its true magic and mystery is somewhere else entirely. The truth of a story—the insight and the vibrancy and the human interest—comes from your instincts, from your introspection, from your intense occupation and absorption and disorientation within the abyss: that writing black hole.
Which means that all you have to do to triumph over that debilitating first line, or first paragraph, or first page, is to step over the edge. Keep writing.
I know, I know, it's far easier said than done, but remember that when you’re writing to get past the self-conscious act of writing you can scribble any piece of sh*t at all—no judgement. It might be:
an ineloquent rant about how difficult writing can be . . .
a letter to the guy that scratched your car the other day . . .
a grocery list . . .
a retelling of your encounter on the bus this morning with an inquisitive child who felt the best place for her marble was the inside of your ear, told in the narrative voice of Sir Ian McKellen . . .
Best of all, when you write this kind of anything, nine times out of ten that grocery list can find its way into the something that comes out of it—the story you write right after it or the one you build around it or the one that comes to mind because of it.
And then you will have written a thing. A first draft of a thing that you can revise and reshape and remould into an actual thing—a short story, a novel, an epic Homerian poem that will take pride of place on the fridge—whatever. It's a process from which even the world's greatest novelists are not exempt;
“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.”
— Roald Dahl
I’m aware that my ultimate advice, keep going, is the answer you’ve found everywhere else you’ve looked so desperately for a solution, and for that I apologize, though only for politeness' sake really. Because one of the many things I’ve learned while pursuing this profession (and editing, like writing, is a constant pursuit for further knowledge, more learning) is that the great and fundamental answers to problems in writing can be boiled down to a very short list that came into existence a few historical minutes after we began etching symbols into stone.
But those are for another article. For now: keep writing, even if you think you're writing % !*$. After all: