Monday, January 12, 2009

Writing is simple: Start at the beginning? Or not.

Where, and how, do writers begin on a piece of work?

My best friend from childhood is a successful professional, a really smart woman, but whenever we talk about writing, she says something like, "I don't know how you write. I wouldn't know where to begin." She thinks I do – hah!

Well, maybe I do. When it's a short essay, say, under 2,000 words, I often have a possible, or probable, opening in mind and almost always, a definitive idea for – or even the complete -- closing line. I find this intuitive approach works something like a boundary; I know the parameters and make sure to stay within the borders – which of course I have planted and so I do feel free to move as I go along, but I find a short piece often demands that one keep to a relatively narrow course.

On the other hand, when I'm writing a much longer piece, say in the neighborhood of 4,000 to 7,000 words or more, the edges are less clear, and it's not unusual for me to not know quite where or how to begin. But begin I do, invariably in the middle. Sometimes at the end. Less often, at the beginning.

I find I usually write some of the beginning as I go, though it often stays unrelentingly murky far into the project. At some point, I begin to panic that I don't have a good opening, especially when I'm near to closing in on what I think will be the right ending. This occurs only after a completely circuitous and unexpected route through the piece in all directions, involving much rewriting, thousands more words than I need, and high anxiety. It's at this point when I see -- for the umpteenth time -- that all will be well, that in fact I had to get to the end first because, at least for me, the end almost always dictates how the beginning should be written.

I'll say that again. On a longish piece, it's when I get to the end that I usually know where to start.

I keep trying to tell myself, and lately I've begun suggesting to students, to trust this somewhat mysterious methodology. Perhaps one day I will be able to listen to my own advice.

Susan Bono, the editor at
Tiny Lights, an online journal of personal narrative, recently asked me to write something, something quite short, to share with other writers on this topic of beginnings.

Read it for yourself
here. Then let me know how you tackle beginnings and getting started.


Erika D. said...

Lisa, that is a FANTASTIC piece. Perfect. I'd be happy to tell you how I tackle beginnings--if I knew. Beginnings and endings. If it weren't for the beginnings and the endings, this would all be really easy.

Margosita said...

I liked the piece. It was smart and funny and true to life.

"I'll say that again. On a longish piece, it's when I get to the end that I usually know where to start."


Anonymous said...

i find that the best way for me to start is to simply keep my BUTT in the chair! and begin. beginning, middle, end--it doesn't matter. whatever gets my fingers moving!

Anonymous said...

back after reading your piece. it's BRILLIANT! thank you! so true and helpful and funny!!!

Michelle O'Neil said...

Loved the Tiny Lights piece Lisa! Especially the end! So perfect and true.

Todd said...

Great piece in Tiny Lights.

Endings for me are the hardest, especially if it's something personal. I never really know when to stop.