Nearly everyone who writes has a different way of writing, and a different method of getting to the end — or getting to the start. I used to avidly read the kind of puff internet article people post to draw eyeballs to their site — quotes from writers about how to write, advice from writers about how to write, lists of techniques for writing. Even when I was reading them, I spent most of my time attempting to extract one or two useful things from a list of twenty. Which is why I eventually stopped, about five years ago now.
Peter Brook, who wrote one of the best handbooks I’ve ever read for theatre in specific and creativity in general, talks in The Empty Space about how incommunicable the art of creation can be:
One of the greatest actresses of our time who seems in rehearsal to be observing no method whatsoever actually has an extraordinary system of her own which she can only articulate in nursery language. ‘Kneading the flour today, darling,’ she has said to me. ‘Putting it back to bake a bit longer’, ‘Need some yeast now’, ‘ We’re basting this morning’. No matter: this is precise science, just as much as if she gave it the terminology of the Actors’ Studio. But her ability to get results stays with her alone: she cannot communicate it in any useful way to the people around her.
It’s true of writers, as of any creative, because we develop our own paths to the finished product. Conveying technique is hard not just because we as humans don’t have a great vocabulary for the intangibles of art, but also because our technique may be irrelevant to someone else’s life anyway. And unfortunately, standardizing language about creativity wipes out a grand diversity of technique that simply can’t be easily put into words. So when I started to think about talking about writing beginnings, I found the above rather comforting.
Honestly, I don’t often remember how I begin a story. Sometimes because the writing takes a long time; Nameless was something like four years start to finish, and the original fiction I’m working on now I began in January of 2014. My memory is a bit of a sieve at the best of times, and because I start so many stories, the start doesn’t often seem relevant to me. So sometimes, even talking to oneself about creativity can be difficult.
TS Eliot talks about the difficulty of beginning to speak in The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock:
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
I’m sure there are many learned ways of interpreting this, but as a writer it illuminates that terrifying moment when you have to be arrogant enough to believe someone wants to hear what you have to say — and where do you start when you have so much to say?
I do know that nearly every time I’ve run a novel past my readership, I’ve had to move the start of the story. I don’t tend to open a story with excitement, which is generally an error on my part. Novels need a hook to keep people interested, and I’m a contemplative writer, not an action-oriented one.
I’ve made my peace with the beginning I write rarely ever being the actual beginning that makes it to the final print. Every kind of writing has a time and place, within a story, but the nice thing about first drafts is no specific form of writing has to be in a specific place. So I often still start stories with the “wrong” kind of writing, and go back later and fix it. The important thing is to get the story rolling.
But I can never remember how I do that. I don’t remember opening a new document and staring at empty space, waiting for words to come — nor do I remember, at least not often, having the words and waiting impatiently for the new document to open. I suspect I usually begin stories elsewhere — in emails to myself, as notes on pages of a notebook during a meeting, in random text documents I happened to have open at the time. But I also suspect being conscious of Beginning would ruin the story from the outset. It’s important not to put too much stock in the quality of the Beginning. As I have learned, it might not be there for very long.
None of this is of much use to you, the reader, of course, especially if you’d like to be You, The Writer and are just looking for advice on a way to begin.
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streetsAnd watched the smoke that rises from the pipesOf lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …