The Art of Beginning

Photo by Drew Coffman

It is the most difficult step, to stare at a blank page, with thoughts and topics racing through your head. But where do you begin?

You’ve been building it all up in your mind over weeks, months, years. When was the last time you wrote something down? And it’s all waiting to come out like a garbled mess. You haven’t taken the time to slowly release the stream. This light stream has slowly turned into a tumultuous and threatening waterfall. What has been holding you back?

Perhaps, it’s the way that you’ve been looking at the beginning of something, building up that pressure of stepping out on a limb, and daring to be creative.

In my writing, I’ve often thought that the first sentence has to be the attention grabber. There’s a lot riding on it. It has to start perfectly at the beginning, so that it gains proper momentum. Otherwise, it’s a trainwreck from there on in. This kind of thinking would hold me back from starting. What if I write something and it’s terrible, and I’ll hate it so much I won’t be able to continue? If the first sentence is not right, how will I find the flow?

The truth is it’ll never be perfect on the first try. Or the second. And most likely not the third. But something needs to be written down in order for it to exist. The first bit of clay, a vessel that contains the spark of millions upon millions of possibilities. You just have to dig your fingers in. But once that first piece of clay is there, you’ve already started. Whether you’re a sculptor, painter, or a writer, the hardest part is taking all your tools out and actually starting. But why don’t we embrace this first moment?

I often wonder if this the result of many years in school, being taught to work and write in a specific way, without any specific regard for the needs of each individual student. Personally, I noticed the effects of working on essays with teachers requiring “the sweeping statement:” that string of introductory words that encompasses your entire idea into a neat, little package. In the world of business, they call it the “elevator pitch:” being able to summarize your idea/product/service in a persuasive but brief speech that lasts no longer than an elevator ride (approx 30 seconds). These methods are very useful once you have done the groundwork of an idea, but not when you’re just beginning to create. Yet, we still want to do it all perfectly on the first try.

I don’t remember how many essays I’ve written in my life, but I’d probably be shocked by the number. And the format and the style has been ingrained in my writing. I can’t get out of that format, to break free from those chains. You know the rules: never start a sentence with “and” or “but.” Avoid colloquial writing. But who cares? And screw it.

Like most things that you learn in school, you start to realize that in the real world, there are no rules. Your favourite writers don’t write the way you’ve been taught. But it’s important to know what the rules are at least, so that you can then play with a wider spectrum: start to colour outside the lines, and return within the lines when you feel like it.

That is artistic freedom. And yet, here you are, staring at the blank page.

It’s hard to just accept the idea that you should just write anything. But it’s incredibly helpful. Write absolutely anything. Even improper sentences. Then, you can work through your ideas, shake off the cobwebs, and come back to it later on.

I was taught this technique in a high school creative writing class. We would start each class writing about anything for 30 minutes. Don’t know what to write? Write about that, then. It would look something like this:

I don’t know what to write about, but I’ll try anyway. The desk I’m writing on is brown. There is an empty mug from a cup of tea I had earlier. English breakfast. That was the tea I drank, with a splash of milk. My stomach is gurgling. I’m hungry.

Pure nonsense. But it’s a start. Because, you see, the mind is a muscle, and it needs exercise much as any other muscle in your body would. You’re not going to enter the gym after months of inactivity, head straight for the bench press, and start to pump 300 lbs, are you? So why would you expect your brain to suddenly churn up a masterful sentence on the first attempt at putting pen to paper?

The beginning truly is an art. It’s the hardest thing you can do. But we’re always looking towards the end, the goal.

As a theatre creator, I often find myself on the opening night, or halfway through a run, thinking about “how the hell did we get here? how did we actually do it?” Sometimes you have notes and a paper trail of the evolution of ideas, but usually you always think about the production at the end as a whole, as if the end product was always how it’s been. You forget about the initial moment, the spark, which was the hardest hurdle that you could jump at the time.

I wonder whether we could all be more excited about the beginning. Can we trick our brains to get high off of starting again and again? The same as a child who feared jumping into the water, but after overcoming that fear: “Again! Again!

After the end of a production, when the dust settles, you’re left with the sneaking feeling in the back of your mind that the next show will be another massive hill to climb. You might even begin to dread this Sisyphean mountain growing before you.

If there’s anything I learned from my sister, who rode horses, is that the moment you get thrown off the horse, you need to get back on it right away, lest you let the fear set in. The longer you are away from the horse, the more the fear starts to grow, it’s insurmountable.

But maybe we can find the “beginning” to be the euphoria, not the end result. To make ourselves almost excited about the end of one idea, so that you can dive again into the next one, with greater freedom, and no pressure. “Again! Again!” Those moments without an audience, without a production yet formed: “This next idea, it can be anything. Anything my heart desires.”

How many ideas have you had in the past year that you didn’t put down anywhere, or let go completely? How many nights, while drifting off to sleep, have you had an incredible idea or melody in your head, which you knew would be forgotten by the morning?

How many of these ideas are sitting in a document somewhere on your computer? In your notebook? On the cloud?

I’m there with you. I’m also putting the mirror up to myself. And this is my first attempt to move forward, to change something, to get excited by what this beginning might be. To start is something wonderful. It is to give birth. To do something from nothing. This sentence, this article — they never existed until I decided they should be present. It is an act of drawing something out of you.

Sylvia Plath wrote in her poem, Kindness:

“The blood jet is poetry, / There is no stopping it.”

You have ideas coursing through your veins. It’s time to put pen to paper and release them. (Wait, am I talking to you or to myself?) The pain of it all is part of its beauty and intrigue. The beginning: it is an art in itself.

Everyone is focused on getting to the target, to the end, but what about the process that took you there. We’re not racing towards our death, are we? We say we want to stop and smell the roses. So why doesn’t this happen in our work too? Why not appreciate that you’re just starting something new, and allow yourself to find joy in that simple moment.

However, by no means do I reduce the importance of reaching an end, a conclusion, or a product. I don’t intend to achieve the opposite effect, where you think: “Great, I started something. Now I should just leave it for the next two months.” That happens too. It happened to this article, which I started writing a few months ago. But I kept at it, coming back to it every once in a while, and this is the finished product before you. I was aware of the struggle, of how long it took to shake the cobwebs from my brain, to reawaken the muscle. I realized that it actually does take some time to rediscover your craft, to find your flow, and to establish a habit. Maybe I didn’t fully succeed in creating the best article, but I put pen to paper and started drawing. The length of time it takes is not the focus here. Focus on the work itself, not the speed at which you do it.

Once you’ve drawn that first line on the canvas, don’t stop there. Continue. You must keep going, and know that nothing is ever truly finished. As Peter Brook wrote in “The Empty Space”:

“In a living theatre, we would each day approach the rehearsal putting yesterday’s discoveries to the test, ready to believe that the true play has once again escaped us.”

I firmly believe that this thought applies to anything in life, not just art. Approach each day putting yesterday’s discoveries to the test. Begin, see it through, and then begin again. Whatever it is: the next step, the next day, the next idea.

As a final thought: once you have begun, don’t immediately go in search of feedback. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone offers their ideas through their own perspectives and tastes. You have your own vision, your own instincts, and if you think what you’re making is exciting and valid for you, keep going. Don’t become self conscious and reach out for validation. Trust yourself. Other people usually have no idea what they’re talking about.