It seems all wrong to write about beginnings in the middle of August. Beginning conjures up images of new years, calendars flipped to pristine white January pages, with strains of Auld Lang Syne coming from the stereos. Alternately, beginnings smells of spring and warmth and blossoming trees and pollen. Spring cleaning, short sleeves, and the need to buy Zyrtec and its kissing cousins.
So, August? Beginnings?
But it is the beginning of many things.
School started for my children. (Another thing that seems wrong: starting school when it is still 100 degrees outside.) New school supplies, new uniforms, new teachers, all that. We had our annual ladies’ association breakfast; the weekly Tuesday workdays were announced; the rush toward Southern Tradition has already begun. Overwhelming.
I’m starting draft #2 on novel #4. It’s overwhelming. Was it like this the last time I started a second draft? Did I read the first draft and shake my head and think, “what a load of crap”? Did I doubt that I’d be able to bring it into a cohesive form?
I’m reading submissions for Ruminate’s short story contest again. That is overwhelming, too. Was it like this last year? I strain to remember reading the 2014 entries. Was I impressed? Did I know which I wanted to pick as my top twenty favorites, or did I hesitate over the final selection, dither between a handful of great stories?
Beginnings can be hard. Bertie Wooster, bumbling hero of P. G. Wodehouse’s series, agrees:
I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about to long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you.
Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about.
–P. G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves
I’m betting that every slush pile reader who’s stumbled onto this passage nods in agreement. Doesn’t matter if they adore Wodehouse or not, snort with laughter at his comic stories or chunk the book against the wall. We’ve all read novels that fool about too long or read like a scalded cat.
All writers recognize this feeling of being snagged at the start of our story. (And we’ve had drooling with envy feeling when we read another writer’s wonderful metaphor. “Scalded cat.” Love it.) The advice we read can further snag us: no prologues, start with action, raise a story question, establish an atmosphere, no weather forecasts, ditch the backstory, cut the first three pages, dialogue is okay but potentially problematic . . .
Anything can be made into a problem. Even something as simple as typing the first word on a blank page.
Now I remember. I did feel this snagged when I started my second draft. I did wonder how to tackle the story. I did feel this way—and I got unsnagged and wrote more drafts.
I began reading the short stories for the contest, and now I remember: I did struggle with narrowing my choices down to twenty. I did like some immediately, but others took a few more readings until I was confident that they were solid choices. I did feel this way—and I plowed through and was thrilled with the finalists and the winner.
This morning, as I stood in the school library chatting with fellow ladies, I noticed a woman standing by the wall. She had a dazed, overwhelmed expression on her face. A newcomer, I guessed, and introduced myself. I was right. Her family is new to the school; they don’t know anyone. In a school like ours, with people who have attended church, ball games, school functions, and raised children together, it’s tempting to look around and see others who are at ease and think, “I’ll never fit in. I’ll never know what they know or who they know or where anything is.”
That was me last year. I did wonder if I’d ever find my place. I probably had a similar expression on my face at the first ladies’ association breakfast. I did feel that way—and I worked hard and got involved and met people.
Beginnings are difficult, but they don’t stay beginnings. They morph into middles. We learn, we grow, we don’t stay beginners forever. But when you’re at a beginning, it can feel that way. It’s only when we look back that we can see just how far we’ve come.