Beginnings: daunting, difficult, and doable

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.

d3557dd7b9104b72b7fe04ddfa5996ceSchool 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.


10 thoughts on “Beginnings: daunting, difficult, and doable

  1. This is wonderful. I am at the beginning of…I’m not quite sure. Actually, I am on a step before beginning. It is a feeling of multiple options presenting themselves to me, along with my own creations and dreams, and knowing that one day I will simply have to begin. Something. It’s good to know that beginnings are difficult for everyone:)


    1. Judy, I think you made a great point. We sometimes find ourselves at that step before beginning, and the options can be overwhelming (at least for me.) Choices, particularly ones between multiple good options, can lead me to procrastinate and never make a decision. That’s one reason why I don’t bother researching and plotting before I begin a novel’s first draft; I know that I can become so bogged down in those areas that I never begin the actual writing! I wish you the best of luck in whichever option you choose.


  2. Thanks for writing this – it’s so true. Beginnings feel overwhelming, but sometimes it’s encouraging to remember that we’ve began new things before, too, and survived.

    I’ve really enjoyed your other posts this week, too.


    1. Tuija, I’m glad that you’ve enjoyed this week’s posts. I was encouraged by writing this one; it was good to look back and remember that I survived many, many other beginnings.


  3. Beginnings, revisions, carrying on – all these things take effort. You reaching out to the new mom at that meeting took effort too. I bet she was blessed by your efforts too, Laura.


    1. Tim, I hope that she was blessed. She had her younger daughter with her (she homeschools one child) so we didn’t have as much of a chance to chat as I’d like. But I can remember a time when I would’ve noticed her but been too afraid to speak first, so it’s good to see that I’ve progressed socially!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love your post, Laura — you’re right, when we look back we can see how much has changed but in the moment it’s easy to feel as if we’re right back at the beginning again. And I suppose there are some things, like writing, in which we do go back to the start every time, but hopefully have new tools that we’ve gained from previous attempts!


    1. As I read your comment, Jeannie, I thought of how much novel-writing is a two steps forward, one step back type of process. Even when I’m “beginning” a new novel, my skill level has increased with each manuscript, so I’m not beginning at the same level as I was eight years ago, when I sat down and wrote the first five pages longhand with a five week old infant beside me. She’s grown and I’ve grown, though not in the same ways!


  5. I like the connection of beginnings you make with August and the beginning of school, and beginning a new draft of a novel. I think beginnings are important, and it’s good to remember that things can be learned and things get easier as time goes on.
    With that said, I’ve been thinking lately about a tendency that appears to keep cropping up in American culture– the near obsession with beginnings, the boredom with middles, and the usual ignoring of completions. It appears to me that the “coming of age” stories are often quite a bit more popular than stories that complete a tale, cycle, or saga. I’m probably just as apt to prefer coming of age stories myself, although I have a taste for middle-plots and completion stories also.
    I liked how you connected the beginnings to the learning in the middles and satisfied completion of projects. It’s a good way to keep perspective

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right. I see the boredom with middles and ignoring of completions reflected quite a bit in current novels. There aren’t many protagonists who are old, really old, because as a culture we’re obsessed with youth. (The few exceptions I can think of are literary novels, which rarely hit the bestseller list. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is one.) And in many novels about middle-aged people, the characters seem uneasy and uncomfortable not being young anymore. Ditto for novels about couples who have been married a few decades; they tend to be unhappy or waking up to being unhappy about their partner. This is frustrating and discouraging. My husband and I have been married for 15 years; at some point, we started knowing more couples who’d been married for that length of time (give or take a decade) who were divorcing. It’s sad.

      Maybe part of this preference for beginnings is that it’s relatively easy to start something, but following through and completing it is much, much harder. Relatively easy, of course. The other thing that comes to mind is that so much that is significant in our lives happens in childhood and adolescence; we experience things intensely in those years, and stories that reflect that intensity (as in a coming-of-age story) grab our attention.


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