the art of the start

listening to: David Bowie


I’ve been working on my novel THE DECADENTS and I keep thinking about a phrase I think Eric Maisel used, in one of his excellent books on the emotional life of the creative process: encountering the work. To me, that is another way of saying writing deep, and I find that, with this book, and at this point in my life, I’m interested in maybe a different definition of success: I want to write deep and encounter the work and do that day after day after day. For once, I’m not interested in word quotas, either setting them or meeting them. I want to get that feeling I get when I’m writing from the “deep place” — which I guess is another way of saying “in the zone” — when you slip beneath the skin of the work and lose track of time. I used to have that all the time as a teenager, and now I’m trying to get that back…and for me, that means letting go of my dependence on outlines and learning to live with that murky ambiguous feeling of wrestling with the plot, the characters — of truly encountering them — instead of my preordained ideas of what I think they should be.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t have a rough sketch of an outline, or a sense of the story’s direction. It does mean that what I’ve learned about my own process is that the ideas contained within my outline tend to be the least interesting, the most superficial, and the true story is living a couple of layers beneath.


I’ve been practicing my starts. And I’m not talking about the opening paragraphs of a short story or novel.

I mean, the actual act of sitting down and starting.

There’s a reason why people say that half the battle is just showing up. People who want to write can be divided into two groups: those who actually show up to do it, and everybody else. I fight on a regular basis to stay in the first category. These are some of the thoughts I’ve been thinking in my ongoing battle with procrastination:

Talk nice to yourself.

Seriously. It’s so easy to beat yourself up because in theory, writing should be easy. All you need is pen and paper. So when days slip by and we don’t write, and we keep not writing, we tell ourselves what lazy idiots we are, what losers, which makes us feel even worse about ourselves, until we start to wonder why we ever thought we could do this in the first place.

This attitude is not what you might call ‘productive’. And the reason for that isn’t just because it takes a sledgehammer to your self-esteem, but also because it gives your sly, monkey mind exactly what it wants: an excuse not to work, to go lie on some mental beach somewhere and sip a mojito and watch the pretty people saunter by.

If you tell yourself, I didn’t write today, thus I am a loser, that statement has a way of morphing into, I don’t have to write today because I am a loser. Not only does this let you off the hook of doing the work, it also nurtures this other idea: I could have done it if I’d applied myself except I never applied myself. So by telling yourself you’re a loser, you can also allow yourself to believe that you’re a genius of untapped potential.

That monkey mind is tricky.

Respect the task at hand.

When we sit down to write, we’re not just making something out of nothing, which is formidable in itself – we are engaged in nothing less than the act of making meaning, of giving reason and order to the world around us and in our heads.

It’s important to respect that. Climbing Mount Everest is difficult; it’s easy to understand why a person might want to put it off, or not do it all. Writing a story or a novel is your own personal Mount Everest. Have respect for the fullness and richness of that; let it sink through you; understand that you can do it, but only if you’re properly equipped with, among other things, the right attitude. If you don’t respect the mountain, the mountain won’t respect you, and if it becomes a battle between you and the mountain, guess who wins?

Beware the fight-or-flight response.

There’s a very primal part of our brain that hasn’t changed since the days we were drawing pictures on cave walls (or, more likely, procrastinating). This is the part of the brain that activates our fight-or-flight-or-freeze response to threat. The problem is, this part doesn’t differentiate between a charging bull or a blank computer screen awaiting your first paragraph. All it knows is that you’re stressed, and if you’re stressed, there’s probably something nearby that wants to eat you. So it kicks into gear for the good of your own survival. It tells you to freeze — to back away from your meaning-making, personal Mount Everest — and fly into a different activity, such as shopping (or some other stress-relieving, potentially addictive pastime).

to be continued


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