I have a writing task. A big one. I am choosing to take the advice of The Little Book of Talent and keep the biggest plans secret. It’s not important to know exactly what the task is, just that it is.
I have been a writer since second grade. Our teacher told us to write a Halloween story, and I went to town. I had elaborate costumes, a haunted house, multiple plots coming together, and a hero facing certain ruin by ghosts. I also had what I later learned was a deus ex machina — an ending dropped from the sky where the hero of the story got to survive and get away all in one piece.
Okay, it was a ghost extinguisher. I gave my hero a ghost extinguisher.
So, maybe plot-wise, it wasn’t my best effort. But for sheer love of the process of writing, it was enough to keep me hooked for years. I can still feel what it was like to sit at the dining room table and write that story. How I could hardly move my pencil fast enough.
As many things do, writing became both easier and harder as I grew up. I learned about plot and foreshadowing. About the nuances of character and exposition. I also started writing essays, nonfiction. I practiced translating facts into a readable story. I found that this worked best for me if I had piles of facts and supporting facts that I could pick and choose from in the process of writing.
I felt most comfortable drawing from a deep well.
Which brings me to today — my writing task, based in fact and research and looming large over my life for the next several months. I am breaking it into smaller pieces, and finding that each piece comes with its own rabbit hole attached. These pieces sit before me like tiny cyclones, and if I’m not careful I could get sucked into the vortex of each one, disappear for a while, and come back with not even a pair of ruby slippers to show for it.
Today I am perched on the edge of a rabbit hole, trying not to dive in. If it weren’t so fascinating, if every piece of information didn’t lead to twelve others, if I could just write one crappy sentence —
There it is. The thing I keep banging up against is the first sentence. More precisely, allowing the first sentence to be crappy and moving forward anyway. Because, as I used to tell my writing students, revision is more than half of the writing process.
It may help me to look at this craft the same way I look at the craft of a massage. Prepare. Deeply and thoroughly prepare. Then, when the person is in front of me, empty my mind and trust that the training is there. Right where I left it. Just make contact and go.
Just write that crappy first sentence and go. Forward.