“I know what I want to say in my essay,” my students tell me, over and over again. “The problem is, I don’t know how to start.”
“Start with what you know you want to say,” I’ll tell them. “You can always work backwards later.”
“Uh huh,” they’ll say, still eyeing their keyboards nervously. The middle of the essay didn’t seem so intimidating a minute ago—but if they’re going to write the middle first, the middle becomes the beginning. And beginnings are scary.
Writers waste a tremendous amount of time not starting. On computer lab days, I’ve watched students not start for 50 minutes straight. And I know adults who’ve been not starting for years. “If I ever get around to writing my novel,” a coworker told me recently, “I’ve got the perfect title all ready to go.” My coworker has spent years of his life imagining and planning his one great story. But what has not done in all that time? You guessed it.
“Why don’t you just start?” I’ll ask. “We’ve got a long break coming up…you can even start then.”
“It’s not going to happen,” he’ll say. “I’ve got too much to do. If I could find maybe one hour a day to spend on my novel, I might do it. But I don’t have that hour—and if I ever do manage to find it, I’d probably rather spend it doing something else.”
And there you have it. Another piece of writing dead in the water before the author even started.
To be fair, my coworker is immensely busy. He is the sole supporter of his family of four. In addition to teaching full-time, he works as a private tutor and freelance copy editor. So I don’t blame him one bit if, at the end of a long day, after his commute of about an hour each way, he’d rather spend his few free minutes reading a book or talking with his children.
Still…I wonder what would happen if he’d only start.
This will be my 21st Magnificent Nose article. I can usually produce a post in about two hours, maybe more if additional revision is needed.
And even after 21 starts, I still feel nervous every time I sit down to write. The idea of writing that first sentence, that first word—it’s enough to make me put off starting until I no longer have a choice (I really must write an article about the importance of deadlines soon.)
Sometimes, I’ll write a post in two sittings. This means that I start the first day, and polish the next day.
Polishing or adding to what’s already there—that’s easy. But it’s the starting that makes me sweat.
But obviously, I start anyway. How else would I have gotten to 21 posts?
Every holiday season, I like to catch the litany of Rankin-Bass stop motion Christmas specials. This year, I found some unexpected inspiration in the 1970 Santa Claus is Coming to Town. About midway through, when Kris Kringle tries to convince the Winter Warlock to change his wicked ways, the warlock offers this excuse: “I really am a mean and despicable creature at heart, you know. It’s so difficult to really change.”
“Changing from bad to good is as easy as taking your first step,” Kris Kringle tells him firmly, before launching into song about pretty much exactly what I’m saying now.
“Put one foot in front of the other,” he tells the warlock. “And soon you’ll be walking out the door.”
And my personal favorite line: “A good way to start is to stand.”
For the rest of the month of December (and probably for a good few weeks into the new year) I’m going to play this song whenever I need to work up the courage to start. If you’re who enjoys a little forty-year-old Christmas music, I suggest you do the same.
And remember: Scary as starting is, at least you know it’ll be over quickly.
Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.