On Beginnings: The Art of Getting Started
Beginnings are the start of something new. A fresh take. A chance to try your hand at an unfamiliar style, form, or voice. We begin when we start a sentence, and in the moment we sit down to write. Beginnings are a collection of small dos and don’ts that we tell ourselves to get started. Or, to avoid starting at all.
Each genre and writing style has different opportunities for beginning. Poems may need a moment of inspiration, an image, or a feeling. Short stories may look for interesting hooks and intellectual questions that keep readers engaged. Speculative fiction can require the creation of entire worlds, systems of law, and family trees.
No matter your form, story, poem, essay, fantasy, novel, flash fiction, blog–the trick is to just get started. Here are a few ways to begin.
How to Start Writing
EVENT’s poetry editor Joanne Arnott sees creation as a series of phases that wax and wane depending on the flow of time. Joanne urges us to not push creation, but rather to see and respect it in all its forms:
“I experienced childbearing often enough that it became my blueprint for all forms of creation. There is the long preamble or gestational period, the high-energy birthing or coming into being, and the all-important post-natal care and tending.
In the preamble period, you develop patience. Don’t push the river. Keep busy: for me, physical tasks keep my energy flowing while my mind is free to wander, productive reverie.
In the moment of creation, the gods have aligned, the moment is upon us, potential becomes real: every other task falls away as the whole of my being becomes focussed on the act of creating.
Then follows the nurturing and tending phase, returning to balance across all tasks, resting and perfecting the work, and consulting peers and allies in the completion period. Lui Jo said: “Given birth, but not nourishment, we die,”. The revision and perfecting period is every bit as important as the gestation and creation phases, leading your work into alignment with the rest of the world.”
How to Begin a Short Story
Short stories can be challenging, as their quick form requires precise language, attention to detail, and rhythm. A successful short story hooks a reader from the first line and leads them through emotional valleys or questions about humanity.
EVENT Editor Shashi Bhat is no stranger to the world of fiction. Her recent story, called “Good Enough Never Is,” was published in The Malahat Review and also appears as a chapter in her latest novel, The Most Precious Substance on Earth.
Here, Shashi shares her insights on beginning a short story:
“Lately, for me, a story begins with a feeling of injustice, which I then attach to an image and, ultimately, to a narrative. Starting this way provides conflict for the story and gives me the emotional momentum to write the rest. It gives the story somewhere to go, whether towards resolution or further discomfort. I also like to challenge myself to try a new (to me) writing technique, or a technique I feel I need to explore further.
With ‘Good Enough Never Is,’ I was writing about a woman who wants to speak up but can’t, due to both internal and external forces. This is the injustice. Since this was already the theme of the book, I needed to find a fresh way of depicting it. I issued myself the challenge of juggling more characters (and the dialogue of multiple characters) within one story. From here, the images (or scenes) came to me: a series of Toastmasters meetings.”
Once you uncover the meaning of your story, you have to make sure your prose backs it up. Like all fiction, short stories can be prone to plot holes, so doing your research and staying true to your thesis is essential.
From Shashi: “Since I’ve never attended a Toastmasters meeting, I read a lot of their newsletters and watched YouTube videos of speeches to depict that world as authentically as I could. The resulting story features a group of people, each acting out of insecurity but in different ways that clash against each other.”
Where to Find Inspiration for a Poem
Inspiration is a fickle thing. While some find their best thoughts pondering in nature, others uncover them in song, dance, high-intensity sport, or scientific research. There is truly no binding force of inspiration in the world, only your own perspective and what you do with it.
If you want to find inspiration for a poem, do something you love. Spend time with a friend, read a book by the ocean, stay up all night building an end table. While you’re engaged, pay attention to the moments and sensory experiences. Ask yourself what you know at this moment and what questions you have that poetry might answer.
Remember that your poem can be an answer or an explanation. It can be a memory as well as hope for the future. You can recollect, revisit, fast-forward, or slow down. It’s all about how you relay your idea to your reader.
From Joanne Arnott: “Poetry for me is the form closest to living. Poems may arise directly from dreams, reverie, witnessing: all we need to do is articulate the moment, and others may enter in, share the experience. The greatest weakness in a poem is editorializing, saying too much, so the work of editing is often peeling back the poem to reveal the raw experience or insight, and trusting the reader to receive and form their own conclusions.”
When Do Experiences Become Essays?
This is a trick question. Any lived moment has the potential to be retold; it just depends on what you want to share. Essays can be as complicated as your deepest questions, or as simple as sitting in the park watching dogs play. The trick for the writer is to make it interesting, engaging, and to give it meaning beyond the page. What’s more, you have to make the narrative approachable for people who don’t understand your mind.
Joanne takes us deeper into the creation of essays:
“For me, the production of an essay is a very messy business. I have some focal issue or statement, rising from within or assigned by an editor, and I write to that. When I run out of thoughts, I start again. I repeat this process six or a dozen times until I have amassed a great deal of written material. Then I step back from the work, read it all, and begin a selection process: which of these answers are most important, useful, or beautiful? What have I learned through the process of producing answers? Is there an inherent sequence that makes sense across these many words?
Then follows the second draft, which incorporates word-for-word and/or versions of the patchwork first draft material. I make a “scraps” file for all the work that is cherished but irrelevant, as a seed for some future work. In the next draft, I’m checking logic and reason, is this coherent? Can a reader outside my own head follow, or do I need to add bridging material, clarify? I usually complete three drafts before sharing the work with the editor or friends for feedback.”
More Tips for Starting Your Writing Process
The first step is to start. Even if you don’t start writing, start thinking, start dreaming, start looking closely at the world around you. If you feel like you’re stuck, try allotting yourself time to try beginning again. Block off a weekend afternoon and just start writing. It doesn’t have to be great, but it has to start somewhere.
We’ll leave you with a final tip from Joanne Arnott:
“In all forms of literature, vitality is the quality that readers and audiences respond to. This life essence is what the reader responds to, what the writer shares. Editors can help resolve mechanical and grammatical issues en route, but it is the writer’s responsibility to get out of your own way, to be a clear channel.”
Hannah Macready lives in Vancouver, BC.