Writers Journey: Begin

Before I began, the page was a blank space. In the Japanese language, the radicals that create the full kanji pictograph for the word ‘line’ are a thread, over white or blank water. That is probably because even in ancient times, people saw the blank page as a vast sea over which one small thread seemed barely visible; thus they probably felt as daunted as we do.

Usually a writer is compelled to begin when she has something to say. That is different from having an idea. Behind every generated idea there must also be something worth saying. Some of the most memorable journeys were made by authors who were wrestling with some problem they wanted to understand, or some point of view that they felt as a cry to be generally understood. This compulsion is what can propel a writer over the ‘white or blank water’ and make the first few marks on a pristine page.

This applies to fiction and nonfiction equally. It’s a mistake to feel that just because we write fiction we are exempt from saying something important in the subtext of our words. A setting and a character is not enough. A writer can spend years building a world from scratch, or researching a setting and characters. But until that compulsion to say something arises, there will only be note-taking and contemplation. Sometimes it’s simply the need to be understood that triggers the writing flow. Sometimes it’s a desire to impart a certain world view or ethic. Very often, a writer begins a piece because they have someone in mind to speak to, even if the narration may never show it. A mother writes a story for her child’s bedtime. A young lover writes a poem or short story to his sweetheart. Having a specific target in mind when you begin is important, but if you choose a recipient you feel might argue with everything you say, even if only in your own mind, it can be just as daunting as staring at a blank page. Even worse is choosing a recipient who couldn’t care less about what you’re passionate about. We can speak to our peers but only in the spirit of an open forum.

Sometimes we write for others and are not heard in our lifetime. Many of the greatest poets and novelists of the past were only published or became well-known posthumously. And yet, they had that something worth saying which kept them writing to someone, even if only to that great, mysterious ‘other’ that Edith Wharton mentioned. She explains in The Writing of Fiction, “The answer is that he will never do his best till he ceases altogether to think of his readers (and his editor and his publisher) and begins to write, not for himself, but for that other self with whom the creative artist is always in mysterious correspondence, and who, happily, has an objective existence somewhere, and will one day receive the message sent to him, though the sender may never know it.”


Meditation for your journal: What am I trying to say with my writing and who am I saying it to?