On the beginning of writing

Once upon a time, there was a first sentence. I wasn’t sure what to write after that.

To confess that you don’t know where or how to start writing is to invite lots of hackneyed practical advice. Broadly, the orthodox approaches to overcoming writerly uncertainty can be divided into two categories: ‘plotting’ or ‘pantsing’ – either methodically researching and outlining your project, or typing by the seat of your pants and seeing where the story ‘wants to go’. Both approaches treat not knowing where to begin as a symptom of writer’s block, a syndrome that can be overcome either procedurally or intuitively.

The field of ‘writering’ – writing about writing – conceptualises the uncertainty before writing as a hostile territory to be hacked through as efficiently as possible using either mindfulness or careful planning. The pedagogues would have you approach writing with the ruthless efficiency of an army invading hostile territory. Map that territory, they would suggest, by identifying your story’s setting, its protagonist and the situation in which they find themselves. Then orient yourself in an inciting, catalytic moment when everything changes for your protagonist. In other words, start your story in medias res.

At all costs, avoid anything exploratory or iterative, such as exposition, scene setting, or delving into the character’s thoughts and feelings. (Edward Bulwer-Lytton is still being mocked – almost two centuries later – for his lavish, digressive description of ‘a dark and stormy night’.)

But I think something ineffably valuable in writing is lost when we imagine only negative space between the yet-to-be writer – who is lost in their own inexperience, indiscipline or fear – and the successful author, who has encountered the same problem of not-knowing but has figured out how to conquer it.

Underfoot in every story you read are the lacy capillaries of the forked paths the writer didn’t take. It’s a shame to ignore that furtive beauty. So I want to spend a few hundred words exploring the uncertain terrain that writering tells you to hurry through. Perhaps we can locate the borders of this strange country between where the writer begins and where the reader does. After all, every writer is their own first reader – and, sometimes, the only one.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the writering industry fetishises the aphoristic opening sentences of well-known novels. Felicitous first sentences are all alike; every awkward first sentence is awkward in its own way. Novels of the nineteenth century seem particularly prone to such self-orienting motherhood statements – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

In the twentieth century, and now into the twenty-first, opening sentences favour an element of incongruity. This could be an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, or an extraordinary person in an ordinary situation. Or it could just as easily be a striking belles-lettres, as in Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (‘A screaming comes across the sky’) or Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins’).

We can observe that many famous beginnings dwell on moments of ‘wrongness’: ‘I was born twice,’ says Cal, the protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex; the clocks strike thirteen in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; and the macabre slips casually into JG Ballard’s vignette of respectable, bourgeois Dr Robert Laing sitting on the balcony of his High-Rise apartment, ‘eating the dog’.

Even in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, ordinariness is established ironically, soon to be punctured by the fantastical wizarding world: ‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’

Why should beginnings be this way? The orthodox reply is that such techniques ‘grab the reader’s attention’ and ‘engage their curiosity’. But in a 2013 interview at The Atlantic, Stephen King admitted that while he spends ‘months and even years’ finding the perfect way to begin a novel, ‘a good opening sentence really begins with voice’. This is distinct from ‘style’, says King: it’s ‘an intimate connection – a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing.’

Perhaps writers who are struggling with the discomfort and alienation of their own writerly indecision might decide to give voice to those feelings. Rather than trying to move past it, they ‘write the wrongness’ – and the resulting voice could be more authentically their own.

Graham Greene begins The End of the Affair: ‘A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.’

The choosing of that moment can span miles of blank paper and blinding pixels. It’s insufferably instrumental to describe such a sublime state of indecision as mere ‘writer’s block’. It’s euphoric. Like a god, the writer surveys the entire territory at once, bestriding the threshold of all possible worlds.

To linger with this indecision, to allow every story-world to exist simultaneously, is to access a state of perfection that can only ever be ruined by the attempt to describe it. But perhaps we can capture just a little of that feeling by ceding our own sovereignty over writing, and allowing something more elusive and equivocal to rule this land.




Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a journalist, cultural critic and media studies lecturer. She’s the author of nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (Affirm Press, 2013), and co-author of the rom-com novels Nailed It! and The Hot Guy.

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