The only way to begin is to begin, and begin right now. If you like, begin the minute you finish reading this paragraph. For sure, begin before you finish reading this book. I have no doubt the day is coming when you will be wiser or better informed or more highly skilled than you are now, but you will never be more ready to begin writing than you are right this minute. The time has come. You already know, more or less, what a good story looks like. You’ve already got in mind some human situation that matters to you. You need nothing more. Begin with whatever gives you the impetus to begin: an image, a fantasy, a situation, a memory, a motion, a situation, a set of people—anything at all that arouses your imagination. The job is only to get some or all of this into words able to reach and touch an unknown, unseen somebody “out there” known as the Reader. You must plunge into it. And you must do it now.
It would be nice, I suppose, to begin at the perfect point in the story, in the perfect way, using the perfect voice to present exactly the desired scene. Unfortunately, you have no choice but to be wholly clueless about all of this. The rightness of things is generally revealed in retrospect, and you’re unlikely to know in advance what is right and wrong in a story that has not yet been written. So instead of waiting until everything is perfect, begin anyhow, anywhere, and any way. The result probably will not be exactly right. It may not be even close. So what? You’re going to persist until you get it right.
While I’m sure you can think of good reasons to procrastinate, I very much doubt there’s much real merit in any of them. There is no need to wait for inspiration; no need to find your confidence; no need to know exactly why or what you’re writing; no need read wise and thoughtful books about how to write; no need to know your story; no need to understand your characters; no need to be sure you’re on the right track; no need even for your research to be complete. No need now. Later on, it will be very nice indeed to have some or all of these fine things. You will of course eventually want inspiration and confidence and self-knowledge and faith in your project and informed technique and a finished story with developed characters and completed competent research. But every single one of these things—even the research—comes to you only in the process of writing. They are the result of writing. If you let any one of them immobilize you before you write, I can guarantee that a year from now you will still be waiting to begin. The belief that you must have them to begin is the most common mistake of all, and it is fatal. Right here—on the jagged rocks of that false belief—is where most good ideas break up and sink without trace. Inspiration and confidence and conviction and craft and knowledge are not what make writing possible. It’s exactly the other way around. Writing makes them possible.
“The common conception of how novels get written,” says Martin Amis, “seems to me to be an exact description of writ- er’s block. In the common view, the writer is at this stage so desperate that he’s sitting around with a list of characters, a list of themes, and a framework for his plot, and ostensibly trying to mesh the three elements. In fact, it’s never like that. What happens is what Nabokov described as a throb. A throb or a glimmer, an act of recognition on the writer’s part. At this stage the writer thinks, Here is something I can write a novel about.”
Isak Dinesen used to say much the same: “I start with a tingle, a kind of feeling of the story I will write. Then come the characters, and they take over, they make the story. But all this ends by being a plot.” Robert Penn Warren began the same way. “Any book I write starts with a flash. . . .” A “throb.” A “tingle.” A “flash.” Pretty flimsy stuff. Most people have spent a lifetime shunting shimmers like that out of their minds. Now you must recognize them as a call to action, as a promise of what is to come.
And you must sit down and write. It doesn’t even really matter if you feel like writing. As Tom Wolfe says, “Sometimes, if things are going badly, I will force myself to write a page in half an hour. I find that can be done. I find that what I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I’m feeling inspired. It’s mainly a matter of forcing yourself to write. There’s a marvelous essay that Sinclair Lewis wrote on how to write. He said that most writers don’t understand that the process begins by actually sitting down.” Joyce Carol Oates agrees: “One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’ In a sense, the writing will create the mood. . . . Generally I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.”
This principle—write it now—applies not just to writers of fiction, but also to writers of all kinds. Interestingly enough, it is relevant even to scholars dependent on factual research. The great historian Samuel Eliot Morison used to tell his students: “First and foremost, get writing! Young scholars generally wish to secure the last fact before writing anything, like General McClellan refusing to advance (as people said) until the last mule was shod. . . . In every research there comes a point, which you should recognize like a call of conscience, when you must get down to writing. And once you are writing, go on writing as long as you can; there will be plenty of time later to shove in the footnotes or return to the library for extra information.”
“But”—you may say—“I don’t even know my story yet.” My answer is: “Of course you don’t know your story yet.” You are the very first person to tell this story ever, anywhere in the whole world, and you cannot know a story until it has been told. First you tell it; then you know it. It is not the other way around. That may sound illogical, but to the narrating mind, it is logic itself. Stories make themselves known, they reveal themselves—even to their tellers—only by being told. You may ask how on earth you can tell a story before you know it. You do that by letting the emerging story tell itself through you. As you tell it, you let the story give you your cues about where it is going to go next. At first, you must feel your way, letting it be your guide. You may eventually be able to plan the whole scope of the work down to its smallest details, as J. K. Rowling is said to have done with all her Harry Potter books. But in the very first phase of its creation, any story must be teased out from the shadows of your imagination and unconscious. As Isabel Allende says, the story is “hidden in a very somber and secret place where I don’t have any access yet. It is something that I’ve been feeling but which has no shape, no name, no tone, no voice.” It is waiting for you, untold, undefined, and latent. It will take shape only when you put it into words. So start putting it into words. As Allende concludes, “By the time I’ve finished the first draft, I know what the book is about. But not before.”
Since you have no choice but to begin in uncertainty, you must learn to tolerate uncertainty and, if possible, to turn it into excitement. As Toni Morrison puts it: “I am profoundly excited by thinking up or having the idea in the first place . . . before I begin to write. . . . it’s a sustained thing I have to play with. I always start out with an idea, even a boring idea, that becomes a question I don’t have any answers to.”
Most writers start out uncertainly with a small thing called the “germ,” or the “seed” of the story. That “germ,” as E. L. Doctorow points out, can be anything. “It can be a voice, an image; it can be a deep moment of personal desperation. For instance, with Ragtime I was so desperate to write something, I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall. That’s the kind of day we sometimes have, as writers. Then I wrote about the house that was attached to the wall. It was built in 1906, you see, so I thought about the era and what Broadview Avenue looked like then: Trolley cars ran along the avenue down at the bottom of the hill; people wore white clothes in the summer to stay cool. Teddy Roosevelt was president. One thing led to another, and that’s the way that book began, through desperation to those few images.”
Writers use all kinds of metaphors to describe the way their imagination is originally aroused. Tom McGuane says it makes him feel like a hunting dog snapping alert, catching the scent. “When I start something it’s like being a bird dog getting a smell; it’s a matter of running it down in prose and then trying to figure out what the thing is that’s out there.” In the prefaces to the New York Edition of his novels, Henry James tells the many little tales of how each of his classic works began as some sudden impression, something “minute and windblown. . . . the stray suggestion, the wandering word, the vague echo, at the touch of which the novelist’s imagination winces as at the prick of some sharp point. . . .” Patricia Highsmith notes that story ideas “can be little or big, simple or complex, fragmentary or rather complete, still or moving. The important thing is to recognize them when they come. I recognize them by a certain excitement which they instantly bring, akin to the pleasure and excitement of a good poem or line in a poem.” The “throb” can come to you as a whole story, but more often it will be a fragment. The job, once you’ve been aroused, is to expand your excitement: to let it grow, take on substance.
While you cannot force ideas into existence, you can coax them into view. When you first notice some exciting fragment, your impulse may be to brush it aside. It looks so . . . so small, so slight. Don’t be deceived. What matters is not the idea’s size but its resonance. Ray Bradbury has generated stories by simply writing down, in free association, image after image, looking for “a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds. . . . Where am I leading you? Well, if you are a writer, or would hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me. I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it. Somewhere along about the middle of the page, or perhaps on the second page, the prose poem would turn into a story. Which is to say that a character suddenly appeared and said, ‘That’s me!’ or, ‘That’s an idea I like!’ And the character would then finish the tale for me.”
But be careful. If you are like me, your first instinct will be to try to “take control” of a new idea, to assert yourself, to “turn this into something.” Yet at this early stage, it may be a mistake to treat your idea too aggressively. The whole process of writing, from first to last, requires that you alternate steadily between a passive, open, daydreaming intuitiveness, followed by worked-out, thought-through, fully developed acts of judgment and control. You must have both, and you must get both to work not against each other but in concert. In the early stages, most developing ideas usually need lots of fertile, nurturing passivity. Something has moved you. You begin to write about it. You sketch. You jot down a chain of fantasies and associations. You dream the dream. You don’t know what’s coming; you’re a vehicle for what’s happening on your page, as was Flannery O’Connor when she wrote her great short story “Good Country People.” “When I started writing that story, I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, and when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized it was inevitable.”
Excerpted from The Modern Library Writer's Workshop by Stephen Koch. Copyright © 2003 by Stephen Koch. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.