Tunes for a Monday Morning
The art of asking

On beginnings

What a writer does: 
She wonders.

"The advice I like to give young artists," says painter Chuck Close, "or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case.”

And wanders.

Likewise, novelist Ann Patchett reminds us that in order to write we need to cross the line between thinking about creating and getting down to work. "The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies," she warns. "It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write—and many of the people who do write—get lost.”

Looks. Listens. Laments.

Sometimes we put off the moment of actually beginning, getting stuck in the dreaming and planning stage instead -- afraid to start, afraid to commit, afraid to go where the creative process wants to take us. Yet despite fear and doubt, wrote Rollo May (in The Courage to Create), we must make the leap, plunge in, begin.  “The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one," he points out. "Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.”

 And as YA writer Tehereh Mafi says, rather wisely, "The words get easier the moment you stop fearing them."


Beginnings are rarely tidy and controlled...nor are they particularly meant to be.

"For me," says novelist Ramona Ausubel, "the first draft is really just a big mud-rolling, dust-kicking, mess-making time in which my only job is to find the story’s heartbeat.  I allow myself to invent characters without warning, drop them if they prove to be uninteresting, change the setting in the middle, experiment with point of view, etc.  I figure that the body will grow up around the heart, that it’s always possible to bring all the various elements up and down, sculpt and polish, as long as I’ve got something that matters to me.  The second draft (and the 3rd through 20th, Lord help me) involves getting out the tool belt and thinking like a carpenter.  But the first draft is all dirt and water and seeds and, hopefully, a little magic.  Of course, this method means that my first draft is almost unreadable.  Maybe someday I’ll invent a way of making a slightly cleaner mess, but until then, I try to enjoy the muck." *

Then shuts the door, shuts out the world, sits down, and gets to work.

British novelist Zadie Smith tells young writers: "Don't romanticise your 'vocation.' You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no 'writer's lifestyle.' All that matters is what you leave on the page."

So get it down, those messy first drafts and rough initial sketches, get it down, don't judge, don't polish, don't freeze, don't get stuck endlessly rewriting the first clutch of pages over and over, never progressing any further (a habit I'm all too prone to myself) -- you can edit, fix, fill out, perfect, and pretty it all up later. 

"Don't get it right," said the great James Thurber, "just get it written."


Although we've been speaking specifically of painting and writing, the crucial moment of "beginning" is important in all forms of creativity -- and each of us is an artist, a "maker," is some aspect of our lives. We make homes and gardens, classrooms and sanctuaries, families and communities; we create meals and letters and blogs and adventures lodged in our children's memories; and we all have things we want and plan to do, someday...and know we ought to just begin.

Here's a goood quote (usually attributed to Goethe) that's germane to the subject and wise to remember:

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”


* The Ausubel quote comes from "Novelists on First Drafts," which I recommend reading in full.


Thank you for this one. I needed to be reminded to begin, having spent far too much time NOT beginning. Sometimes wandering doesn't actually lead anywhere.

I love that last picture of your dog, looking at us with an expression that says, "Excuses will not even be acknowledged, let alone accepted, so we might as well get started."

Indeed, indeed, indeed!

Writing is not an idea, it is an act. Something that must be done. I tell myself that I'm only a writer when I'm writing. Otherwise I'm something else: a gardener, a cook, a reader; but a writer only when I am writing.

I love Chuck Close's line, "Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary." Unequivocal, uncompromising, true.

I don't want to spam you, so I won't leave links but I wrote two blog posts that deal with writing as an act of work and finding time to write. If anyone's interested, find them under the 'how to...' tab at Omniscrit.

Austin :)

Oh heavens, that's not spamming me, Austen, that's sharing. By all means leave the links!

That's exactly what Tilly is saying.

Thank you Terri. I just feel that it's proper etiquette to ask permission before sharing links to one's own stuff. Perhaps it's just Englishness again! You are very kind. I hope that the posts may prove useful to some.

Bless you!

Austin. x

"All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you."

Oh that is *so true*. I find all I need is to find the beginning of the "thread" of an idea - like a cobweb brushing the face - that I don't know any more of than the flicker that touched me... Writing down the idea is like following the thread - except then I find that the thread is part of a whole tapestry that I only discovered through writing. I have found my blog to be particularly good for developing my thoughts...

On of the most powerful quotes I know on this topic (in terms of how it affects me at least) is one from Charlotte Bronte's "Shirley" (it's a long-ish excerpt but worthwhile sharing I believe):

"A still, deep, inborn delight glows in her young veins; unmingled - untroubled; not to be reached or ravished by human agency [...] This joy gives her experience of a genii-life. Buoyant, by green steps, by glad hills, all verdure and light, she reaches a station scarcely lower than that whence angels looked down on the dreamer of Beth-el, and her eye seeks, and her soul possesses, the vision of life as she wishes. No - not as she wishes it; she has not time to wish: the swift glory spreads out, sweeping and kindling, and multiplys its splendours faster than Thought can effect his combinatioins, faster than Aspiraion ca utter her longings.

If Shirley were not a an indolent, a reckless, an ignorant being, she would take a pen at such moments; or at least while the recollection of such moments was yet fresh on her spirit: she would seize, she would fix the apparition, tell the vision revealed. Had she a little more of the organ of Acquisitiveness in her head - a little more of the love of property in her nature, she would take a good-sized sheet of paper and write plainly out, in her own queer but clear and legible hand, the story that has been narrated, the song hat has been sung to her, and thus possess what she was enabled to create. But indolent she is, reckless she is, and most ignorant, for she does not know her dreams are rare - her feelings peculiar; she does not know, has never known and will dies without knowing, the full value of that spring whose bright fresh bubbling at her heart keeps it green."

When I read those two paragraphs I felt at once inspired and warned. Ever since I was a child I had dreamed like Shirley, but did not know that my "dreams were rare" and did not think to write them down. Now I am more determined than ever to keep a pen to hand at all times, ready to write down, be it ever so incoherent and fragmented, the echoes of a vision of wonder, so that I may recall it again, and its beauty never dissipate entirely from my soul. And many of these visions I have worked into stories...

When I was a younger thing, inspiration beat upon the walls of my skull, blind bats all in a frenzy to wing it, wring it, leave their tracks upon my writing or music manuscript paper. Now that I have grown older, wiser, perhaps, (or perhaps not), it seemed like the workaday world and other's cacophonic needs and voices, filled up those once echoing nooks, so that they had no radar to fly with. I went about in mawkish angst a bit, yearning for even the faintest passing zephyr escaping through my ears, or even my nose.

Thank the gods that I got so frustrated with the yearning bit - (I get rather cranky when I'm mentally constipated), that I sat down and just started scribbling nonsense with no end in sight. A chair here, an inkblot on the floor, a wavery curtain there, and a storm of some such outside. And the muses arrived! Almost at my bidding! Scared me to death, almost. (But I am not so bold as to say I commanded the entrance). But it seemed, all I had ever needed to do was place a prop or two, and some open space between, and Woosh! my bats exploded right back in. Turns out they were only waiting for me to give them an enclosed, but open setting, and a few barriers to ping against, and somewhere hang or flutter around. Radar (Yes, Virginia, it really IS that simple.)

I began today! First painting of 2013. After turning ideas over and over in my head for weeks, trying them out, turning them this way and that, trying to see how they'll look when finished, when I KNOW it's no substitute for just doing! The ideas just tend to get bigger and more complicated and more amorphous, and the thought of starting gets scarier and scarier, unless I just sit down and start doing SOMETHING. It's a lesson I have to relearn again and again.

Great post... I was just writing about this very thing on my blog.... though I think Chuck Close says it a bit more eloquently - well, and so many others here!! So, I best tear mysefl away from the fire and get myself out to the studio.

Been turning this one over all day, not taking my own advice. Or Goethe's, but here it is at last:

Begin It

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.”

We swim in water, rise to land, breath air,
and so it starts again, all of it. Why bother
worrying about how to begin? It is begun.

The child reaches out to what is not yet in focus:
finger, hand, nipple, it is all a surprise.
How can we not be as brave at that child?

We rock, crawl, pull up, stand, put one foot
forward, ever forward. There is no going back.
Not even the cry of “no!” stops the progress.

And here, on the edge of the abyss, with age
waving its hand like a semaphore, message
distorted, the child still goes ahead.

This poem is not coded. It says what it means.
We are all in the process of beginning.

©2013 JAne Yolen all rights reserved

"Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.”

This is just what I needed to hear today, as I wrestle with the many-armed, disembodied kraken that is the First Story. Thank you.

"This poem is not coded. It says what it means."

My favorite line. :)

Oh, you English types! (I say this lovingly, my husband is an Englishman who thinks he's Welsh, shh!)

I think I'll plaster the second post to my forehead.

Mine, too!

'...each of us is an artist, a "maker," is some aspect of our lives. We make homes and gardens, classrooms and sanctuaries, families and communities; we create meals and letters and blogs and adventures lodged in our children's memories..."

Love this. Thank you, thank you.

A very beautiful and inspiring poem.

What a lovely thing to share, Laura!

That's another one for my wall, Jane. xx

Thanks all. And that wall's getting pretty crowded, Terri. Hope it's a virtual wall. xxxJane

It's a real wall, but I cycle poems and quotes on and off it. (I use a gold ink pen, which can be wiped away with white spirits.) So the poems change, but there are always some by you there!

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