“I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”
—Henry David Thoreau
How many words preceded these words? How should I add my own? How does one begin to choose the words with which to begin, with so many words to begin with? After twenty eight years, having written hundreds of songs, shoeboxes of letters, binders of essays, a novel, comedy sketches, research papers, short stories, a handful of bad poems, chapters of never-to-be-completed books, notes to girls, chapter summaries, thousands of emails, text messages and IM’s, blogs, applications, two-week-notices, and scenes for screenplays, I am still intimidated by beginnings. That blank page, that blinking cursor—especially that blinking cursor. It flashes like dots on a digital clock that wants to be set: I will keep time for you, those dots say; just tell me to begin. If only beginning were a matter like time. But writing is not as one-dimensional and unidirectional. There are 1,440 minutes to set a clock to, and from that point there is only forward movement, and only one right time of day. But when I write I can begin in medias res; I can begin in the past and move forward, or in the future and move backward. There are infinite ideas, innumerable reasons, limitless tones, fathomless times and interminable ways to begin a piece of writing. The question is, and always will be: With so many possibilities, how to begin?
I have learned from experience to trust my experience, and I recommend you do the same. Recall the past you have to draw from, all the sources you have at your disposal. Remember your first memory, your own beginning: you, gasping for life-breath, staring up through soapy water at your dad’s calm face as he washes out the baby shampoo. Remember that he is a songwriter and your mother is a nurse. Remember 101 Gilette Drive and the woods out back. Remember your grandfather who was buried on your eighteenth birthday, your sisters who live in other states. Who else remembers them exactly like you? Who else’s wisdom has been shaped like yours? Consider how Thoreau made everything seem so simple and beautiful when life was in fact the opposite, and how Tom Robbins shocked you by placing Jesus’ corpse in the pantry. Reflect on the awe you felt reading Toni Morrison’s terrifying eidetic images, and how Emerson inspired you to rely on yourself, whoever that was. You have read Einstein, Kundera, Buddha, and Tolstoy. You saw an old lady spilled out of her wheelchair on Burbank Boulevard covered in blood and urine. An intoxicated Bobby Brown offered to buy your song in a studio in Hollywood at 3:00 a.m. These are the sources you bring to your beginning, and they are unique. Your past contains volumes.
At the same instant, remember to forget your past and to approach the beginning like a beginner. When we write about subjects that are new to us, as we are often assigned to do in school, beginning like a beginner should be natural. However, as students, we inevitably consider ignorance our weakness, and even when it is to the detriment of our intellectual growth (and it always is) we hide that ignorance behind large words and false revelations rather than engage the unknown, the unexperienced. This is unfortunate, because inexperience is as valuable as experience. For example, I knew little about art when I was assigned an essay on the topic. Yet because of my past success as a writer of essays and my desire to get an ‘A,’ I walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art with cockiness, thinking that by the end of my visit I would have something profound to say about art. It might have led to a phony paper about a museum experience, had I not remembered my professor’s explicit instruction: “Don’t try to be profound; just see what happens between you and the art.” This did not immediately make sense, as my fear of my own ignorance was so menacing. As I walked around the exhibits, however, wanting as usual to use intellectual tricks to veil my ignorance, I discovered a way to use my ignorance as an intellectual trick. Instead of being afraid of looking at art, I asked: Why am I afraid of looking at art? When I felt unmoved by Chinese sculpture, or drawn to one dark painting amongst many bright others, I asked: Why do I think Chinese sculpture is boring? And out of all the paintings in the room, why am I drawn to the darkest one? What I found by turning my ignorance into intellectual curiosity is a connection with my subject that I had always considered a disconnection; that the fear I have of art connected me strongly to art; that the boredom I felt connected me directly to the Chinese sculpture, and that the darkness I was attracted to was not really in the painting, but in the way I saw it as an inexperienced viewer. Remember yourself as a child, beginning with no experience at all, asking why this, why that, and see how it led you to so many conclusions. Inexperience breeds questions, and questions are beginnings. Begin as a beginner.
Take some time to forget about yourself too, acknowledging the many thinkers who thought before you. For instance, if you are asked to write about nostalgia like I was, and you do not know how to begin, go to the library and begin as someone else. Put on a suit tailored in Vienna, scratch your coiffed white beard, light your pipe and explain to the work-study student at the circulation desk that his nostalgia is merely a manifestation of a repressed urge to sleep with his mother. Build yourself a small house in back of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s shelf and live there for two years. Reflect on the pond between the past and future. Think about the plantation you escaped, the daughter you murdered, and wonder why you cannot stop thinking about where you come from. Invariably, when you become someone else, when you really crawl into another’s psyche and speak with his or her authority, you will feel your own thoughts rise up and demand attention. They may be disagreements, agreements, arguments, discomforts, or elaborations. Whatever they are, write them down, and you have begun.
Still, be careful in the library. Research your topic thoroughly, become many authors in turn, but remember at once that while all of the authors you refer to are right, all of them are also wrong. Newton explains that laws are constant and universal, and he is right. However, Foucault shows that laws shift according to local circumstance and he is also right. Albert Camus says he is not an existentialist, but critics say he is: Both are right. Richard Dawkins proves God does not exist and he is wrong. Descartes proves God does exist, and he is wrong, too. The library exists not for you to read and adopt someone else’s thoughts, for if this were the case there would be no use beginning a new work at all. The library keeps records of where great thoughts have ended: It is full of conclusions. Begin at those conclusions.
When I sit down to write, I remember that I can say anything and nothing. I remember that I have been delivered to this moment via a unique and circuitous lifetime, and that my past is indistinguishable from millions of other pasts. I remember that what I am about to write will be momentously important and ultimately meaningless. I am a theist and a nihilist.
You may be frustrated by all of my advice, which, summarily, recommends that you trust your past while dismissing your past; to trust others’ thoughts while simultaneously discounting them. It all seems so contradictory, but in fact it is as methodical as time. For consider your experience and the recorded experience of others as a sort of intellectual past, which you can no more visit than you can return to being a child submerged in soapy water. Then think of your own inexperience as a reflection of a vast blank future. Though we naturally toe the line in the middle—in the intellectual present—as students and self-conscious beings we pretend otherwise. To save face, we might hide in some truth we learned in the past or jump to conclusions which our experience cannot possibly substantiate. Conclusions are for the future. Begin by fearlessly acknowledging the reality of the intellectual present and the possibility it contains, which is conveniently marked for us by that blinking cursor at the top of a blank page.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.