On Starting

Writing is a strange job. Oftentimes, I'll spend a whole day thinking about my characters, outlining, and even drafting and come away feeling like I haven't accomplished anything. On more difficult days it feels impossible to start. I wake up, move through my morning, and sit down at my desk only to have the Big Fear land on my shoulders. 


What is the Big Fear, you may ask. Sometimes it's the fear of starting. Sometimes it's the worry that nothing I will write today can measure up to what I wrote yesterday or the day before. Sometimes it's the fear that I'm simply bad at what I do.

So...what to do when the Big Fear shows up and you get stuck: 

-Change what you're writing about. Do a writing exercise or some really self-indulgent journaling. Write a replacement poem. Describe in great detail the contents of your garbage can. Just get started.

-Give yourself a C+. It's easy for me to slip into serious perfectionism and compare my first drafts to other writers' polished, published work. Telling myself I'm just aiming for mediocre writing helps me get into a more comfortable creative groove and try new things. Realize it's okay if it's not perfect. Shake it loose. It's okay if it's not even good! You can always go back and polish, change, or scrap things in revision.  

-Ask the Big Fear some questions, such as: why are you here? where did you come from? do you need something? I'm often afraid people won't like my book once it's published. Or worse yet, I'm terrified of sharing certain pieces of myself publicly. Sit with these feelings and accept what they're telling you. Then move forward and see what you come up with.

-Remember it is just a draft. I am getting these words tattooed on my body (seriously) because they mean so much to me. No one needs to see the first version but you and there is nothing you can do but improve. 

-Take small bites. Recently someone brought up the Shel Silverstein poem Melinda Mae, about a tiny girl who endeavors to eat a monstrous whale, and it really resonated with me for creative work. "She took little bites and she chewed very slow." Break your work up into the smallest pieces that make sense to you and start to feel okay with moving at your own pace.

-If all else fails take a long walk and listen to this advice from Mary Oliver:

 "Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it"

 -Kathryn Amato, Writer in Residence for Young Readers


Here are some books I turn to when I'm trying to get unstuck.


New and Selected Poems by Mary OliverNew and Selected Poems

by Mary Oliver








Several Short Sentences about WritingSeveral Short Sentences About Writing

by Verlyn Klinkenborg








Imaginative WritingImaginative Writing

by Janet Burroway