Writing is a huge and complex beast. Harry Bingham once said the trouble with writing, unlike visual art, is that you can’t take a glance at the finished product. You can look at all the details independently. You can get a sense of what’s happening at the word, sentence, or paragraph level. You might even be able to visualize a whole chapter at once, if you’ve got half an hour.
But you can’t just sit back and easily take in an entire piece of writing like you can, say, a painting or a sculpture.
For this reason, I can spend quite a lot of work time staring out in space, trying to visualize stories in my mind. (Yes, I'm still working when I do that. Without the thinking, the writing would never happen.) I freewrite in my handy-dandy Rocketbook. I use notecards or my trusty writing software, Dabble, to shuffle things around. I make spreadsheets where I map out word counts, timelines, and whose perspective we’re following.
But, sadly, I can't get a really good look at the piece without reading the whole of it. And that takes time.
One of the hardest things for me has always been figuring out where to start. And I guess that's because the story's always happening. Life (even fictional characters') is a film that's constantly rolling, and it's hard to know at what point to let the viewer - er, the reader - in. Too early, and they might lose interest. Too late, and they might get confused.
Here are some sample beginnings from an essay I wrote.
I was picking up speed and about to merge onto the highway. I looked over my shoulder to assess the oncoming traffic. Big 18-wheeler in the second lane, but the first was clear. Easy peasy. Except when I turned to face forward, everything went black.
Nope. We're already into the action here, and there's some crucial background left out. What happened before everything went black? Why did it go black? In a book, some writers will use a scene like this as a prologue, starting in the middle to get readers intrigued before going back to the beginning and showing what was happening. But for the story I was trying to tell, this got into the action a little too quickly.
Back in high school, I used to wake up with a stabbing pain in my gut. My doctors couldn't figure out what it was, even after about a dozen tests. One doctor even prescribed antidepressants, in an effort to see if decreasing my stress level would help. (Spoiler: it didn't.)
Bo-ring! This is good background, but if you don't know me, you aren't likely to care too much about this background. It can easily be peppered into the actual story in a way that doesn't bore the reader.
I needed something in the sweet spot between providing so much background that the reader gets bored and stops reading before the story really gets going, and thrusting them into a scene that's compelling but confusing because they don't have enough information to make sense of it.
Finding this balance has been the absolute bain of my existence for as long as I've been a writer and storyteller. I think I've gotten better over time, but that doesn't mean I'm any good at it.
Here's that essay. I'd love to know what you think about how I ended up beginning it. Ping me in the comments and let me know!
Oh, speaking of endings. That's another troublesome one for me. Stay tuned for more on that.
School is back in session, and with it comes a Rorschach of emotions that seem harder to process the more I think about them.
There’s the normal uncertainty that comes up when we send our kids out into the world. Will my kids be challenged? Will they get the support they need? Will their teachers be effective yet also have the right personality to keep the kids engaged and feeling safe? Will they learn what they need to learn? Will they be good friends and nice classmates?
But this year, there is so much more than that. This year, all the usual suspects are joined by a low-level fear that I don’t see going away anytime soon.
Will my kids get sick at school? Will they bring sickness home and get one of us, or their baby brother, sick? Will it spread to our family members and friends who are medically compromised?
A haze of illness is dripping off everything around us, and rather than trusting that we can work together as a community to protect ourselves and each other, we’re in a place where we can’t trust the people around us to simply do the right thing.
Suddenly, taking basic measures to protect the entire community has become secondary to some individuals' "right" to do whatever they please. I don't have to tell you about the people all over the country bucking against any kind of protective measure that keeps their friends and neighbors safe. I don't have to remind you, either, that infections and deaths from COVID-19 continue to rise. You might even not need me to share this gruesome statistic that stopped me mid-guzzle yesterday morning as I tried to mainline as much caffeine into my body as possible and tread in the existential dread long enough to parent my children.
Yet, somehow, health and science have become "politics." Basic human courtesy is an "agenda." We can't bring ourselves to actually give a damn about anyone else, because we are so wrapped up in value judging them based on what we presume to be their political inclination.
Here's what I want to say to all the people who fly their Feedumb Flag as an excuse to be abhorrent human beings who can't be bothered to exercise basic human decency because Politics.
Put yourself at risk all you want. By all means, congregate with other future COVID death statistics, packed like salty, recirculated-droplet-breathing sardines in the windowless dining room of your favorite burger joint. Let this disgusting brand of individualism you hold so dear infect you and your cronies from the inside out.
But leave my kids the hell out of it.
"Only 400 children have died from COVID," I heard at a school committee meeting the other day. The capacity of my kids' school is 350. Picture every desk in your child's school, and every car in the parking lot, occupied by a child who died of COVID. Are you sure that's a statistic you want to use to corroborate your stance?
"Children rarely get sick from COVID," I've heard. Without even going into the fact that the Delta variant has a higher infection rate among children, this claim misses the mark. I'm worried about my children, yes. I'm concerned they'll get sick, and I'm concerned they'll have long-lasting symptoms we haven't yet discovered. But, also, if my kids carry around the virus, whether or not they get sick, they can pass it along to someone else - like the many people in our lives who are medically compromised.
And that's not to mention the disruption to learning that comes when students have to be sent home and/or quarantined because they've either been in class with someone with the illness, or because they have a symptom that appears on the laundry list of possible COVID indicators.
I am so appalled by the willingness of people to use their children as pieces in this poorly-conceived game in which we've all engaged ourselves. People are so quick to follow their political party in what should be a commonsense public health decision, and it infuriates me.
By virtue of living in an organized society, we have agreed to work toward the collective good. I could see where this might be tricky if the collective good is in opposition to a person's individual success. But following basic decency and simple public health precautions is in everyone's best interest. Sure, we all have our own individual freedoms. But when exercising that freedom, it's each individual's responsibility to be sure we're not negatively affecting those around us.
I shouldn't have to worry every day that my neighbor's risky behavior is going to put my family at risk.
But I do. And until everyone is willing to make this conversation, grounded in facts and science, that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with basic human decency and the common good, that's not going to change.