The Courage to Start

The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start. — John Bingham

Starting, for me, has never been a problem. I can dig into my old computer files and find hundreds of started novels from way back when. My knitting basket currently holds a half-finished sweater and a few squares of the baby blanket I was making my friend’s now-two year old. I must have done weeks one through three of the couch to 5k program at least five times. I’ve always been good at starting things, but just after starting them, there’s always something brighter, shinier on the horizon. Something I’m more motivated to work on. Starting has never been the problem; finishing is.

So, knowing this, it’s a little odd that I found myself so drawn to the above quote when I saw it on a t-shirt at the 10K expo. I mean, there I was, finally about to finish something and what’s really grabbing me is a saying about having the courage to start. I bought the t-shirt. I brought it home. I showed it to my husband and he laughed.

It wasn’t quite the reaction I was going for.

After some careful thought, I realized he had a point. Evidence suggested that I had the courage to start down pat and that the miracle, for me anyway, was finishing. I thought, okay, maybe this doesn’t really apply to me. I kept the t-shirt anyway.

I still love the quote. It makes me think of all the people who won’t start something because they’re afraid. How many people want to write a novel, but are blocked by fear? How many people admire marathoners but won’t dare train for one themselves? Starting takes guts. It’s uncomfortable. It means you’re doing something different, making a change. It means you might fail spectacularly.

I’m used to failing spectacularly. In all my starts and stops with various hobbies, I’ve become very accustomed to the idea that I just might not finish what I start. It’s almost a joke. Having recognized this, I now go into projects with the nagging voice of failure in the back of my head. “Sure, start this novel. It’ll just end up in your incomplete manuscripts folder.” “Okay, enjoy the first few weeks c25k… AGAIN.” “Oh, good, another cast on. This will go well.”

For some people, namely people like me, it’s not just about having the courage to start. It’s about having the courage to start even  when you’ve started the project five times before and never finished it. For those of us, starting doesn’t mean you might fail, it means you already have failed and you’re coming back for more. There’s something to be said for being able to face down a blank page, knowing that there are four other “Chapter 1s” in a file folder on your desktop. Or climbing up on that treadmill and doing week one all over again because you’ve never managed to make it further than week three.

I remember the first time I tried to write a novel. I was twenty. I had a gazillion pieces of story in different files on my mac. I had grand hopes of expanding on them, but I never really got it together. I worked on the novel for a year. I had a beginning and kind of an end, but very little middle to speak of. I finally put that one a way and worked on other things, eventually abandoning each of them as well until finally I just decided that I must not be a novel writer. They were too difficult to finish.

Don’t think that this didn’t haunt me when I signed up for my first NaNoWriMo. Oh, it haunted me. I was convinced I was not going to finish. I’d spent the past ten years telling everyone I was not a novel writer. To make matters worse, I’d just gotten married and in cleaning out my old condo to sell it, I’d just discovered an entire box full of story starts, ideas for books, my short story collection that had been collected, but never polished. All the evidence of my failure to finish. It kind of sucked.

But I signed up. Something clicked and I finished. And a year later I finished another and then another. This not-a-novel-writer now has three manuscripts in her pocket, one of which is just about ready to go off to agents. All because I had the courage to start… again. It’s kind of a miracle.

Fess Up Friday: Week Three

I was torn about which cliche to use to open today’s ‘fess up: “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel” or “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” Either could apply.

Word count as of this morning: 32,717.

So this was week three of NaNoWriMo. In week two, I was drinking from a giant bowl of suck.  In week three, I’m so busy just trying to keep my head above water that I don’t even care that I’m drinking from a giant bowl of suck. I just want to reach the bottom of the bowl. My mantra this week has been (and pardon the language) “Fuck it, I’ll deal with it in revision.” It’s a good mantra. I highly recommend it. It will serve me well going into week four.

Chris Baty refers to week four as the zero hour, the sink or swim, the do or die. And what a week. Thanksgiving happens smack dab in the middle of. Not to mention all the preparation for Thanksgiving and for having company and for getting a bed delivered…

But this is good. Because if there’s one thing all of us aspiring-to-be-published writers should take away from National Novel Writing Month is the discipline to keep writing. Even when things get busy. Even when it seems like the only way you’ll add any words to your manuscript will be to type them with one hand on your smart phone while waiting in the grocery check out line. The 50,000 word count is great. The first draft is nice to have (especially for freaks like me that prefer revision to drafting). But I think the real winners of NaNoWriMo are the ones that get up on December 1 and do it all over again.

Happy writing!

More About Morning Writing

Courtesy of Gordon at After the MFA: How to Write First Thing in the Morning.

For me, writing first thing in the morning is about focus. Years ago, a visiting writer told our seminar that the first thing she did in the morning was the thing she ended up doing all day long. Thus, she chose to start her days with writing rather than emailing forwards amongst her friends.

I’ve noticed that days that start with the internet often have the productivity sucked right out of them. For some reason, the internet can become all consuming for me, and not in a good way. I have squandered hours searching random crap on the internet. And trust me when I say that at the end of the day I am no better off knowing that Beck is a Scientologist or that I can ace the Facebook “Do you know your states?” quiz.

Whereas if I write for an hour or more before I check facebook or google reader, I have a much better chance of avoiding massive time suckage.

The article has a lot of good tips about getting up and getting writing. I suspect it’s not even limited just to writing. If you’re like me and wondering how to be more productive in your day, give it a read. The 4 a.m. wake up time won’t be happening for me, but I can vouch for many of the other tips.

Writing Exercise: Lies

I’m back from spending an awesome weekend at a tiny Texas bed and breakfast. The women of my family have made this an annual trip and I can’t tell you how good it is to get away from everything for a weekend.

But it’s back to work now and time for my first weekly writing exercise. Over the weekend I read Antonya Nelson’s “Or Else” from the New Yorker. Amazing story. I finished it and immediately flipped back to the beginning to read it again.

After reading, I was reminded of a character from David Benioff’s The 25th Hour who claims to be the true author of a very famous poem. In his story, he had authored the work, but it was stolen by a colleague who then got all the credit and fame for it. This turns out to be a lie, but one that is humored by the character that actually knows him.

There are tons or writing exercises about lies out there, so I’m going to start out with something fairly general. Write a scene in which a character tells an elaborate lie about his/her life. 1000 words.