When I was younger, people often gave me blank journals as birthday presents, and I loved each one of them. The crack of the spine, the pop and flip of the pages as I ran them beneath my thumb--ah, the fresh waft of paper and possibility! What beauty and wonder could fill those pages! At eight, it was easy to begin writing. In the first journal I received, I quickly penned my seven page "novel," and moved on, but as I grew older, it became harder. With age comes self-consciousness.
The red of a teacher's pen bleeds into our thoughts, echoes of past criticisms pinball in our heads, and the specter of great writing looms. Beautiful ideas turn unwieldy on the page. A taunt snakes its way through our brains, Notgoodenough, notgoodenough, and the words, like venom, paralyze our fingers. The cursor winks, but the words won't come.
Fortunately, the condition isn't terminal. The antidote is within reach. The first step is to recognize that, to one degree or another, most of us hear that nagging voice. Learning to ignore it takes practice, but reimagining what a first page really is can alleviate the problem.
What if instead of being the beginning of an essay, a story or a memoir, page one is just notes, ideas, mental doodling? Not the beginning of your piece, but the beginning of a process. It is the seed, the egg, the precursor to the first draft. Most of us have learned to "brainstorm" our ideas before we start writing, but then we come to the "first draft" and feel like we ought to know just what to write and how to begin. Yet drafting a first sentence or a first page needn't hold so much weight. In all likelihood those first few sentences will disappear in the revision process anyway. They're just our brains gaining traction, finding their sea legs, or as my writing teacher says, clearing their throats.
Only two sentences from the first draft of my essay "Surrender to War After an Uneasy Peace," which eventually appeared in The Modern Love column in The New York TImes, found their way into print. The essay was about making the decision for my husband to deploy to Afghanistan.
The first time I wrote it was during a twenty minute freewrite at my weekly writing workshop. By the time I sat down in workshop that night, I was tired from a full day of teaching, taking care of my own toddlers and getting dinner on the table. My husband had been asked to take voluntary deployment to Afghanistan, and I was tired from thinking about that too.
Workshop started at 7:00, and I was sure I had nothing to write about. The prompt was an aural one--Mozart. I listened, and then without inhibition, without worrying what I would put on the page, I just wrote. At the end of the twenty minutes, I thought the piece was so bad that I broke my own rule to always read my work aloud in workshop and kept silent. The critic in my brain said, too sappy, too emotional, too weak. No one wants to hear about your stupid problem. Boring, boring, boring. But the next week, feeling braver, I decided to share it. And to my amazement, the people in my workshop responded. They wanted to know more.
Those early pages were important in helping me understand what it was I wanted to write about and the emotion behind it. They cleared the path for the next draft and the one after that. The revision process took much longer than the original drafting, but eventually I sculpted the plain ball of clay that landed on the page that first night into something that told a story and connected with others.
If I had never put pen to paper that night or if I had allowed that internal critic to stifle my voice, I would have lost the opportunity to write and publish a strong essay, and, along with it, the chance to reflect on all that I was feeling and thinking as a result of my husband's impending deployment. When the essay was published, I heard from the families of many service members who had felt what I did and found that my essay had helped others too.
Over the years I have met many students, both teenagers and adults, who find themselves so overcome by the possibility of writing it wrong that they don't write it at all, and that is the worst mistake we can make. The myth that good writing is some kind of magical gift bestowed upon a chosen few is just that, a myth, and a dangerous one. Inspiration comes to those who are open to it and try to accept it. Filling the blank page with your ideas is the surest way to uncover it. Simply begin and see what comes out. Worry about making it better tomorrow.