I love a story from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. A ceramics teacher divided pottery students into two groups—one that had to make as many pots as possible and another that had to make the best pot they possibly could. At the end of the day, the ‘quantity’ group showed their landslide of pots and the ‘quality’ group presented their shot at the perfect pot.
Here’s the cool part. The group tasked with making as many pots as they could also wound up making the highest quality pot. Somewhere in that jumble of thrown-together pottery was an excellence that evaded the group focused on perfection. Making more also meant making better.
As a writer, this result rings so very true. I know my best work is an energy I wield out of words I’ve already written. Boring words, words that make me think I’m the most basic and witless writer whose ever written. Example: oh the sky smells good Brianna? That’s what we’re working with? But that’s my wannabe master-poet voice speaking, and I don’t listen to her. I keep thinking about the smell of the sky on whatever day I’m remembering. I keep describing it. And as I go, I start finding a poem with some real lightning in it.
From over a decade of doing this, I know that writing anything will usually lead to writing something good. All of the most valuable writing advice I’ve gathered basically boils down to this: write and write often. In that sense, becoming a writer is similar to becoming a runner. You can read about it all day long, but the only way to get started is to go do it.
It's almost cruel that getting started is usually the hardest part.
The art of beginning
I LOVE being a beginner. I all-caps love it. Walking into a brand new class as a total newbie off the street is one of my favorite states of being. And I have to say, I’m pretty great at it. I begin stuff all the time. I’m a beginner harpist, a novice kickboxer, an amateur painter. I have an app for three different languages on my phone. And I have about twenty books on my shelf right now with dog-eared pages near 2nd chapter marks.
Beginning is a wondrous state of being. It’s full of potential without any expectation of success, and it’s a position of wide-eyed experimentation that I really couldn’t create without.
In nearly every writing class I’ve ever taught, I have students who tell me they aren’t good writers. I understand this feeling, of course, but I wonder why students feel the expectation of being good writers when they are still students.
Because being a good writer is all about training. And practice and experience. It’s about being a beginner for a long time. I’d even argue it’s about being a beginner forever. No matter how great you get in your writing, every new poem, every new story, project or article is a new beginning. It’s a moment where you are staring at the blank page and needing to make it not-blank.
Beginnings are a creative muscle that we don’t strengthen enough. It’s hard to practice beginning, and it’s also annoying. I don’t like making myself write beginnings if I’m not going to make them endings. But I’m learning that for every good ending, there are ten to a hundred mediocre beginnings.
So, I am resolving to become a better beginner in 2020.
How to practice beginning
When it’s not writing, I know how to put myself in that no-stakes, I’m-just-here-to-have-fun mindset. But as a poet, a content writer and a teacher of writing, I often feel like I’m supposed to be something special when it comes to words. That idea is not great for creativity, however. So here’s how I’m going to start being a beginner again.
Oh. My. I love freewrites. I do them in most of my classes. Daily, if I can get away with it. The freewrite rule is simple: write as fast as you can.
I usually give myself 3-5 minutes per prompt and do at least two prompts in a row. The more, the better! I recommend writing longhand so you don’t get hung up on spelling errors, squiggly underlines or the feeling of permanence black type can convey.
I like to make my own prompts. Ex:
- Think of a place that scares you, start describing it without naming it.
- Copy a line you like and start writing a poem using that as your title.
- Write three lines that each include a color and a sound.
2. Poetry pushups
About five years ago when I was in a thinking-about-writing-all-the-time-but-never-doing-it spiral, my husband invited me into the living room for what he called “poetry pushups”. This was a series of 5 writing prompts he invented that I had 10 minutes (each) to write toward.
It’s like freewriting but more communal! The really refreshing part was that he approached prompts from a very different place than I would have. “Write a poem from the perspective of spider woman looking over the city” or some such thing. They are so hard as to be ridiculous. But I was converted when a prompt he gave me about the tower of Babel led to one of my favorite pieces.
Ask a generous friend or family member to lead you in some poetry (or other genre) pushups. It feels like a game, but at the end you’ve spent nearly an hour writing!
3. Break a rule you never break
Language has so many rules. I know more about grammar right now than I ever wanted to know, and I’m not even close to comprehending the real semantics of syntax. But there’s nothing for the creative process like jumping a fence.
If you normally adhere to essay language conventions, try writing a few lines in text-speak. Write a line like i don’t even like u and just keep going.
If you normally write in paragraphs or stanzas
make yourself move across the page
see what happens
If you normally write in the third person, get personal with first. Get aggressive with second.
Spend some time in another language. Proficiency is great, but it’s not required at all. Look up text in other languages online and try to translate them purely by sound or shape. Ex: plyasat is a phonetic spelling of the Russian word ‘hop’. I could free-associate words like ply, playground, platypus. I could ask myself what these words have to do with hopping. I could write a poem about that.
Translation is also a way to play with turning not-writing things into writing. Look at a map of your city and ask yourself what an essay-version of that map would be. Use sheet music to a song you love as a structure guide for the next chapter in your novel. It sounds weird. And it feels weird. But you’d be surprised where it can take you. Read some experimental and hybrid forms of writing for even more inspiration.
5. Read something you never read
Pretend that writing is an exhale and reading is an inhale. It’s a cycle, but one does sort of come first. Shaking up your reading is a surprising way to shake up your writing. If you love fiction, read some poems! If you love scholarly texts, read some poems! Everyone just read some poems okay?
How to get more writing ideas
If any of these beginning ideas seemed exciting—give them a go! So much of the practice of beginning comes down to releasing feelings about failure and getting those fingers moving.
If you are interested in more long-term resources for building a healthy writing practice, Daily Page is a great online resource. If you love to carry around a book, I recommend reading and working through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. But whatever you do, begin it with the spirit of adventure and know that your process doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. When it comes to beginnings, you can’t go wrong.
Want to hear more from Brianna Flavin?
Attend the Northwestern Christian Writers Conference where Brianna will be speaking & meeting with attendees for 1:1 appointments (limited appointments available).