Finding a Place to Start – Why Is It So Hard?
I’m chuckling to myself as I sit at my keyboard, struggling to find the right way to begin a post about the difficulties of starting. The situation is so “meta”… isn’t that what they say nowadays?
Starting is scary. It’s a line to cross, a leap to take, and it’s a chance to screw up.
Starting is the point at which you have to choose between remaining ensconced in the comfort and perceived safety of the status quo and putting your tender heart and ego in harm’s way by starting something that might reveal your desires and expose your shortcomings.
Even starting something in secret takes a monumental effort. Secrecy might shield you from the judgment of others, but it doesn’t protect you from the harsh indictments of your inner critic.
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We have many defenses against starting. Steven Pressfield collects all our creative variations on avoidance under the umbrella label, “Resistance.” This is the perfect word to describe the feeling of being pushed and pulled away from whatever you’re trying to start. Resistance can feel like you’re simultaneously being pushed back by an impenetrable force field and pulled back invisible hands intent on keeping you from taking even the tiniest step forward. Being paralyzed by this state of self-imposed creative inertia is so frustrating it almost hurts.
Resistance is a shape-shifting demon that wears many guises: busyness, distraction, over-preparation, self-sacrifice, false modesty, exhaustion, apathy, and so on. Luckily, as many different ways as there are for us to avoid starting the work, there are tricks that help us hack our way past the obstacles that Resistance puts in our path. We can give ourselves deadlines, break intimidating projects down into smaller assignments, bribe ourselves with rewards, or work with accountability partners. We can trick ourselves into starting by “playing” our way into the real work or starting in the middle.
Each of these techniques is valuable, but none of them get at the root of the problem. They treat the symptom with band-aid fixes meant to temporarily jolt us into action with either a carrot or a stick, but the next time we have to start (and, there is always a next time), we’re right back to square one … scared and immobilized.
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So, what’s really holding you back?
The usual culprits behind Resistance are fear (of ridicule, failure, success, regret, etc.), life (as in I don’t have time … news flash: you do), and the little hurdle we’re talking about today: not knowing where to start. But there’s another even more insidious player keeping you from leaping off the edge and diving into the work: your vision. Or, to be more specific, your fear of betraying your vision, of being unable to bring your story to life so that it measures up to the image in your mind.
In her instructional memoir about writing, The Getaway Car, author Ann Patchett likens the experience of writing a story to plucking a beautiful butterfly (the idea of your story) out of the air and killing it in order to pin it to the page:
The urge to protect a pristine vision by leaving it locked up in our heads is more commonly referred to as the (pointless) pursuit of perfection.
No matter which flavor of Resistance you prefer, the result is the same: paralysis … a complete lack of starting. And you know the funniest thing about this inability to act? It’s all driven by our overactive writers’ imaginations. In our minds, we’ve already written the story of how spectacularly we will fail, and we’ve read it over and over again so that it seems like a forgone conclusion. We have put all our writerly skill into crafting a personal narrative full of such logic, detail, and irrefutable proof that we have fooled ourselves into believing in the existence of things that have never happened. The words that run around in our heads are so damn persuasive that we are stopped before we’ve even begun. We’re that good.
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The trick to starting is that there is no trick.
There are plenty of carrots and sticks to boost you over the hump, to lure and goad you into sitting your butt down and putting words on the page. But, those techniques are just window dressing to the real cure for failing to start. The real cure is much simpler and more straightforward: Practice.
Yes, like most things in life (and pretty much everything to do with writing), the cure for hard starts is practicing hard starts … over and over, again and again.
The bad news is that starting will always be scary. Embrace this. Don’t try to make it less scary; try to make sure you are more prepared to deal with your fears. It’s natural to be afraid of starting. Whether you’re talking about moving to a new town, starting a new job, making a new friend, falling for a new lover, or writing a new story, each new beginning is full of uncertainty and the potential for failure and hurt. There is no one-size-fits-all way to deal with fresh starts. Each one is its own unique puzzle. Though some beginnings may share certain patterns that make developing a process for starting helpful, each one will still have its own quirks.
The good news is that you will have plenty of opportunity for practice because the writing life is a succession of new beginnings. Each time you sit to put together an outline, write a first sentence, begin a blog post, craft a pitch letter, etc. is another chance to practice starting. So, put together more outlines, write more first sentences, publish more blog posts, and send out more pitches. The cure for doing nothing is to do more. Do anything. Just start, and then start again and again and again. You may never eradicate your fear, but you’ll get really good at blowing past it and doing the work anyway.
And that’s all that really matters.
Earlier this year I read V.E. Schawb’s novel, A Darker Shade of Magic and thoroughly enjoyed it. As soon as I finished the book, I added one of Schwab’s earlier works, Vicious, to my Good Reads “To Read” list.
I haven’t quite finished the book yet (I still have ninety-six pages left to go), but I’m fully prepared to give this story a thumbs up.
From the book jacket:
Victor and Eli started out as college roommates–brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge but who will be left alive at the end?
Doesn’t that sound like fun?
After a string of fairly “heavy” books, Vicious has been the perfect page turner. As F. Paul Wilson’s cover blurb says, “Schwab gathers all the superhero/supervillian tropes and turns them on their heads …” Yes. Yes, she does.
I have also enjoyed the construction of this story. The chapters bounce the reader back and forth between multiple points in time so that the full story slowly coalesces as all the pieces click – one by one – into place. It’s a great technique that allows Schwab to stay with the action while still filling in all the back story so that we become fully invested in the fate of the characters.
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I also wanted to share an app that I discovered recently. Balanced is a goal setting/tracking app unlike any of the others I’ve tried. (And, I’ve tried a lot of them.)
Here’s why I’m loving this digital coach & cheerleader:
- Getting started is ridiculously simple. These people have made the process of setting up your activities nearly effortless. They have many popular goals already loaded, but you also have the ability to enter custom items.
- Tracking is based on frequency. Most goal tracking apps track your performance based on a did it/didn’t do it basis with the default assumption being that whatever habit you’re trying to create, you want to do it every day. Balanced lets you set the desired frequency for each task. So, for instance, while I aim to drink five glasses of water each day, my goal for getting together with friends is only twice per month. I try to write in my journal at least five times per week, but I’m only going for four times a week for fiction writing practice.
- The system is SO flexible. Not only can you set frequency for each goal, you have the option to skip items when things just aren’t working out. The app will track how many times you skip so that you can easily see if there’s an avoidance pattern developing; but I love having the option to opt out of a given task when the need arises.
- Balanced prioritizes tasks and reminds you to do them. The app weights your tasks based on intended frequency and how recently you last performed them and then ranks your To Do’s so that you stay balanced (hence the app’s name) between all your different goals. The home screen interface is a simple list of tasks, each one marked with either a time stamp telling you when you last performed it (just now, 2 hours ago, 3 days ago, etc.), a directive (Do Soon, Do Now), or an indicator that the task is “Late.” This makes it really simple to know what you need to do next to stay balanced.
I’ve been using Balanced to help me get back on track with everything from journaling to flossing, fiction practice to seeing friends, drinking more water to meditating. Though I expect it works best for a certain kind of personality (someone like me who likes to check things off lists and is motivated by a desire to perform well against a goal), I also believe it has the potential to help almost anyone at least get started on the right path toward accomplishing a goal. And, it’s super fun!
And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a (quite a!) few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:
- The Downside Of Buying Attention by @bernadettejiwa
- Find Your People by @robbinphillips
- Nobody Cares How Hard You Work via @99u
- Writing: The Art of Turning a Unique Phrase by Becca Puglisi of @onestop4writers via @thecreativepenn
- The Reasons We Work by Shane Parrish via @farnamstreet
- How to Use Periscope to Build Your Writing Brand by @WillieshaMorris via @thewritelife
- How to Stand Out as a Freelance Writer: 5 Ways to Find Your USP by @imtribeguy via @thewritelife
- Podcasting for freelancers by @pjrvs
- Austin Kleon: How To Be a “Scenius” by Allison Stadd via @99u
- Writing Discipline And Mindset For Authors With James Scott Bell via @thecreativepenn
- 3-Step Action Plan With Worksheets for 2 Months of Blog Posts by @rogercparker via @CMIContent
- Writing Fiction: 6 Lessons I Learned by Allison Tait via @writetodone
- Creativity, Productivity, Fear And Writing. An Interview With Joanna Penn via @thecreativepenn
- One Research-Backed Way to Effectively Manage Your Stressful and Busy Schedule by @james_clear
- A Meditation on Structure and Tumbling Words by Ann V. Klotz via @brevitymag
- How to Make Money as a Writer by @wdbk
- Positive Thinking for Writers by @barbaraoneal via @writerunboxed
- Who R U? by @SPressfield
- Why Creativity Is a Process, Not an Event by @james_clear
- To do great work: embrace your limits by @DanBlank
Finally, a quote for the week:
On this lovely Halloween, here’s to facing your fears and learning to work with them so you can get started and keep going. Happy writing!
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.