Get Past the First Line

My daughter has just started high school.

Let’s not talk about that.

Her A.L.A. teacher — that’s Advanced Language Arts; when did English become Language Arts? — wrote a letter to the students introducing herself and asked the students to write a similar letter back.

Becca sat at the computer complaining she didn’t know how to begin.

A little shocked that she had so little concept of how to write a letter but determined not to lecture her about “you kids these days,” I sat beside her and talked about writing letters. Not emails, not texts, but letters.

I explained that when someone writes to you, the first thing you do in your letter is acknowledge that you have received that letter and say something about it.  You want to express appreciation for their writing to you, and maybe respond to something they said:  “I was so happy to hear about the…”

Yeah, I was an accomplished pen pal when I was a kid.

Not to mention all the letters I had to write to various elderly relatives. In French. Oui.

Becca was not at all happy with my explanation.  She squirmed in her chair.  “But this is an assignment!” she wailed. “I can’t thank the teacher for introducing herself to me.”

We butted heads for a little while longer and I finally said, “I’ve told you what I think. I’m not writing this for you.”

She sat staring at the computer screen.  I said, “Forget the first line. Just start writing something, anything, and you can edit it later.”

As I walked away, I couldn’t believe how easy that was to say and how hard it was to do, and how long it had taken me to learn that.

Like, twenty years.

The most terrifying thing to me as a writer is a blank page or a blank screen. I hate the beginning, and that has kept me from ever getting started on more things than I care to count.

And, compulsive person that I am, I used to think that I had to write from beginning to end.


It wasn’t until I started writing bits in the middle — whatever occurred to me, as it occurred to me — that I was able to move past this.

Leave the beginning for later.

Just start writing, and figure out where it starts after you get into it. Because somewhere in the middle of writing it, you’ll love it, and understand what needs to happen and why, and you’ll know where and when and how it should begin. In theory, anyway.

I went back later and saw that Becca had about a half a page written.  For her first sentence, she had brackets with “[Put something here].”

I was glad she didn’t have to take twenty years to get past that.

I see my writing as more like a patchwork quilt now, which is a bit more haphazard, a bit more confusing and messy, but a lot more effective.  I still hate beginnings.

As writers, we all have our demons that trip us up along the way.  We tell ourselves that we can’t do something, that it’s just too hard.  But that’s just an excuse for why you’re not writing. I’ve got mine.  What are yours, and what do you do to fight them?

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