Getting Started

WRITE A LITTLE EVERY DAY. Often the biggest hurdle for beginning writers is getting the butt in the chair. That sounds callous, but it’s true-discipline is terrifically hard. And yet new writers make it harder than necessary. You needn’t produce a treatise with every sitting. In fact, it’s better to start small-ten minutes a day-and build from there once you desire more. Over time it’s astonishing how much writing you can produce in short bursts. Set a timer and stop when the timer goes off. A clear time frame can make the task of writing less daunting and allow for some wonderful work.

Create writing rituals. Find a favorite pen, notebook, and chair. Light a candle. Go to that same corner cafe. Ritual is an invitation, a way of saying to the world, “I’m here! I’m paying attention!” If you show up, the muse will meet you. For some people, an important part of the ritual is writing at the same time every day. Writing is as much a part of my morning as brushing my teeth and drinking tea. This way, writing is assumed-of course I write! I wouldn’t skip my toothbrush or tea, and so I never skip writing either. 

Be messy. Your first order of business is to generate material. Get those memories and reflections out of your head. Don’t censor. Write whatever comes to you, even if it’s not what you originally set out to write about. “Judgement,” poet RIchard Broderick writes, “is the death of the imagination.” Be gentle with yourself. There is always time later to focus and clean up your writing. What emerges on the page is a first draft, it will evolve a lot before it is final. In the meanwhile, take advantage of the terrific freedom to make mistakes with content and mechanics (spelling, grammar, etc.). Be wild and fearless. A careful first draft hinders spontaneity. A genuinely rough draft opens possibilities.

Be on the lookout for ideas. When a memory flashes through your body, take note. It’s a gift. Write it down! You are not just a writer when you’re sitting at the computer. You are a writer every moment of the day inasmuch as you look out for inspiring ideas, memories, and reflections. Keep pen and paper with you at all times. Ideas are temperamental; they betray you if you’re not paying attention.

Keep a writer’s journal. Either on the computer or in a notebook, keep an ongoing journal of ideas, quotations, ponderings, anecdotes, memories, and other miscellany that comes your way. This journal can serve as a dumping ground for false starts that might otherwise go into the trash or as a place for thrashing through writer’s block, asking, Why am I stumped? What might I be afraid of? What do I really want to write? No one but you will ever see your journal. You can be fearlessly messy, explore risky questions, and experiment with your prose without endangering the actual manuscript of your memoir. The journal serves as a catch-all for the language crumbs of your project. 

Be on the lookout for the edge. Sometimes a good idea isn’t enough to get you going. You need to discover the edge-what nags you, what you really want to ask strangers at the bus stop, what you ponder when you can’t sleep at night. The edge is the theme that recurs in your journal. The edge is your most secret doubt. Often you can find the edge by asking, What am I not writing about? The subjects you avoid have spunk; avoidance is evidence of their power. If you are afraid to write about sex or money or relationships, chances are good those subjects have an energy that will serve you well. If this edge seems unrelated to your memoir, remember that the questions that haunt you invariably haunt your writing. The edge is the heart question that drives you to put pen to paper in the first place.

Find a writing community. Writing doesn’t have to be a lonely business. A writing group or writing partner can help you stay motivated, provide you with deadlines, and support you through the more grueling stages. Surrounding yourself with creative people on journeys similar to your own reminds you of how worthy the work is. A safe, supportive community can be a huge inspiration during a difficult process. 

from “Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir” by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Skinner House