How to Start Writing

– by Amy Julia Becker

(and check out Amy Julia’s new book here)


I have friends who say that writers should never tell too much about the next book we want to write. These friends tell me studies show that if I tell my story out loud, my brain will think I’ve written it already, as if forming the words with my mouth is the same as typing them into the computer and releasing them for the world to see. I’m sure some social scientist has demonstrated the truth of this point, but it doesn’t hold true for me. In fact, one of the ways I figure out what I’m writing about is by asking myself what I’m talking about, and the best way for me to know how to enter into a book is by asking myself how I tell other people about that book.


My most recent book covers my entire life, from childhood through adolescence, college, early marriage, childrearing, up to the present. At the same time, it is a book about a specific topic, the privilege of whiteness and wealth and ability. For a long time, I held all the components of the story, but I didn’t know the order in which to tell them. I didn’t know where to start.


At first, I tried a story from the summer of 2016, when Philando Castile was shot by a police officer the same week that my 96-year old grandfather died. But the contrast didn’t really work and the story was too polarizing. It didn’t welcome a reader in.


So then I tried going back to the beginning, to my own childhood and stories of the small-town South in the early 1980s. That chapter painted a lovely portrait, but it felt very far away and long ago. The words came through as the experiences of a small child rather than as a story told from the perspective of the present day.


I tried two other approaches, and neither of those worked either.


I finally stopped to wonder how I told other people about the book I was writing. When I talked about it, I didn’t start with Philando Castile. I didn’t start with my childhood. I started with the topic—privilege—and with my fear about how my thoughts would be received.


The book now has an introduction that begins with the eye twitch I developed while writing. It starts with my fear, a fear I imagine many readers share as they approach a polarizing topic.


For me, talking about a book in conversation often gives me the way in to the topic in writing. It  shows me how to welcome a reader into the story. So if it helps you, talk about your writing. Your first chapter might just become an invitation to come into your home and sit at the kitchen table and sit and talk a while.