A Place To Begin
A visitor sitting at the purple table in my office once commented that what she wanted was “a place to begin.” The more I consider her words, the more profound they become for me—and revealing.
Anyone who’s taken a writing class, had a writing practice, or needed to meet a writing deadline knows that a writing prompt is one place to begin. It really doesn’t matter what you use as the prompt. It could be any of the following: a simple question, an interesting quotation, a single word, a sentence stem, or something else entirely. The purpose is simple: start the flow of writing. If the writer allows, the writing itself seems to know what to do. It often abandons the prompt rather quickly, in service to a higher purpose or more compelling reason(s). But the prompt has served its purpose; it was a place to begin.
In this example, a place to begin happens to be an invitation to take action, to do something, to listen and respond to a prompt. But a place to begin can be many other things. As a curious person who loves learning, I have some favorite places to begin: looking up a word in the dictionary, searching on Google or Wikipedia, registering for a workshop/class, reading a book or two or three, meeting others who share my curiosity, experimenting on my own to see what happens. In some way, my places to begin are all related to exploring, which is another fabulous place to begin.
Exploring is about opening to possibility and discovery. It requires a willingness to not know combined with an eagerness to find out. On the surface, exploring seems to occur near the beginning of a process, compared to deciding which seems to happen nearer the end. But sometimes, deciding is actually the beginning of an unfolding process.
Finding or recognizing or choosing a place to begin doesn’t need to be as difficult as we often make it. In her wonderful book The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp uses a project box as a place to begin. Into the box she puts the stuff she notices, stuff that might be project-related. It’s a place to gather an odd assortment without having to do anything with it, or about it, immediately. But, it allows a project to begin and evolve organically. The project box (or file, envelope, board) is a place to begin.
This fall I purchased a new blank notebook with the following words on the front cover: The best way to get something done is to begin. This sounds too linear and straight forward to me; sometimes our beginnings happen without our full awareness. In the book Blue Pastures by Mary Oliver, my favorite essay is Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air. Oliver is writing about her own notebooks and what she writes in them.
“By no means do I write poems in these notebooks. And yet over the years the notebooks have been laced with phrases that eventually appear in poems. So, they are the pages upon which I begin.”
If you think about these two examples, the project box and the notebook, both are containers for beginning. This is also true of my office, where I work one-on-one and with small groups, a place that supports the process of beginning. This is probably true for you, too, if you have a place—a container—where you go to interact with your best creative self. It could be a cafe, writing group, garden center, kitchen, bookstore, studio, garage, museum, library, corner of the basement, walking path… The possibilities are long, but the essentials are short: It’s a place where you are free to explore what calls to you.
“And it doesn’t matter what you pick as a first sentence, or what outside stimulation or inside memory you start with, you will eventually get around to writing [creating] what has been waiting inside you to be written [created].” –Burghild Nina Holzer