One well-intentioned piece of advice has given countless students writer’s block: Begin with a sentence that grabs your reader’s attention.
That’s actually good advice. The problem is the assumption students often make: I have to start writing at the beginning. The corollary is paralyzing: If I don’t have a great first sentence, I can’t start writing.
To get them past rule-induced paralysis, I’d tell them how I wrote my college papers. At the time, the height of technology was a self-correcting electric typewriter. If I rolled a sheet of paper into the typewriter and started typing the title, I’d sit there staring at the blank page for hours. However, if I started with the second paragraph and kept going until the final paragraph, my main point would emerge as I typed. So I got very good at leaving just the right amount of space for the title and first paragraph, which were actually the last things I wrote.
My students would smile, either amused by my idiosyncrasy or pitying the primitive tools available in the distant days of my youth. Then I would ask, If the introduction fit the space I left, would my teachers have ever known that I wrote the introduction last? If you start in the middle or at the end, how would your readers know?
A few of the more daring students began to get the idea. You mean we can start in the middle? Or the the end? Just start, I would tell them. It doesn’t matter where. It doesn’t even matter if you write drivel like I have to write a paper and I’d rather play Angry Birds but I have to come up with a topic and I don’t know what to write about… The simple act of writing will help you gain momentum. Once you get going, you can delete the drivel and shape the good stuff into a coherent draft.
To reinforce the point, I’d show them Bonnie Case’s painting of a Hostess cupcake with its signature loops of frosting and say: Remember that writing is recursive. It doesn’t have to be done in 1-2-3 order. You can start anywhere and loop back to any point in the piece as long as you eventually create an order your reader can follow.
While the Hostess squiggle is still my favorite metaphor for the writing process, John Irving’s writing process is an even better guide for writers. When Irving made a guest appearance on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, host Peter Sagal asked, “Do you ever surprise yourself when you sit down to write a novel?”
“No, I don’t surprise myself,” Irving replied, “because I begin with the ending of books and I know where I’m going.” After writing five novels, he learned that the first sentence that came to mind when he began a book was actually the last sentence. “I just realized, well, I get endings first. And I should recognize that.”
Beginning at the end wouldn’t work for everyone. But Irving’s process can work for every writer: recognize the way your mind works, respect the natural flow of your thoughts, and trust that your ideas will come together in the end.
Note: you can listen to a podcast of Irving’s appearance on the June 16, 2012, broadcast of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me on NPR’s website: