Begin Again

Begin Again is the title of Grace Paley’s collected poems, and excellent advice — generally — for pursuing any creative career. (Click here to hear Garrison Keillor read her poem, “In the Bus,” which includes the famous line.)

I have a number of friends who tell me they would like to write a book, who have been telling me for years that they would like to write a book. What stops them — and this is of course merely my observation — is one of two things. Either they simply don’t make writing a priority, as though it is so easy to write a book that it will just happen at some time (like falling off a log, as my people say). Or they feel that writing a book is so freaking difficult that they can never, never do it. Writing books is for other people, like sailing around the world is for other people.

Books get written one page, one paragraph, one sentence at a time. A poem is written one word, one image, one line at a time.

Like the old joke about how to eat an elephant (one bite at a time), there’s really no other way to tackle it. Whether you think it would be a cinch, or if you think it’s so huge you can never possibly get it done, there is no other way.

My best, and first advice to my friends is to begin. Think of your “book” — in the abstract, best sense — as a big, blank canvas. This morning, put a mark on it. Tomorrow morning, get up and put another mark on it. You need a shitty first draft (the SFD, as my writing students used to call it) before you can revise. Will you keep any of these early marks? Maybe, maybe not. What you are really learning at this stage of the game, is how to begin. And how to begin again.

There’s a grace in that.

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