My grandmother was known for saying, “all beginnings are hard.” Although I don’t believe that she ever took pen to paper for the sake of storytelling, I most often think of this little pearl when I start a new piece of writing. Whenever I sit down to a new project be it a book, article, essay or, yes, even a blog post, my grandmother’s simple yet wise words remind me that it’s getting those first few thoughts out that can be writing’s most challenging task. It is with this in mind that I focus on beginnings when I lead workshops like my upcoming Boot Camp for Writers.
Since a blank page cannot be tweaked, edited or published, I like to give workshop participants the chance to start several different pieces and start the same piece several different ways. I open each session by asking participants to begin a story based on a prompt. One week the prompt might be to write about a time when something was not as it seemed while the next week it might be to write a story that centers on a word or phrase. The prompts help erase the worry of not having something to write about by sparking a memory or story that may otherwise not have been on the surface. I always hand out at least one non-fiction piece that I think illustrates the prompt well and then the work of finding those precious beginnings begins. Sometimes I might ask the writers to stop and start over by telling the same story from the ending thereby making the ending of the piece the beginning of the piece. Other times I encourage my students to start the same story from another point of view or in a different voice. We then compare, contrast and discuss the different versions and, more often than not, the strongest beginning is not the first one. Each approach gives way to a different kind of story telling and the writing tends to get crisper, stronger and more focused with each attempt. By the time the workshop ends, participants walk away with several in-progress pieces and usually have at least one that is screaming to be finished.
My grandmother didn’t have any expressions about endings (although she inexplicably liked to say “there is more than one way to skin a cat”) but I do know that you can’t finish a story without starting it. I hope to see you in Boot Camp for Writers so we can explore the hard but important work of beginnings.
Beth Kanter is the workshop leader for Boot Camp for Writers, which will be on Thursdays at TWC from 10/27-11/17. You can sign up for her workshop here.
Beth Kanter is a freelance feature writer based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in parenting and travel stories. Beth’s essays and articles have appeared in a variety of publications including Wondertime, Parents, Mom, Kiwi, American Baby, Working Mother, Shape, Fitness and the Chicago Tribune. She is the author of Day Trips from Washington, DC: Getaway Ideas for the Local Traveler and the forthcoming Food Lovers’ Guide to Washington, DC: The Best Restaurants, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings, both from Globe Pequot Press. She also contributes to the Fodor’s and Michelin guidebook series. Beth has an M.S.J. from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. You can read samples of her work at www.bethkanter.com.