In the beginning

I dread beginnings, the uncertainty, the commitment, the difficulty of bringing something to completion. Each project is fraught with perils, whether it is a pair of socks (Will this color work with this stitch pattern? Will these needles produce the right gauge so they will fit? Will I remember how to turn the heel, to pick up stitches to form the gusset?), a set of placemats (Are they big enough for my dishes? Will the color look good in the kitchen? Will the binding provide the right amount of contrast?), or a piece of writing (Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Is my topic just silly?). Part of my trepidation is because of my inbred desire to please, but I also detest wasting time on an undeserving project. I should devote my energy to something that matters.

This morning I began a sewing endeavor, a graduation present. I can’t say exactly what I’m making so the recipient will be surprised, but I can say I am worried about its outcome. Sewing requires careful attention to detail, especially at the beginning. Once the fabric is cut, it cannot be uncut. The carpentry mantra of measure twice, cut once is equally true with sewing. So it is with great anxiety that I place and pin the pattern pieces and cut into the cloth. There are curves that must match, so even a fraction of an inch can introduce an error that can’t be corrected later. That is probably why I spent most of the morning circling the project before cutting into the fabric. But now the deed is done. There is no turning back, other than abandoning the project altogether. Abandonment is certainly an option, but I’ve invested in the pattern, the fabric, and the worry already. Since I was so very careful in the cutting, I’m reasonably certain that the technical parts will succeed. After all, I’ve been sewing for over 40 years, and the pattern is not that difficult. Practice might not make perfect, but at least it takes away surprises.

Writing is a different beast. Beginnings do not predict success or failure. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott gives her readers permission to write “shitty first drafts.” Unlike sewing, it is more important to put some words on the page than to wait for just the right words. The honing, the craftsmanship can come later. Writers will still procrastinate, but we should not stop ourselves from writing because we don’t have a perfect draft in our minds. In fact, the very word “essay” comes from the French “to try.” Writing gives us an opportunity to figure out how we feel, and it is only after making complete hash of language and ideas that we can discover what it is that a particular piece of writing is about. I would even argue that words that spring from our brains like Athena fully armed from Zeus’s forehead are often without merit, just so much fluff.

Writers need to struggle with their thoughts, with their intentions. A piece of writing that begins in one place often justifiably ends up somewhere far, far away, mainly because we are often not sure of what with think or what we feel about our topic. Our students might begin writing an argument against the current education system because that is what they heard on Fox News, but as they warm to their subject (and begin researching and actually thinking), they might discover the problems in education can be traced to poverty. If they had limited themselves to writing what they thought they knew, their writing would have merely parroted a single source. Their first draft might have followed the rules of argument and grammar, but it would not bring the students to a better understanding of the problem.

Writing is not about following a pattern to get to a predicted outcome. It is about struggle and discovery. It is about the joy of putting together words in a unique way, a way that only this writer could express herself at this particular moment. It is about telling our own stories in our own words. When we share our writing, it is inevitable that we find something we would like to change, but if we wait for perfection, we will never be a part of the discussion.

Thank you for letting me be a part of the Slice of Life discussion.