On Beginning Again

It never gets easier.  Wait, bear with me–I’m not complaining.  I promise this isn’t going to be a pessimistic rant.  What I mean to explore is the false idea so many of us have that the writing life will, at some point, start to go more smoothly.  That we are climbing, climbing, the terrain is rocky, strewn with roots and all manner of stuff to trip us up, but then we will reach a summit, there will be a clearing, the fog will lift, the vista endless.

Sorry, but it isn’t going to happen.

Every single day, the writer begins again.  When we wake up in the morning, when we roll out of bed, brush our teeth, splash our faces with cold water, make the coffee, the toast, pack the sandwiches into lunch boxes, bundle our children off to school with the proper mittens and hats and sports attire and homework, when we wash the dishes, make the beds, answer the emails, walk the dogs––until the moment when we finally sit down at our desks, we are preparing to begin again.  We may be halfway through a novel, an essay, a story, a memoir.  We may be nearing the finish line on a piece of work that has taken us years.  We may, in fact, be attempting to start something new.  But wherever we are within our work, we have never been exactly here, today.  Today, we need to re-learn what it is that we do.  We have to remind ourselves to be patient, to be gentle with our foibles, to be ruthless with our time, to withstand our frustrations, to divide our attention if we are parents of young children.  We must remember what it is that we need.  The solitude of an empty home?  A strong cappuccino?  A walk through the woods?  An hour of yoga?  A bath?  Half an hour with a good book, the echo of beautiful sentences in our ears?

When I was first learning to meditate, this idea of beginning again was revelatory.  It still is.  When Sharon Salzberg spoke of catching the mind, scampering off like the little monkey that it is, into the past, the future, anywhere but here, she suggested that the real skill, in meditation, is simply noticing that the mind has wandered, and beginning again.  So liberating, this idea that we can start over at any time, a thousand times a day if need be.  I see many parallels between the practices of meditation and writing, but none are more powerful than this.  Writing is hard.  We resist, we procrastinate, we veer off  course.  But we also have this tool, this ability to begin again.  Every sentence is new.  Every paragraph, every chapter, every book is a country we’ve never been before.  We’re clearing brush.  We don’t know what’s on the other side of that tree.  How can we?  We are visitors in a foreign land.  And so we take a single step.  Up the stairs after the morning coffee.  Back to the desk after the doorbell has rung.  Returning to the manuscript that has been languishing, becoming a stranger.

No, it never gets easier.  It shouldn’t get easier.  Word after word, book after book, we build our writing lives.  Hopefully we don’t repeat ourselves.  Hopefully we grow, deepen, evolve as interpreters and witnesses of the world around us.  We remain willing to feel our way through the darkness, to stop, take stock, breathe in, breathe out, begin again.  And again, and again.

  • Oh, this is so timely. I have been pondering the idea of beginning again, as it relates to writing, and more broadly to life. There are times when I find myself craving order and ease, a tidiness of progress, but then I realize that there is indeed a rich and ineffable majesty in the struggle that underpins our efforts, in the difficulty that streams through much of existence. I guess what we can hope for is evolution, imagination, snippets of new stories, beautiful stories, written and lived.

    Thanks for this. And, of course, Happy New Year.

    • Dani

      Happy New Year to you too, Aidan!  I’m glad this post resonated with you.  Here’s to a great 2012. 

  • Manette Ansay

    Thanks, Dani. I needed this today.

    • Dani

      Manette!  I just ordered Midnight Champagne! 

  • I love the concept of writing being like meditation. We can always begin again. We have to begin again.  We must always begin again.

    Wonderful post. Thanks!

  • Judy Goldman

    Perfect beginning-of-a-new-year essay.  Maybe our growing older gracefully (like our continuing to write) depends on being able to tackle beginnings, hard as they are.

  • Dani, I love this post and couldn’t agree more. Sometimes, for me, the hardest thing is to get back in the saddle after some days away. But once I put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper, I somehow am able to find my rhythm again.
    I am definitely trying to return to a manuscript that is ‘becoming a stranger.’ I started delving back into it a few weeks ago. Now, I got to carve out time and stick to it. It’s so easy, isn’t it, to let life get in the way, whether it’s taking our kids someplace, teaching a class and prepping a syllabus for next semester, or those holiday cards and thank-yous that need sending out.
    Happy writing to you in 2012! I look forward to seeing your next book on writing. I learn so much every time I stop by your Moments of Being blog.

    • Dani

      Happy 2012 to you too, Linda.  I hope it’s a good one.  Good luck with familiarizing yourself again with the “stranger”. 

  • This is beautiful… thank you. Timely and true as I try to reacquaint myself with my own “stranger” manuscript. It is always comforting to know that it is much the same for everyone, that I am not alone in this beginning again.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Dani. Your thoughts, as ever, are breathtaking. You put into words so many things which are not easily wrestled into words, and beautifully so. Thank you for sharing! -Jennifer

  • Wkstahl

    Thank you for your timely and encouraging words, Dani. How succinct your guidance. Simple, but not easy, for those of us new to writing. I’m glad to know not to expect smooth…ever!

  • Dani, you have a magic way of writing about just what I need when I need it. I’m starting a new chapter today after a month away. Beginning again, one word at a time. Thank you.

    • Dani

      I’m so glad to hear that!  Thank you.  And good luck with your new chapter.  Be patient with yourself.  (Ha! Easy for me to say.) 

  • DeborahHenry

    “Returning to the manuscript that has been languishing, becoming a stranger.” So difficult to get back inside, to return. Thank you for the reminder that it has never been easy and never will be. I need to return home. It is nice to know I am not alone. Thank you for this post.

    • Dani

      You’re welcome.  We all need to be reminded.

  • Kylie Ladd

    Love it. I feel this way every single day, though I’ve written regularly for 12 years (and three novels, two other books and countless articles/essays/blogs) now. I thought it was just me. Every morning, sitting down and writing just seems so daunting, but every evening I’m so glad that I did. It’s like being married- you make the choice again every single day.

    • Dani

      Exactly!  Every time I finish a book I feel like I learned how to write THAT book.  Only that book (or story, or essay).  For the next one, I’m beginning all over again.  Thanks.

  • Hi,

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  • LOVE THIS. thank you. thank you. thank you. I’m at this crossroads of beginning or giving up and then this … so happy to read this.

  • Laura Hegfield

    “Hopefully we grow, deepen, evolve as interpreters and witnesses of the
    world around us.  We remain willing to feel our way through the
    darkness, to stop, take stock, breathe in, breathe out, begin again. 
    And again, and again.” all is t’shuvah Dani, every breath, every moment. happy New Year!

  • After 10 days away with grandkids and everything but writing this post was wonderful to read.  Thanks!!

  • Ellen Greenfield

    So true, and heartening to have it expressed so simply and gracefully.  And as with meditation, sometimes the most challenging thing to face is the way we have to come back to it again and again like complete beginners.  But hey, if the year can begin again every 365 days, so can I.  Peace, health and joy to you all.

  • Joanna Rusher

    thank you Dani for the endless sharing of your wisdom.  our world becomes better as we share of personal stuggles and accomplishments. How we do it, and how we don’t.  May you continue happily on your chosen road to walk this coming year. I wish you comfy shoes in which to do this..

  • Dani

    Happy 2012 to you all — and here’s to beginning again each day — perhaps many times a day. 

  • Eilene Zimmerman

    so glad I clicked through on your twitter link to read this. Just today I was thinking of all the things I’d like to change about myself and all the things I didn’t accomplish last year, and how I’m not a kid and maybe too late and I have assignments to finish and  kids to attend to… and then did actually think… well, I can start over and just begin again. And stop beating myself up for what I didn’t check off the lists (the professional and personal ones) last year. Well said… and well written. Thank you. Eilene

  • Denise (Universal Grit)

    I knew you had a new post but hadn’t been able to come read it yet. I opened my lap top today and made this my first stop. Your words are like a salve on my writing wounds. I’m, as always, grateful for the honest and transparent ways you share your insights. They really help me. xo