I think it was Joseph Brodsky who said “Endings can be difficult, middles are nowhere to be found, but oh, to begin, to begin, to begin…” A novelist friend passed that quote along to me many years ago–writers pass these tidbits of wisdom along to each other like talismans, we hold onto them the way a devout person might hold onto a scrap of prayer–and I remember feeling relieved that Brodsky, that most writers, have this difficult relationship to beginning something new.
As I embark on my new book, Devotion, I am reminded anew of how hard it is. Occasionally I’ve had a student ask me whether she should become a writer. Most memorably, once one of my Columbia students presented me with her dilemma: writing, or investment banking.
Investment banking! I practically yelled at the poor thing. By all means, investment banking! And what I meant is this: if you think you have a choice in the matter, choose the other thing. Being a writer isn’t a choice. It’s just what you are, like it or not.
I forget, each time. (In this way, beginning a book is a bit like childbirth. Who would do it again if they remembered?) I forget that a year passed during the time I tried and failed to begin Slow Motion, and that the click happened when finally a journalist friend suggested to me that, since it was non-fiction, a memoir, which meant I already knew the story, I should outline it. I forget that when I began Family History , I thought the first thirty pages were so boring, so awful that I deleted them from my computer, and eventually had go fish the one hard copy out of the garbage. I remember that by the time I began Black & White, my head felt like it was about to snap off my neck I was so wound up. And so, now I am here. Searching for the way back inside, to the place where I can think, to the place where I can allow myself to feel whatever is necessary in order to find this book.