Dani Shapiro
December 29, 2011

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.