How To Start Writing

July 30, 2020

Ernest Hemingway always began a writing session (so he writes in A Moveable Feast) by sharpening two pencils to a fine point with a pocket knife. He needed them sharpened in order to write, but if he didn’t concentrate when he was doing it, he said, he could’ve cut his thumb off. This forced him to slowly leave behind the busy world that he, like all of us, was living in, and enter the making space in which (as W.H. Auden put it), “silence is turned into objects.”

If you want to write, you too need first of all to leave the world behind and find that space. Become as inaccessible as you can. Mute your phone. Rearrange the stuff on your desk. Cut a cucumber into stalks to nibble on. Do some deep breathing exercises (start always by breathing out). Turn off the TV. Give yourself permission, way or another, to put everything else in your life on hold for—

For how long?

Start with fifteen minutes—seat of your pants to the seat of the chair. Allow yourself to sink into the strange extended moment that follows. Fifteen minutes may not seem like an awful lot of time, but you’ll be astonished by how long it actually is—and it marks the border crossing between the vita activa, the active, outer life, and the vita contemplativa, the contemplative, inner one. Notice what your shoulders feel like as you cross it. Notice how your breath changes.

Then start writing. Writing what? The first thing that comes to mind. Don’t correct anything. Don’t even spell-check it. If nothing comes to mind, do what one writer I know does: Type the word “and” over and over until you get so bored you start writing. When fifteen minutes have elapsed, stop.

Do the same thing the next day, and the next. By the fourth day, you’ll find it easier to start.