In Season 5, Episode 11 of The Office (“The Duel”), David Wallace, the CFO of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, invites Regional Manager Michael Scott to the corporate office in New York to talk about what the Scranton Branch is doing right in the face of a difficult economic climate. All the other branches are struggling, but Michael’s unconventional managerial style is clearly working, and David would like to know exactly what he’s doing so that he can replicate it elsewhere. Michael—pleased but flustered because he thought he was being brought in to get chewed out—begins to ramble.
“David, here is it. My philosophy is basically this,” he says. “And this is something that I live by. And I always have. And I always will. Don't ever, for any reason, do anything to anyone, for any reason, ever, no matter what. No matter... where. Or who, or who you are with, or, or where you are going, or... or where you've been... ever. For any reason, whatsoever.”
Cut to a talking head where Michael confesses, “Sometimes I’ll start a sentence, and I don’t even know where it’s going. I just hope I find it along the way. Like an improv conversation. An improversation.” At the end of what is clearly an unproductive meeting, David—gracious as ever—tells Michael that it’s hard to evaluate yourself, and he appreciates Michael trying. Even though David has politely insinuated that the meeting is over and he’d like Michael to leave, they continue to eat the pasta Michael requested they order, mired in an awkward silence. This is one of my favorite scenes in the entirety of the show, and I bring it up because it pretty much perfectly encapsulates my writing process.
For me, the most dreaded part of the writing process is the beginning. A blank page, a white maw and a blinking cursor waiting for instruction. I have ideas, and I’m excited about those ideas, but...what if I can’t do it? What if the words are terrible? What if the story is garbage? It is garbage, isn’t it? I knew it, it’s never going to work, the plot is nonexistent, the characters aren’t compelling and oh, god, do I have any other ideas? Yes, but those might also be garbage. It’s just garbage all the way down.
And I still haven’t written a word.
Okay, then, I tell myself, just begin. Don’t think about it too hard. You can always start again. The only failure is the failure to try, have no fear of perfection because you will never reach it, etc, etc. But it’s hard for me not to think. Not to overthink. How do I get through this then?
Quite literally, one word at a time.
I start every novel I write with pretty much no idea where it’s going, hoping I’ll find it along the way. I never outline, and beyond maybe a few nebulous plot points, the only things I really start with are a tone and a voice and some kind of question or idea I want to explore. No thoughts, just vibes. Even characters are sketchy at best.
Is this the best way to begin? I don’t know. All I do know is that it’s worked for me in the past. I outlined an entire novel once, and when I sat down to write it I didn’t actually get very far before I got really bored. Part of the joy of writing for me is discovery—if I’ve already mapped out everything that will happen and when, there’s not much room for my imagination to wriggle in. Not that outlining is bad—it just doesn’t work for me personally. If it works for you, then great! There is no right way to write. And there’s no wrong way, either.
That's something that's always bothered me about writing advice. In college, I remember some of my professors giving hard rules like "Don't use adverbs," or "The best time to write is in the morning." First of all, I love a good adverb (there is a difference between "he whispered" and "he said softly," okay?), and I hate mornings. I'm not getting up to write when I'm grumpy and still basically asleep, like, what kind of advice is that?? My advice is, never listen to advice. Except when it's good advice. And maybe not even then. Hope this helps.
For real, though—writing advice should always be thought of as guidelines, not rules. When I was younger, like high school aged, I was ravenous for any and all advice. I would scour the websites of authors I admired looking for their thoughts on process and publishing, and a lot of it was really helpful. Just as much wasn't. I've found that the best way to go about writing is to figure out what works for you and then to keeping doing that thing (and it might change from book to book, who knows! It's okay and natural for your process to change over time). What works for me is setting a goal of one sentence per day. What works for me is forgoing an outline. What works for me is writing mostly in the evenings, but often in the afternoon or even the morning if I'm feeling up to it, depending on the day and my work schedule. What works for me is starting a sentence and hoping I find it along the way.
Maybe that sounds chaotic, and sometimes it is. Many writers (especially ones with children and other huge commitments) have a set schedule, like deciding to write between 9am and noon and they're going to write 1,000 words per day. I admire that type of hard timetable, but I just work better with a more flexible schedule, and I never give myself a word count goal because it stresses me out too much (that's why I like the goal of one sentence, because some days one sentence is all I have to give. But most days one sentence begets another sentence and another and soon I've got a page, or even a whole chapter). I used to feel bad about not having a big goal, but if it doesn't work for you, it doesn't work. Not the end of the world. As long as the words get on the page, there's no right or wrong way to do it.
Okay, now I feel as if I'm rambling Michael Scott-style. What was I talking about? Right—beginnings. Even just writing this post, I started with about five different openings. False starts are inevitable (especially if you don't outline). Sometimes it takes a while to find the story. Nothing you write is ever a waste, even if it doesn't end up in the final version. Everything you write is working toward something, even if you don't know what that something is yet.
I share all this in the hopes that if you too are beginning a new project—whether it's writing, drawing, gardening, anything really—and you feel overwhelmed before you even start, I just want you to know that you are not alone. Beginning is scary. It's hard. And some things, really, are just not meant to be. I've started so many novels that I've set aside because it's not the time for them or it's just not working and I can't figure out why. That's okay. But you'll never know if you don't try, right?
Basically, when I begin, I try to channel the completely unfounded confidence of Michael Scott. He has no idea what he's doing most of the time, but he does it anyway (often to disastrous results, but still). I'll leave you with another favorite quote of mine from "The Duel," when Michael shakes David's hand at the end of their meeting.
“I have to say, I’m so impressed with the potential you see in me.”
Let's all be impressed with our own potential. That just might be the best way to begin.