• Alyssa Wees

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.

  • Alyssa Wees

When I think about the fact that the universe—not the world, the universe—will end, eventually, inevitably, I don’t feel much of anything beyond a nodding solemnity. Yes, yes, of course. That sounds exactly right. I suppose this is in part because it doesn’t matter for me personally. Whether the whole of the universe ends by a Big Crunch, a Big Rip, or vacuum decay, by all calculations it will happen so far in the future that the earth will already have been consumed by an exploded supernova sun. Humanity will already be gone (unless, of course, we find a way off this planet, a way to thrive somewhere far away from here when the sun dies). But the end of the universe will likely not affect me or you or even our grandchildren's grandchildren's grandchildren. In fact, humans are much more likely as a species to make the earth inhabitable long before the sun will, so even the sun exploding is not at all a concern compared to climate change.

Still. In the face of total and certain annihilation, it's tempting to ask whether this has all been for nothing. This being our blip-like lives on a little planet that will someday be consumed by our own sun, which will in turn be consumed by whatever doom is prescribed by some law of science that has been theorized but that we haven’t fully worked out yet (ie, Big Crunch, Big Rip, vacuum decay). So, what is our impact on the universe? As a civilization and as individuals? Does any of this matter if it’s not going to last? As long as the universe stays put, conceivably someone somewhere in billions of years could still be reading something that I wrote (or looking at a painting you painted, or listening to a song you sung. Or, simply, our descendants will still be alive and thriving). But if the universe collapses, if all trace of us vanishes—except maybe our scattered atoms—does anything we do matter in the very, very end?

I have to say yes. Yes, emphatically, because we are more than a purpose to be served. We are here to experience and to learn, to simply be, so if we’ve done that, then it doesn’t matter if the universe ends because we’ll already have done what we came to do. The idea of the end could easily fill us with dread, but is there possibly a strange sort of comfort to be found in the idea that nothing at all is permanent? This too shall pass, and it’s extremely possible that the universe is cyclical, so even the end will pass and the universe will begin again. I don't know—maybe there is some comfort in that.

But what I find sad, the thing that really scrapes close to the bone, is the possibility of the Heat Death of the universe. This is the most likely end-of-everything scenario, and it follows the Second Law of Thermodynamics, meaning it has to do with entropy, or decay (not, as the name kind of makes it sound, that the universe will end in a fiery explosion of heat , but that there will be a complete lack of heat, the universe eventually reaching the temperature of absolute zero). The universe is expanding, and someday the space between all objects with mass will be so large that there can be no interaction between them. No gas to fuel new stars; no dead stellar remnants to grow black holes. The skies will go dark, and every galaxy will die isolated and alone. The universe reaches maximum entropy, with absolutely no available energy to exchange, and…that’s it. It’s done. Nothing new can form.

Just the thought makes me feel cold and panicky. No new stars, no new planets, no new life. It will all just stall, game over forever. That's why, when I mourn for the universe, it is not because it must end. It is because there will someday be so much space between everything that nothing anymore can be reached.

But remember—that's a long way off. In the meantime, let's make art. Let's not drift apart.

We always talk about the beginning of the universe—the Big Bang—but what about the end of it? Recently I read the End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack, a nonfiction book written by an astrophysicist about all the possible ways the universe could end. It’s full of humor and unabashed nerdy exuberance about science, and though some of it was a bit hard to follow (in general, outer space stuff is just hard to wrap the mind around sometimes), it was overall very accessible and a short, well-written read. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the cosmos, and especially in the study of the end of everything.

  • Alyssa Wees

I was four years old when I decided I wanted to be a ballerina. My mom signed me up for lessons at a local studio, and I started in the fall of that year. Since I was so young when I began, I can’t say now exactly what about it seized me so thoroughly, though I’m almost certain it had to do with tutus. I desperately wanted to wear a tutu, the kind with crystals on the bodice and stiff tulle that sticks straight out from the hips (what's known as a pancake tutu, which is just about the cutest name for it). I wanted to move and to sparkle. I wanted to wear pointe shoes; to float and to spin on the tips of my toes as if I weighed less than a cloud, less than the wind. It was the closest, I believed (and still do), that anyone could ever come to flying.

Well, I’m very happy to report that I had the opportunity to wear many, many tutus—and tiaras! I love a good tiara—over the years, both pancake and Romantic, which is the kind with the long, full skirt. Many children take dance lessons at an early age, and I’d guess that most of them eventually stop and move on to other sports, other art forms. I, too, tried other things, like a disastrous summer of softball, a stint in baton twirling, and tennis. But through it all I never stopped dancing, never took a break. I kept going. And going. And going. I danced consistently, strenuously, to the exclusion of all other activities, from the age of four until I was twenty-two, including a four-week summer intensive with the American Ballet Theatre in Austin, Texas, when I was seventeen—a wonderful, if intense, experience. And it was not only ballet—I trained in character (folk dance), jazz, modern, and tap. I think I always knew I would never be a professional; I wasn’t quite at that level, and even if I were, the life of a professional ballerina is often a rough, uneven, and underpaid one. Still, ballet beat within me like a second heart; it taught me discipline, endurance, and how to express myself without words. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I had not danced ballet. And I certainly wouldn’t be the writer I am either.

For me, ballet and writing will always be intertwined. Sometimes in a literal way, as with my forthcoming adult fantasy debut Little Bird, a story about a young woman in Depression Era Chicago whose promotion to prima ballerina puts her on a much more magical—and sinister—path than she ever imagined. Not all my novels are—or will be—about ballet, but even when they aren’t, my connection to ballet still informs so much about my writing. My sense of rhythm and movement is tied to voice and tone; my musicality also lends itself to word choice and sentence structure. The grandiosity and heightened drama of ballet seeps into my imagery. And, of course, the magic and romance inherent in ballet inspire the stories themselves, my characters’ sensibilities, and, especially, their capacity for wonder.

And so, that’s why one of my favorite pieces of writing advice is not actually about writing—it’s about dance. It comes from the book Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham by Agnes de Mille. Both women, Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille, were dancers and choreographers born around the turn of the 19th century, pioneers of modern dance and musical theater, respectively. I have to confess, I haven’t read the book in full, though it’s on my ever-expanding to-read list. I stumbled across this passage on the internet a few years ago, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. It goes like this, as Agnes recounts a conversation she once had with Martha:

I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.” “But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.” “No artist is pleased.” “But then there is no satisfaction?” “No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Wow. There is so much here. So much to chew on. From the simple phrase keep the channel open, to Martha’s insistence that there is no satisfaction whatever at any time. The assertion that you are the only one who can create what you create the way that you create it, to the idea that producing art is a blessed unrest, that makes us more alive than the others. Art is the universe expressing itself through the artist; each artist is a piece of the universe, made flesh. Made to sing, and to paint, and to dance, and to write. There can be no true satisfaction because to be satisfied is to be done, and the work of the artist is never done. The work of the artist is to build on what has come before, to bring the picture of the universe into sharper focus, to ask questions, to keep searching. And that work cannot be done if we cut ourselves off from it, if we give into despair.

I have plenty of bad writing days; there are days that looking at what I’ve written makes me feel actually ill. Not good enough, says the mean little whisper in the back of my brain, echoing through my body and shivering through my bones. It’s not good enough and it will never be good enough. Garbage, garbage, garbage. Sometimes, when that happens, I just need to step away. Breaks are necessary. But other times, I open my favorite notebook, to where I’ve written this passage in bright pink ink, and I stand up, throwing my shoulders back. I read this passage aloud, more than once, slowly and in as firm a voice as I can. Keep the channel open! I always yell that part. KEEP THE CHANNEL OPEN! Don’t cut yourself off from the universe—from yourself. There is no satisfaction to be found here, but that is not why we write (or sing, or paint, or dance). We write because it keeps our feet marching, our hearts beating, our lungs breathing. We write because we must.

The universe will not have it any other way.