The Key to Writing: Begin and Let Go

Connecticut, 2009 When I started graduate school, everyone around me seemed to know what they would write for their thesis. One third semester student said, "Know what you want to write right away. If you don't start your thesis your first semester, you're going to fall behind."

I was fresh off my application interview, where I had stammered through an answer to what I would write for my thesis. I spit out scattered words about nature and sense of place and examination and analysis...good old fashioned B.S.

"I just wondered if you wanted to write a memoir or essays," my interviewer said.

"Oh, well in that case, essays." I couldn't imagine writing a book-length anything.




Then came time for my first assignment. I wrote about a trip I had taken to the Yucatan Peninsula with my then husband because I wanted to be a witty travel writer--Barbara Kingsolver meets David Sedaris, if you can imagine such a combination. I did not want to write about marriage or relationships.

But a funny thing happened every time I tried to write: a subplot crept in. I was unhappy in a lie-in-bed-and-wonder-if-I-was-dying kind of way. And because I didn't want to admit it, I wrote 30 pages of slop to arrive at the 15 pages of mess I turned in.

Luckily, my professor was patient. He sifted through my pages and took the time to figure out what my story was about--a woman trying to make sense of her life, not just a trip to Mexico.

By the time I finished grad school, I was divorced. And instead of writing travel stories, I had written a book about marriage and relationships and starting over. My mentor told me it was time to start using the M-word. And you know what? I was okay with that. My writing and my life had both evolved into what they needed to be.



Now. The lesson in my story is not that writing will upend every aspect of your life (insert sigh of relief). Most often, you will sit down with the intent to write about marriage or travel or cooking, and that's what you'll write about. And after you've written about it, you'll still be married or single or live in Minnesota or Colorado and the basic tenets of your life will remain intact.

Connecticut, 2009  Photography and Writing Workshop

But writing that memoir taught me two very important things: if you want to write, simply begin. Then let go of the outcome.

No matter how convinced you are of your topic or your story--be it novel, memoir, essay or something else--it will take on a life of its own. It will morph and grow and change as you write it. Your job is to shepherd the piece through that process. To guide that story, not control it.

And (here's the best part.) If you don't know what that story is yet? Write anyway. You'll find it through the simple act of putting the pen to the page--it will reveal itself.



Letting go is not always easy. Neither is starting--especially if you're a Class Act Procrastinator like I am. So let's practice together.

Below you'll find the first paragraph of a short story I wrote. It's your turn next. Write the next paragraph in the comments section. If someone beats you to it, write the third paragraph. If one paragraph seems to end the story, start another. It doesn't matter if you're a fiction writer, a playwright or an essayist. Don't worry about good or bad writing. Just have fun. Begin and then let go. 

713kwWSjXkL._SY300_Once you participate, I'll enter your name to win a free copy of a book by a dear friend of mine: Tough Love: A Wyoming Childhood by Kate Meadows. Kate saw me through grad school, standing by me during a time of great change, and her book is a testament to bravery and courage and figuring out who you really are. Tomorrow, I'll polish up the story and post it on the blog, and announce the winner. Here goes (it's a bit dramatic. But let's just be dramatic together):


Seta had gone into the closet once, nine months before, to show Bethany the box where it sat on the shelf. They were on their second bottle of wine.

“Don’t you want to put it somewhere nicer?” Bethany asked. 

Seta didn't respond. Just turned off the light, walked to the kitchen and corked the wine.

Now, a thin layer of dust coats the grey plastic box. She pulls her sleeve over her wrist and wipes it clean. For a moment, she feels guilty for keeping it there. Then she picks it up.

(See the results of our story HERE.)


Giveaway from WritingStrides: Free Mentoring Sessions

Four weeks until the WritingStrides blog goes live on April 15. It's pretty exciting to think about growing a community of writers where we can encourage each other in writing, especially now that I've been learning about your goals. -2I've been impressed. You dream big, and you dream in specifics. When I decided to write, I only knew I wanted to write. I didn't really know what that meant. But you have some very detailed dreams: to get published in a specific magazine, to be a travel writer, to publish scientific papers (yep, you read that right), to publish blogs... the list goes on.

The awesome thing about having such specific goals is that you have two very key pieces of information: you know your starting point and where you want to be.

There might also be a whole lot of unknown territory in between, but I think that's important, too. It's where all the fun happens. And the learning and growing. It's in honor of all that unknown territory that I'm announcing my first official WritingStrides Giveaway: a set of three coaching sessions with me.

Here's how it's going to work. Subscribe to the WritingStrides Newsletter, and use the WritingStrides Block Buster. Then, email me your writer's statement and your first three steps to the future by April 14. I'll randomly draw one winner from the entries and announce it during launch week, the week of April 15. There's some fine print: the giveaway is for newsletter subscribers only, and the mentoring sessions need to be used within one year of winning. But other than that, it's really that simple.

I'll be waiting to hear from you (and yep, your answers will confidential, just between you and me).