Here’s a tough question I get sometimes, one that I had to figure out how to really articulate clearly a couple of weeks ago when I taught a workshop for a roomful of teenagers: How do you get started? Not with outlining or telling a story or learning about craft or trying to get published. I mean when someone wants to be a writer but has yet to put down words and isn’t sure where to start with even that very first step. (I’ve been writing since I was eight. This isn’t an issue I’ve had to deal with for awhile, so I really had to think about it.)
I wonder, sometimes, if writing can seem like such an arcane activity that some people need permission to start. Or need to get over the hurdle and into believing that yes, anyone who is literate can write. When someone asks, “I want to write but I don’t know how to start,” what can I tell them? I’ve come up with a few ideas of how to get people there.
Brainstorming. Write down ideas, and don’t worry about making them sentences, or making the words pretty. Make a list if you have to. You want to write, you’ve got ideas — write them down in whatever form you can. The point is just to get words on a page, the first words that come into your mind.
Journaling. Start small: go outside, go to a park, go to the mall. Bring a notepad and pen. Sit quietly, just watching and listening. Then, write what you see. Time it, at first — spend ten minutes writing everything: the people you see, the noises you hear, the kinds of activity going on around you. Describe the trees, the clouds, the sky. Again, this doesn’t even have to be prose. Just make a list. Describe as much as you can, in as much detail as you can. This is why the timer helps — you have to force yourself to keep writing, and I can’t isn’t an excuse. (I still keep a travel journal, which helps me get down my newest experiences and sights into concrete form.)
Personal Journaling. Keep a diary of your day’s activities, and get in the habit of doing this for a few minutes every day. Again, focus on details, senses, feelings. Practice getting that storm of thoughts in your brain onto the page, a little bit at a time.
All these activities kickstart the practice of getting thoughts from your brain onto paper, and the more you do this the easier it will get. No one will read any of this, it’s all for you, so like I said, don’t worry at all. Just practice making marks on a page or typing words on the screen. I think you’ll find that if you do this every day, it gets easier. If you start by setting a timer and forcing yourself to write for five or ten minutes, you’ll get to a point where the timer bell goes off, and you’re still writing. That ten minutes will turn into twenty, then a half an hour, and beyond. Writing takes practice. It’s a muscle you have to develop. You might start with lists, but soon your thoughts will start flowing, one sentence into the next.
You may not even realize it when those random thoughts, lists, and ideas start flowing into a continuous narrative. And the stories that have been living in your brain will start to find their way to the page.