Tag Archives: writing

Begin At The Beginning

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

At a recent booksigning, I was asked by a very nice fellow—who’d apparently spent the last several years researching a 19th century figure and was now ready to start writing—about the “right” way to begin a biography. “Should I begin at the beginning of his life?” he asked, “or pick a pivotal event and start there? Or should I start at the end, and tell the book as a flashback?”

It’s a tricky question, and I’m not certain I have a good answer for it. But I know for sure I don’t have the “right” answer for him — because I don’t think there is a right answer. All I can give you, and him, is my opinion. So, here goes.

Those of us who deal in non-fiction have different narrative issues than those of you who write fiction, mainly because we have the hassle—or the luxury, depending on how you want to look at it—of having the story plotted out for us in advance. No matter how much we might wish Aaron Burr hadn’t turned out to be such a skunk, or want Clarence Darrow to win the Scopes trial, that’s not the way it happened. Nor can the North win the Civil War because of the involvement of space aliens, or Jack the Ripper speed away from the scene of a crime in a Ferrari, no matter how cool that might be. We have to be true to the events we’re reporting.

That’s not to say that we don’t have considerable leeway in how we tell our stories. David McCullough, for example, begins John Adams in January 1776, with the 40-year-old Adams riding on horseback through a snowstorm on his way to Philadelphia, while David Michaelis starts Schulz and Peanuts with Schulz leaving for the army following the death of his mother, long before he ever drew a Peanuts strip. We can tell our stories through flashbacks, or on a straight, chronological track. What we can’t do, however, is tell our stories in ways that seem unnatural or forced. Every story has its beginning—and after doing our research, it’s our job to find it.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. In fact, I have a rather tumultuous relationship with my beginnings. I usually know structurally how I’m going to start, but I have a heck of a time with that “once upon a time…” clause that I need to kick the whole thing off. So I have an odd in media res approach to working in which I start writing the middle of the piece first– whether it’s a speech or article or what have you — and go until I have one of those Eureka! moments where everything falls into place, and I know where I’m going and how I’m getting there.

Even then, I still usually save the very first pages for last. By that point, I know exactly where I’ve been in the narrative, I know my structure, and I generally feel that, after having “lived it” for so long, I know the best way to kick things off. And yet, sometimes I still don’t get it quite right on the first try, usually because I’ve somehow ignored my own advice on writing the beginning that works for my story.

In the first draft of Washington Irving, for example, I wrote what I called my Cinematic Opening. It was artsy and theatrical and beautifully written, and I loved it. I even knew exactly the way it would look on film: We open with a tight shot of Irving, already the most famous man in the world, writing letters at the round table in his parlor at Sunnyside. The camera pans slowly up and moves forward—in a prolonged crane shot—through the window of the parlor and out onto the Hudson River, then makes its way downriver to New York City. As the New York of 1847 bustles away, a special effects shot slowly fades the city backwards through time until it reverts to its Revolutionary War-era face of 1783, and we begin to tell the story of Irving’s life.

It was lovely and very Merchant-Ivory and, ultimately, very terrible, because it wasn’t true to the story. It felt too forced, too dramatic, and my editor summed it up nicely with one word: “No.” Out it went.

She was right, and I knew it. I was trying to be clever and cinematic and beautiful, and that wasn’t really my story. It didn’t work. So I started over, and this time I began at the beginning—my beginning, the one I knew was there all along.

That’s the best advice I can give, then: Begin at the beginning of the story—your story—then go on until you come to the end, and then stop. There really is no “right” way, but there is a way that works best for you and the story you want to tell. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it. Find it, listen to it, then write it.

Working With Distra . . . Look! A Chicken!

I was watching my 11-year-old daughter the other afternoon as she did what 11-year-old girls do: multi-task to the nth degree. All at once she was reading, listening to music, chatting on instant messenger, and still paying some peripheral attention to me as I asked her what she wanted for dinner and where she hid the Hershey’s Kisses. And it occurred to me: I can’t do that any more.

I mentioned in an earlier post how I’m not one of those writers who, like Dickens, can work while there’s a party going on around me. I can’t write at a Starbuck’s, or sitting on a park bench — and it’s not because I need my Own Place, necessarily. Rather, it’s because I just can’t shut out noise and external stimulus all that well.

I used to be able to. In high school and college, I could read and study and talk and listen to music and have the television on and I never had any trouble focusing. I could read Chaucer with Huey Lewis and the News throbbing on the stereo (What? This was 1988, remember!) or write a term paper with the television blaring all night.

It’s different now. When it’s time to write, I have to close the door. I like a wee bit of music, but I have to turn it down very low — and even then, the music can’t have any vocals. Mostly I play old jazz and blues over my computer speakers, using either the shuffle function of iTunes or tuning into Sirius Pure Jazz on line. But that’s the extent of the external stimuli I can take.

That’s not to say I can’t work with noise. For most of the ten years I worked in the U.S. Senate, I shared an office with three, and sometimes four, other people (despite what you might see on TV or movies, life in a Congressional office is decidedly unglamorous). The Senate floor played on the television at all times. Every phone conversation was held in the open, every colleague’s chat with another staffer occurred six feet away. The din and distractions were constant, and yet I had no problem writing speeches or memos, talking with constituents on the phone, and generally doing my legislative duties.

And yet, nowadays, as soon as it comes to writing, I’ve gotta reduce my distractions. Perhaps part of it is age — I find that as I’ve gotten older, I can’t even read a book with the television on. As my wife and I are getting ready for bed each evening, she likes to turn on Law and Order to help her wind down, and I generally sit back with a book. Despite my best efforts, my eyes keep flicking from the page up to the television, my ears keep trying to tune into the dialogue, and I soon find I’ve read the same paragraph thirty times so I just pack it in and watch to see if either Sam Waterson or that annoying blonde attorney is gonna blow a slam-dunk case in court again. (*glunk glunk!*)

Where was I? Oh. Right. I just made my own point.

I am getting better, though, I suppose. I did some of my background reading for Washington Irving while sitting in airports, for example, or while waiting for my car to be serviced, so I guess I’m not a total loss. And I can work right next to a window without finding excuses to gaze out of it for hours at a time (Stephen King in On Writing says a window near your workspace is a big no-no for that very reason).

Still, I doubt I’ll ever be one of those people who can sit in a cafe or park and pound happily away while I . . . hey, look! That dog has a curly tail!

So how about it, folks? What are your distractions? And how do you beat them?