“Writing is the act of discovery.” ― Natalie Goldberg
Morning has arrived. The sun comes over the mountains. Light fills the treetops. Birds fly out of the forest, and it all starts over. This repetition, this always, this again. Still you stand there thinking “ok, so now what?” as if you didn’t know. You must get started. But how do you begin? Knowing how path leads to path, it doesn’t really matter how, only that you do.
One way to begin is just like this, one word after another, until you’ve risen out of always and again to find yourself in a new place. Along the way you might find it helpful to follow some basic pilgrim practices. When you keep your eyes open, stay alert for surprise, and let go of expectations, then you’ll begin to generate the results you desire. You may have already noticed how expectations rise up as obstacles that block the way, so why not clear the path? There is no such thing as not good enough. There is only work that doesn’t get done.
You’re going to do it, but don’t try to do it too quickly. In the days and weeks ahead you will begin to find it all comes easily, but for now you’ll want to savor the beginnings. You might also want to practice different ways of getting started. That’s been working for me this week. One of the things you’re going to love about this practice is how much fun it is, and it’s good to have fun, isn’t it? That’s what the journey is all about, so let’s get started.
I’m not going to tell you about all the false starts I took this week, because there was nothing false about them. Each one got me just a little further along and it doesn’t matter if all I wound up with was a notebook full of unrelated paragraphs. The point of writing them was to write them. All I really wanted to do was to keep a promise to myself. I promised myself I would write something every day, and having done that, I should have been happy. That I wanted more only goes to show you that I still have a lot to learn about all of this. But I’m not going to tell you about that. Now now.
What I want to tell you about now is a bit more about how practice works. Whether you decide to write, draw, paint, play the piano, do yoga, walk everyday, or learn a new language you’ll soon come to realize it’s all about practice. Don’t say “by the end of the year, I’m going to publish a novel” or “before long I’ll be impressing my friends with my musical skills.” Instead say, “I’m going to set aside thirty minutes a day to do this.” Then do it. If you don’t have thirty minutes, ten minutes is alright. Whatever you can realistically manage. Make practice your goal. If you miss a day, that’s ok. Don’t beat yourself about it. Just get up the next day and start again.
I’ll never forget how surprised I was when my father announced that he was going to coach our Little League baseball team. He knew nothing about sports and wasn’t athletic in the least. What he did know about though was how to make practice fun. He’d show up in his work clothes, put a baseball cap on, and thoroughly enjoy himself no matter how poorly we played. “It’s not about being good,” he’d tell us. “It’s about having a good time.” This was good to know, because we were the worst team in the entire league. Someone would strike out. He’d laugh and say, “it’s a beautiful thing to watch you swing that bat.” Someone would drop the ball. He’d say, “I love the way you tried.” Someone would be feeling down. He’d hug them and say “what you need is some ice cream.” And after every practice, after every game, no matter what, that’s what we all got. Ice cream. “Ice cream for everyone,” he’d call out. Reward yourself for trying, no matter what.
I’ll always remember what one of my favorite professors, Winston Fuller, taught me about all this. At the end of a writing workshop I’d taken with him he wrote that …
“An intentional person is too effective to be a good guide in the tentative activity of writing. It takes a certain amount of irresponsibility to create. I think now that you have begun to take yourself seriously, you should also begin to take yourself playfully. What you need now is to play, to write for the joy of writing. You need to permit yourself to write foolish, insipid, revealing, and unoriginal junk. Stacks of it. For this very good reason: there is no way to get to the good stuff except by wading through mounds and mounds of the bad stuff. At this point, Charles, if you’re not writing a lot of junk, you’re not doing your job.”
That was 35 years ago, and what you see me doing here is going back to learn that lesson again, and that takes us back to the lesson about letting go of expectations. So often we take ourselves way too seriously, and in our seriousness we forget how much fun it is to begin again and again.
And there you have four writing prompts that have gotten me somewhere this week. I’m got going to tell you about is my favorite because when you start with that, surprising things happen. What I’m going to tell you about now works well because as soon as you write those words, something comes to mind. Go with that. If you don’t like I’ll never forget and I’ll always remember, try I’ve tried to forget or I can never quite remember and see what happens.
Something will. If you’re not a writer, paint those prompts. If you’re not a painter, walk through them. If you’re not a walker, play them on the piano, and if you don’t play piano, breathe them. If you don’t like those prompts, come up with some of your own, then let them carry you to a new way in, and on to a further path. Wherever they lead, enjoy that, and don’t forget the ice cream
Night has come. The moon has risen. The birds have returned to the forest, and all the stars are out. If you’re still standing there thinking “ok, so now what?” as if you didn’t know, don’t worry. You still get ice cream. Reward yourself for even thinking about it. Then, please get some rest. Tomorrow is another day on which you can get started all over again. And how will you begin? Knowing how path leads to path, it doesn’t really matter how, only that you do.
Read: Job 8:7