Very often, when I lead workshops or sit on panels featuring writers, young people will ask this question: Where do you start?
Sometimes this is also phrased as: How do you get ideas?
This question, I must confess, always leaves me a little stumped. I have never had a problem with starting a story. This is not because I have zillions of ideas buzzing around in my head and I can just reach out and grab one between thumb and forefinger and squeeze the life out of it. It doesn’t work that way.
But I never have problems starting a story because if I don’t have something to start with – an idea, or a clear sense of what I am trying to communicate – then I do not start at all. It’s quite simple. If you don’t want to write something in particular, then don’t write at all.
I know these are not welcome words to a bunch of aspiring writers. Perhaps, these are not even very polite words. But I can tell you this straight off – if you care about being too polite, or worry too much about other people’s ambitions and expectations, then you’re not going to be a very good writer. You might succeed in putting together a manuscript. You might find a publisher and you might even find readers. You might find a hundred thousand readers, and god bless you and all that. I have nothing more to say to you, if that is all you want of yourself.
But if you want to write because you have something to share – even if it is only a letter to a lost lover, even if it is only the dread pulsing through your veins after a nightmare – then you should not have a problem with beginnings.
Begin at the very source of your need. Begin the way waterfalls begin – with a rush and headlong tumble towards the unknown depths. Crash into rocks.
Begin with the image of hurt. Most of us need to share pain, above all things. Our joys we sequester, most of us. We need them too much, and we are afraid of jealous eyes. Of jealous gods. Until we lose them. Then those joys become pain. And we are finally ready to share them with the world.
Begin with the sound of grief. Is it an absolutely still house at midnight, with the very faint sound of traffic filtering up from the bedroom window as you lie in bed, alone?
Begin with the shape of grief, its texture. Is it round, or mottled like a sulky, unattractive child? Does it look like stained gauze bandages? Does it feel like cracked heels in too-new sandals that were worn only once to a wedding where you felt you must look your very best even though you were related neither to the groom nor the bride?
Begin with the last sentence you remember in the mouth of the beloved. Begin with the rage on the face of a stranger. Begin with yawning abysses or ropes or necklaces or broken clasps.
No matter where you begin, remember it is only an opportunity to the truth as you saw it. Later, you will have to make the beginning wander into a middle, then slide into an end.
Later, you will have to ensure that the people you describe are not hollow, plasticky objects. You will have to breathe your own lifeblood into them. You will have to cram your knowledge of the world and its possibilities onto the page. You will trim and prune. You will mash up stories and memories. You will let fantasy and falsehood litter the narrative.
But all that comes later. In the beginning, all you need is a very tiny grain of honesty.
In this section, we invite writers we’ve had the pleasure of interacting with to talk about the writing process. Annie Zaidi is a voice we admire at BWW. Her book Love Stories # 1 to 14 has recently been launched. Get your copy today.
About Annie Zaidi
Annie Zaidi is the author of Love Stories # 1 to 14, and Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, which was shortlisted for the Crossword (non-fiction) book prize, and the co-author of The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl. She also writes poetry and plays in both English and Hindi. Jaal and So Many Socks were performed in Mumbai 2012. She currently lives in Mumbai.