Among the many lessons I enjoyed at Chautauqua this summer, during the Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop, I’m still struck by the simplicity of Joy Cowley’s teaching: "All writers start in the same place."
When Joy, a beloved children’s author, began her plenary address with these words, I first thought, "Gee, that’s simplistic and unhelpful. I hope she has better stuff than that."
Days later, my teacher Kent Brown repeated the comment. It still sounded simplistic and unhelpful, but I thought, "Dang nab it all, if Kent is repeating it, it must have some mysterious meaning." (I always have to stretch to catch the ideas that are sailing over my head.)
During the weeks since Chautauqua, I’ve thought a lot about Joy’s comment. To me it means many things, including:
“Yes, you are busy, and all writers start in that same place. They’re busy, so writers must struggle to find the time to write.”
“Yes, you find the blank page daunting, and all writers start in that same place. Paper is sold blank, so writers must write to fill the page.”
“Yes, you are not particularly confident about your idea, and all writers start in that same place. Ideas start somewhat mushy, so writers must work to sharpen each idea.”
“Yes, you wonder whether you are a writer because writing can be painful, and all writers start in that same place. They grimace while they write, so writers must work in a room without mirrors.”
The trick, Joy implies, is simply to start. This reminds me of a radio interview with Joseph Heller where I heard the author of Catch-22 describe his writing discipline. He was committed to writing two full pages before breakfast every day.
“What do you mean, two full pages?” asked the interviewer. (I think this was Terry Gross of Fresh Air.)
He admitted that he would “cheat” with generous margins, double- or even triple-spacing, and large handwriting. “If I don’t like the way a sentence looks, I might cross it out and rewrite it. But, by breakfast, I have written at least a couple sentences that I like. That’s an achievement for any writer.”
Have you written two sentences that you like today?