blog,  On Writing

Are You Brainstorming or Beginning? Where Does Writing Start?

This essay is a summary of the points made in my recent Write Naked, Die Famous Podcast on the topic of Beginnings. Use this article as a reference. Listen here:

Writing is hard work but for most of us, it’s also fulfilling work. Whether you write fiction, poetry or non-fiction, writing comes from a creative spark that ignites a fire within us to express this idea through writing and, for many, to share this idea with others.

The struggle many have with writing isn’t just the discomfort in revealing their ideas or vulnerabilities or in exploring the dark and frightening parts of their psyches with the world, the hardest part of writing for most is that the craft of writing takes discipline, grit, and perseverance. Talent can only thrive when matched with skill. Skill takes training.

There are three main phases for creating great work: Brainstorming, writing and editing.

Brainstorming is fun and anyone regardless of skill level or talent can do it. There are no limits or restrictions for brainstorming. It comes from letting your mind wander and imagine. You can do it by freewriting, doodling or just in your mind. You can even do it while you are asleep. Brainstorming is the most fun and most accessible part of the creative process but it is also the place where most of us stay for too long and where some artists never leave.

Many writers believe that brainstorming is part of creating and so they will linger there, imagining and dreaming indefinitely. It feels productive and it’s fulfilling. But you can get stuck there with your wheels spinning, never going anywhere but believing you are refining your idea. This is a trap and a time waster.

At some point the story has to take shape, you have to give it shape, and you have to write it out. Writing begins when brainstorming ends.

This is an important distinction to make because the tools and talents used in brainstorming are completely different from the tools and talents used when creating a piece of work.

“I hate writing, I love having written.” Dorothy Parker

Brainstorming is fun, exciting, and full of hope. Many people think they are artists because they can come up with a lot of great ideas. But you aren’t an artist until you can execute those ideas. To execute those ideas, you need to stop thinking and start doing.

This is when being an artist gets hard. This is what distinguishes an artist from someone with a good imagination, creative tendencies, a dreamer. Do you wish on stars or do you stir hearts and minds?

To be an artist you have to create something from your ideas. You must bring them into the world, give them shape, structure, and make them real. Whether that is a painting, a sculpture, a play, or a story it has to leave your imagination and take shape in the world to be art. I wrote about this in “The Art of Finishing Things.”

Beginning is the end of brainstorming. It’s the end of possibilities. It’s when you have to make your creative choices.

What is this story? Who is my protagonist? What is the conflict? How will I tell this story? Which point of view will I use?

Not having these questions answered will waste your time and lead to frustration.

Margaret Atwood, winner of the Man Booker Prize and the PEN Center Prize, author of the now very famous Handmaid’s Tale wrote the beginning of her novel The Blind Assassin three times because she picked the wrong narrator. The first narrator she picked was a younger person telling the story of the older woman. Next, she tried to write from the point of view of two journalists telling the story of their sister, but the story of the journalists started taking over and it wasn’t the story she wanted to write, so she had to scrap it. Finally, she started writing the story in the first person Point of View with the woman telling her own story.

Beginnings are all about ending: ending your options, removing possibilities, eradicating alternatives because you have to commit to your creative choices.

You can always go back and start over, like Margaret Atwood did, but why would you want to? And who has time for that!?

Beginning is the opposite of brainstorming.

Beginning takes discipline, grit, perseverance, determination, sacrifice, blind hope, blood sweat and tears. And so does finishing.

Brainstorming is fun and exciting but don’t get trapped there. You can lose years of productivity in daydreaming.

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!” – Goethe, Faust

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