People look at the New Year as a new beginning. Although on December 31st/January 1st one year slips into another, we make a huge deal about the difference between these two days.
As a writer—and a woman—I can tell you that new beginnings happen all the time, not just at the beginning of a calendar year. New beginnings are just a state of mind. They happen when we make them. And sometimes they just happen.
The birth of my first child was a huge milestone beginning that had nothing to do with the New Year. Both my kids were born in the late spring.
The first time especially—I could never have imagined. Nothing could have prepared me for 14 hours of labor and then a c-section, or, during the worst of it, forgetting I was having a baby and just wanting to die because the pain was so bad.
The sometimes-pain of giving birth to a piece of poetry or prose has never made me want to die. I have been known to swear very loudly and eat way too many brownies. But writing pain is exciting—and I am not a masochist. The writing pain exhilarates and then transforms into a luscious energy that flows into the words coming from my mind.
There’s no denying, though, the special something about the moment when you sit down, a blank page in front of you, and start something new. Luckily for us writers “beginnings” aren’t tied to a day of the year. Inspiration hits. An editor gives you an assignment. You realize you haven’t posted to your blog in two weeks.
The idea of artificial beginnings does have its appeal, though, just the way New Years resolutions do. Wouldn’t it be nice if every year on January 1st writers everywhere could sit down at their desks (or stand up, as is a current fad) and begin a story, a novel, an article, a blog—whatever—and write until they got to the end. But the creative cycle doesn’t work like that, and what we think of as beginnings often turn into middles, ends, or stuff that gets saved in a computer file we may eventually erase.
Strangely, though, this year, January 2012, I plan to plop myself in front of my computer, maybe even on New Year’s day, and once again begin a novel that’s been cooking for almost five years now.
The timing has a lot to do with the calendar. My husband and I plan to spend a month at our country house in upstate New York. Maybe like last year, we’ll end up snowed in for days at a time. If we lose electricity—I have plenty of paper and plenty of pens. I intend to write and write and write!
My problem with this novel has been largely about beginnings. The story takes place over a 100-year period (1190-1290 in England), and I knew that I didn’t want to take the story from one generation to the next. On the other hand, mortal people don’t live over 100 years. So the characters in the first chapters can’t be the same as the ones in the last, at least as far as a timeline goes.
My first stab—all 540 pages of it—started at the beginning of the action, a fire in York, England in the spring of 1190 that massacred the entire Jewish population of the city. The first chapter was, well, slow. With historical fiction comes exposition. Writers have to wriggle around that. Next I tried starting at the end, the final tragedy, the expulsion of the Jews from England. (When one is writing novels about Jewish history, death and persecution push in from the edges of the page. Just saying.) In fiction an ending can be a beginning, or at least the beginning of something else. In the history of the Jews in medieval England, the ending was the end.
A year or so ago, a friend of mine, a writer of “women’s fiction,” suggested I start with the “love story.” So I jumped 15 years ahead in the narrative, to a place where the main character is old enough to have a love thing going.
The passion may have sizzled, but the coherence fizzled. Then one day during a Twitter chat with a bunch of writers, I started talking about Anne Rice and a conceit underlying many of her novels: supernatural beings roaming the earth who recognize each other but go unnoticed by humankind. JK Rowling sort of has the same idea with the Muggles, who can’t see the magic (good or bad) in their world. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “I can have a character around for 100 years. It just can’t be human.”
So the novel now begins before the beginning, the part that involves all the main characters. And I have a link between the two sections – a supernatural element that feels natural in a historical plot. The characters, the shape of a baby’s head, the number of bricks in a kiln—all this is in my head, in notes, in outlines, in word sketches. Put together, the story should work.
And I’ll begin writing in January. I’m primed.
Thing is, as a woman, as a woman writer, I know that beginnings can happen any time. So if I find time before January to start, I shall. And if something freelance and lucrative turns up for January, I guess the novel will have to wait until February. And that will be OK too. Things come about when all the pieces fall into place—your hormones get it together, your water breaks, or you finally have the time to put those precious first words down.
It just happens. You begin.
What’s your take on beginnings?
Follow Linda on Twitter @wordwhacker.