“Start writing when you think of the first sentence” is one of the many practical tips that Paul Graham gives in his essay “Writing, Briefly”. I wanted this to be the first sentence, so I started writing. Simple, practical, real -- I just had to start with it. Write the first sentence when you think of it, then write the rest. It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Much like that famous how-to-draw-an-owl meme: “How to draw an owl?”, it goes, “First, draw two circles, one on top of the other; then draw the rest of the owl”.
Sure enough, somewhere else in the same essay Graham says “Expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it”. So inexplicably, enigmatically, yet reliably true. Words and sentences and paragraphs and ideas come to life in this quasi-magical process that we all know about but that’s hard to articulate, made of part commitment, part focus, part inspiration, and part liberation. And acceptance, and openness. And courage, awareness and memory. A unique blend of emotional and cognitive forces hardly summonable in other human activities, all playing the game of creation for the same team, glued together by a sort of divine intervention. How many times have we started writing with something in mind that got turned upside down, or reshaped, or simply forgotten after that first sentence? How many times have we witnessed our writing momentum being channelled towards different ideas, or different developments of the original idea, right after we got down to it? And how many times have we marvelled at how regularly and reliably this whole process unfolds?
We write about moments, infinitesimal fragments of life that continuously reveal what we are into a self-painting image. And every moment has its own unique and irreplaceable role, its own critical importance, its own unseen-before color. Most moments go by unconsciously experienced, leaving no trace behind. But sometimes, once we pour down that first sentence, we start sensing and noticing and thinking and drawing more clearly. And we start a process of reconstruction, of stitching together pieces coming from far away into the depths of our memories, or from nowhere as they’re right there waiting to be captured and assembled into a coherent whole that becomes immortal. This is magic, or a miracle. Or maybe just something so mysteriously and incomprehensibly human. Something doable and repeatable and relatable and surprisingly consistent.
I read somewhere that a moment has three dimensions: 1) the experience, 2) the awareness of the experience, and 3) the story about the experience. And it made me think that the middle dimension, the awareness of the experience, is probably the less obvious part of this whole idea, but the most important. Being aware is the bridge between living and telling, what makes moments tellable. Without this middle dimension, there's no story. And if there's no story, there’s no writing.
Any moment will do, no matter how mundane, no matter how insignificant, as long as we’re aware of what we’re experiencing. Good stories recount this awareness, they thrive on it -- not the experience per se, but the awareness of the experience. They attract readers’ attention because the transmission of such awareness, in turns, creates value through a new experience; and so on, in a powerful and virtuous loop. “Good storytellers have authority and influence over the destination of others’ attention and how much value their audience finds when they get there”, as my friend Rick Lewis so effectively and elegantly wrote.
Many years ago, somebody opened their intervention at a conference with a joke about storytelling that continues to resonate (and make me laugh) to this day. Tired of always writing about the same stuff, a crime news journalist asks his boss to move him to some other desk. “I can’t keep writing about blood and murder; can’t you put me on something else? Something light and frivolous like celebrities' weddings, for example?”, he pleads. “Ok, show me what you can do: there’s this wedding tomorrow that the whole world is going to talk about. Go there and come back with the story”. The next day, the boss asks “So, tell me: what’s the story?”. And the journalist, disappointed, replies “There is no story: the groom never showed up!”
Stories are about who writes them, even when they’re about others. They’re about details in and of themselves, not as connecting devices between facts or events. They’re about the groom that never showed up, but also (and more importantly) how you feel about the groom not showing up, how who's seated next to you feels about the groom not showing up, the scarf around her neck, the color of her nail polish, the restlessness of her gestures, the words she uses. They’re about you going back to your boss empty-handed and upset only to be able to write about his reaction. They’re about paradox and chewing gum and carelessness and dirty hair and Freudian slips. Spontaneity and depth. Faith and brutality. Solid colors and polka dots.
I’m writing this last paragraph while listening to Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat. A masterpiece of words and music. So simple and quiet and relaxing, and somehow reassuring. It was originally recorded in 1971. Whenever I see a year written somewhere, or hear one mentioned, I immediately think of what I did that year, what happened to me, any facts that I can easily remember. I do the same whenever I read the expiration date on a long-lasting package of food: where will I be, what will I do, who will I be with? I was six in 1971, not much to report. Except that I was in first grade, in a school near Rome, probably speaking some children words or thinking some children thoughts. Or just playing. I learned to ride a bicycle with no training wheels, that year. My dad was holding the bike from behind -- keep holding, dad, I hear myself saying, a little scared but more and more confident as I keep pedaling. I’m holding it, don’t worry, dad says. You just keep going. And I keep going and the sudden realization that dad is no longer holding feels like a miracle. And I am happy and dad’s voice gets smaller and smaller as I pedal away. And I am proud and brave and think that dad has been so good and cool and I trust him even more. And life is good and things are just right.
In his essay, Paul Graham doesn’t tell you how to end a piece. Nobody tells you how to end a piece. He just says “Learn to recognize the approach of an ending, and when one appears, grab it”.
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My word. Beautiful. Beginning to end. Held my attention even in its ramble. Which was with purpose and design.
Found this lovely piece down in my inbox. Man, I 100% resonate with it. So much of my writing happens only once I sit my ass in the chair and let my fingers dance across the keyboard. Great article Silvio :)