Sometimes it’s hard just to start writing. But that’s job one.

Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin!—Donald Barthelme

tess-me-field-trial-1981-1x

[Intent: with Tess at Tallahassee field trial, 1981.]

Lately I’ve been writing essays. I’m in the midst of one right now about Tess, the dog I had when I met Kathy, my wife. Tess took me from youth to middle age. She helped raise our kids.

It’s hard to say at this point what the essay is about, other than Tess. Love, I suppose. But as I feel my way through the story, Tess is the frame for what appears. She’s been dead now 22 years, so I’m dealing with the odd mystery of the past.

Which is interesting, and scary—my initial structure helps but provides scant guidance for what should or must or might appear. Every sentence feels like a gift, every paragraph a golden miracle. I could be making a mess. Well, it’s practice. And sometimes it takes my shelving an essay for two years to see how to salvage it.

Having written other essays, though, I know I must try to enjoy this process. Because essays come and go. Their comparatively quick turnaround is great. So is getting a few published here and there. What’s been hard, sometimes, is starting a new one. No basking in a book draft’s long narrative arc—it’s time for the next one. Already. Again.

“Tess” is structured, so far, in reverse chronological order, starting with her death. This morning, I got kind of stuck in the middle and jumped ahead, to near the essay’s end. A snippet from the final section—this part is in second-person address:

“What about your choice of a retrieving breed? You didn’t ask me when you picked your wife. If you’re satisfied with that choice, you ought to be able to pick out a dog. If you didn’t do well in that choice, you should have learned something.”—Richard Wolters, Water Dog

As your puppy grows up your old wooden house in Cocoa Village, what most surprises you is that she doesn’t know how to stop when she runs at you to give and receive love. A couple times, you turn out the light before putting Tess in her crate and climbing into your own bed. Your puppy is black; your house is dark. Tess is like an iron cannonball coming at you, hard and fast, across your bedroom floor. She hits your shins just below your knees. You holler and bend double.

You’ve just learned you’ve won a fellowship to Ohio State. You don’t know how hard it will be to rent a decent apartment near campus with a dog. You’re a reporter, gainfully employed, but you’re becoming a student with a dog. You’ll look at some awful places in scary neighborhoods. You’ll rent a decent one, finally, in an ancient brick building in a student ghetto. Look, there’s a place to sell your blood plasma on the corner. You’ll pay extra rent each month for Tess, and keep the place spotless.

But your sleazy landlord will keep your damage deposit when you leave town, because he can. That $300 will be a fortune to you. In time, though, it will be as if he returned it—no, like he gave you a gift—because you’ll never forget the sum, which, like anyone’s remembered past, accrues interest.

As I’ve said before, a reluctance to start, and sometimes to keep working, seems based on fear. It sure is in my case, and I read others say that’s their demon. Fear of failure, I guess. If I really build up a story in my mind, delaying beginning is more likely. Some say the problem resides in having too high standards. “Lower the bar,” they say, and they’re right.

Think of writing for a while as just carpentry, I tell myself. Because the literal truth, if not the largest one, is that writing is just working, moment to moment, piecing together sentences. Quantity creates quality—you must have something to revise. And yet, though it’s work, writing is different from corporeal crafts like carpentry or masonry. Words are symbols, and what’s made from them on the page is actually built in the mind.

For the writer at work, of course, the best metaphor for what s/he’s doing doesn’t matter. I urge myself Just get a draft.

Barthelme’s quote above seems to nail the issue, however, of beginning: starting is hard because you’re starting. Nothing’s yet there. Such work is taxing; such labor is effortful. Dinty W. Moore has indicated he dislikes creating his first drafts, at least compared with revision, which he adores. Although I say I love making sentences, and I do, I can relate. An acquaintance, a man who has published many books, once said to me, “Some people can’t sit there. It’s not that I’m more talented or smarter or anything like that. But I can sit there, hour after hour.” This is what it takes to have a practice instead of relying on inspiration.

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[Smiles: Bloomington, Indiana, wedding day, 1983.]

Meantime, I chip away at “Tess,” already past its literal start though without a completed first draft. Since narratives I get excited about while composing are seldom as successful initially as I’ve presumed, I’m hopeful this one works the other way. Maybe it isn’t as muddled as it sometimes appears, coming out. As our Hoosier housekeeper Shirley taught me to say, everything in life or art is what it is “To a point.” So I’m trying to take my doubts less seriously, to a point. Which holds a lesson for all feelings, even positive ones.

Art is about the transmission of emotion, as Leo Tolstoy helpfully codified in What is Art? (A gem, but I’d advise skipping or skimming the first four chapters, an academic discussion of what “beauty” means, and plunging right into Chapter V. Maria Popova recently excerpted it brilliantly on Brain Pickings.) But the feelings that arise from trying to make art can be pests. Panic. Doubt. Despair. Even joy—though I’ll take it. In the past, I’ve been driven to my knees in prayer. Lately I employ a less disruptive move, a Buddhist meditation principle of not taking feelings so seriously.

Ah, an emotion has arisen. Hello excitement. Hello hope. Hello frustration. Hello fear, my old foe. How interesting you’ve joined me! All the same, I’ll keep working. Or at least trying. Or just sitting here. Maybe I’ll discover what lies ahead.

[Previous: writing’s high values challenge meNext: what helps me sit and write.]

17 Comments

  • shirleyhs says:

    “Ah, an emotion has arisen.” :-)

    One of the best things about aging is that we can observe our own emotions more readily. And let them come and go with more ease. And sometimes humor. Good luck with Tess. I know what you mean about beginning!

  • dclaud says:

    Even though I’d been writing for decades, you gave me some really good advice once when I was stuck on a story: “Start anywhere. Just start, even though it might not end up being the beginning,” you said. As a former reporter who always started his stories in the beginning, your advice broke loose those mind-forged manacles and freed me. Thanks. As for your description of Tess “as an iron cannonball coming at you,” although that’s vivid, I beg to differ. Cannonballs don’t slobber and fawn. I look forward to seeing the rest of your essay.

    • Richard says:

      I don’t much remember that advice, David, but do agree with it! That’s helping me with “Tess,” well jumping around. I did start at what’s probably the start, but since I have three parts roughed out, I can write anywhere, which is nice. On a hard morning, I go where it’s easiest.

  • owen1936 says:

    Enjoy beginning, ending, and middling, Richard. Admit it. You are writing and wouldn’t have it any
    other way. I look forward to getting better acquainted with Tess. Black dog in a dark room. There’s got to be a story in there. I didn’t quite get Shirley’s linking your emotions to aging. Have I missed a decade or two? I remember you as young as you were in that photo.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks, Dave. Yes, you and I have missed each other for a couple decades! You would probably not recognize the old bald fat guy before you! And in my case, I think she’s right that my noticing and trying not to get overly invested in emotions, mostly negative ones, seems an ability that comes with age. . At least I seem more aware of my emotions. Decades ago I might not have noticed or might have tried to ignore how I was feeing while trying to keep to my plan. Now I tend to notice and acknowledge, which I think takes some of their power to derail away.

      Black dog in a dark room! I haven’t quite gone to the metaphoric level with that one yet! That’s just literally the surprise I got. Tess wasn’t stopping till she hit me! Though that gives me an idea to possibly tweak there because it is inherently emblematic if not symbolic. I’m already writing how my life wasn’t the same once I got her, once she helped me court Kathy, and once we followed Kathy to Bloomington.

  • Beth says:

    Thanks for including the photos. You and Tess at a Tallahassee field trial in 1981 — fantastic image. Her profile is gorgeous; the youth of dog and young man moving. I lived in Tallahassee from 1970-’78 and then again from late 1981 to mid-1982. Labrador retrievers were not yet a major part of my life.

    I’m so eager to read “Tess.” This sentence fragment from your excerpt, ” . . .you’ll never forget the sum, which, like anyone’s remembered past, accrues interest” caused me to swallow the hook completely. Can’t wait for the rest.

    • Richard says:

      Wow, our paths have crossed several times, Beth. I ran up there from Cocoa for that trial, quite a to-do. Thank you for your kind words about the passage—I got the “accrues interest” kicker after I uploaded it the first time. So addictive about writing, those flashes of insight! Or just felicitous phrasing. I’m dumb as a stump, in life, but can be smarter on the page.

  • Beth says:

    Flash of insight, yes. Dumb as a stump . . . maybe in some other life, not this one.

  • Dear Richard, Floating around somewhere in the back of my mind is a whimsical notion by a writer about how to start a bit of writing (not specific to essays, however). You’ll think it’s odd of me not to be able to remember whether Hemingway or P.G. Wodehouse said it, or whether in fact I’m mixing up what remarks the two of them made, but I seem to recall someone saying somewhere something like this: “I take a strong drink of whiskey, and then I start ‘blinding’ and ‘stiffing’ and then my first line comes to me.” Somehow, I associate the whiskey more with Hemingway, and the ‘blinding’ and ‘stiffing’ with Wodehouse, since they’re British swear terms, but I may be wrong. Things were closer between the continents back then, in terms of some slang usages. As I said, odd, because they wrote totally different kinds of things. Just a thought, one that I’m sure you don’t have to resort to.

    • Richard says:

      No, I finally just start. But once I do, I think I usually find that the beginnings and ends are easy—at least compared with the middles! I got stuck in the middle of “Tess,” still kind of am, and went to the last part and wrote part of the section in second-person viewpoint reproduced here.

      What I recall about writing advice from Hemingway was to just write “one true sentence,” which sounds like it might have applied to starting as much as to as continuing. I bet your quote comes from Woodhouse, Victoria.

  • Janice Gary says:

    Ah yes, to begin. Thanks for this Richard. Glad to see you’re writing about dogs again- they are such touchstones for memory and memoir.

  • I”m sure you already know this, but “essay” comes from the French, “essayer,” which means “to try.” And so we try. Again. And again.

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