Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 8, 2010

What Does a Beginning Look Like?

I’m trying to keep the sense of soft empty paper as I start to scribble across it. For me, a beginning is about trying this, trying that, and I have to see the words on paper before I can tell if I’m making a path I want to follow. I’m writing some sentences that lead nowhere, and a few that make me curious. I don’t want to go silent on this blog, but I’m finding it hard to write about something that doesn’t yet have a clear name or even direction. It’s not superstition – that I’ll jinx my subject into disappearance if I speak her name – but that words tangle in my mouth. It’s still sprawling, inchoate, a great muck that I slog through until some words bump against my ankles, or somewhere, and make the right kind of noise. I have a vague idea what I’m writing about and where I’m going, but to try to describe that is like whipping out a flashlight when the point for now is to try to see in the dark.

There’s the slog of the middle and deep slog of the late middle (hello, Lorraine! lorrainemt). But perhaps the messiest swamp is at the beginning, when there are plenty of words to go around, but which are the right ones? It’s not a bad place to be, but I don’t want to be totally alone. So I’m saying this blog hello, and I’ll look for other topics in the next weeks. I hope to see some of you at the ALA convention in Boston next weekend. When I get back, I’ll be teaching children’s literature at UMass. I’ve read a few books I want to write about, so mean to send words and pictures from life outside the messy beginnings on yellow paper. And if you want to ask what I’m doing now, I’m sorry that I sound vague, mystical, or obnoxious when I just say, “Starting out.” And then maybe make you look at the Harry Potter scarf I’m halfway through knitting.



  1. I completely understand this sentiment, Jeannine. And I’m happy to look at your Harry Potter scarf (ooh, what a great idea for a knitting project!) as you slog and muck about. Just know that I’m cheering your slogging and mucking, too!

  2. I think “Starting out” is a perfect answer.
    Can’t wait to see you at ALA. Really really can’t wait.

  3. The subject heading to this made me smile b/c I put up a post yesterday, asking, How do you know when you’re done? I was being a little facetious (I have a cookie in various stages of “revision”) but the question is real.
    I’m not sure if I will ever completely know if I’m done with a book. But I think beginnings don’t have to be held accountable, at least not when you first write them, b/c by the time you reach the end, you will have to go back to the beginning anyway. I expect that the last things I will work on with my book are the ending, and then the beginning, in that order.
    There is a freedom in beginning — it’s like that flashlight might take you anywhere.
    I wish I could go to ALA. In fact, I was just reading about it today and thinking that this year it’s actually in a place not too far from me. But I think I will wait until 2011 until my book comes out. It might make better sense then.
    Have fun there!

  4. I’m looking forward to seeing what your beginning ends up to be.

  5. Clearly you need some chocolate cupcakes to help you maximize the “starting out” phase. Looking forward to hearing about your ALA adventures!

  6. It’s such an amazing process, isn’t it? To step outside of order and direction by opening up to all the possibilities that might eventually turn into a coherent path. It may start out twisty and turny and lacking in direction, but with love and coaxing and hard work, the story takes form.
    I’m excited for your beginning, Jeannine, and for working (slogging!) alongside you through it all.
    And have fun at ALA!

  7. Ooh! Hopefully we’ll see each other at the ALA thing! And the scarf sounds cool–which house/house colors are you making?

  8. Thanks, Loree, I knew you’d understand! When I started knitting this fall, that was the first thing my twenty-year-old asked for. My husband is happy to wear my first hat, which looks like a first hat, but this is my third scarf and I feel Ron’s mum would be proud.
    I hope to see you at ALA!

  9. Thanks for the cheer. And it will be wonderful to see you in Boston!

  10. I did like your cookie diagram! Cookies beginnings and ends are kind of clear. Books are harder? Is this really ready to eat? Is this going to be something anyone will want to eat? I agree with you about the beginnings, especially after tussling with my own ending. I am liking the wide open space for a while.
    I except you’re right to wait for ALA — this will be my first ever, because the time and place fits. I’m sure you’ll be seeing some pics and we will wave!

  11. Thanks, Jenny. Amazingly after writing my blog it looks a little less mucky. Though when I peek tomorrow, maybe I won’t say that.

  12. Jama, you knew just what I needed! Thank you! Oatmeal, even with blueberries and cinnamon, only gets a writer so far.

  13. I will look forward to the love and coaxing and complaining now and then with you. Things are already looking clearer — at least for the moment. It might be the cupcake Jama sent (I’ll share).

  14. Oh I hope to see you at ALA. Jo I think is planning an LJ meetup at one in the lobby (I’m hoping there is a lobby!) on Saturday.
    I’ll post a scarf pic when it’s done — lovely maroon and goldish — Gryffindor of course!

  15. to describe that is like whipping out a flashlight when the point for now is to try to see in the dark
    Beautiful, and so true. Wishing you just a sliver of moon to see by, and some excellent chocolate — and hoping to see you on Saturday at ALA!

  16. Sounds like we’re in a remarkably similar place. I’ve just decided that I’m creating the marble out of which the statue that is this novel will eventually be carved. (World-building is too intimidating a phrase for me.)
    Have fun at ALA and good luck with the first day of classes. Mine starts on Tuesday.

  17. That is so so wonderful that you’re going to ALA! It will be great to see you!
    I’m glad to have at least a path set before the teaching begins, even if it gets roughed up and totally diverted later. Hope your week goes well.

  18. I know what you mean creating the marble, then to get out the picks. It sounds like a lot of work, but of course it is. And kind of exciting, too.
    Good luck with those first classes. It’s nice when a syllabus turns into real people.

  19. I’m all for going mum as you work stuff out, Jeannine. Good luck with the beginning and that scarf. Dang, take a picture of that scarf!!

  20. Beginnings are like birthing babies: beautiful but incredibly hard.

  21. Great to hear from you! But of course you have to take your time with the story. I always feel that your post about the writing process are so poetic.
    So go ahead and be mysterious. Mystery is a beautiful thing. And stories do have a mystical quality and some of that will never be explained.
    Here’s hoping you always see far enough ahead to take the next step. Steady, girl!

  22. Thanks, Liz. It’s fun to do something visual like knitting a scarf where people can see progress, while doing something that, if anyone were to look over my shoulder, would look like a complete mess. Progressing in a muddle.

  23. I think this birth may be easier than some — it’s a baby sort of waiting to come out. But these babies of course have wills of their own!

  24. Thanks, Joyce, for your wishes of steady steps across unsteady ground!

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