The art of beginning: Getting to 'escape velocity'

Lately I’ve been obsessed with the idea of escape velocity, the amount of energy it takes to break free of gravity and launch yourself into space—or, in my case, the writing of a book.  I’m starting a new one, and as I return to the blank page, it’s as though almost everything I know about constructing a project like this is a hindrance instead of a help.

This new thing is a book, yes, but it won’t resemble the others I’ve done in voice or structure. It will tell me its shape if I have the patience to keep engaging it—that much I know from experience—but I also know that the routes I’ve used in the past won’t lead me to the core of this one.

So the past few weeks have been full of attempts to lure the book into view. I’ve baited it with metaphors and research and paragraph after paragraph of beginnings—or, when that was too difficult—with tangents.

And then there were penguins...

I got the wild notion that the subject I’m trying to write about is like a Venn diagram with ten circles and went off to find out whether such a thing exists (yes, sort of). I fell into rabbit holes as I checked to see how other people have written about my topic, then crawled away certain I had nothing to add. I was surprised to find myself, at one point, reading about penguins.

I realized I’d gone off the deep end, and it occurred to me that my book will likely contain neither Venn diagrams nor Antarctic birds, though a poem I write someday might. I went back to figuring out what the book is really about.

I read and reread my notes until they began to feel more abstract than concrete, as though I were repeating the word “shampoo” until it lost its meaning. My screen filled up with lather, and my mind seemed to be circling. Was it making connections? Apparently not.

I made yet another start, and paragraphs kept accumulating in precarious, teetering stacks as the commentary in my mind insistently labeled them “not it” and “a little lame, don’t you think?” But on the next try, or the next, the accumulated facets of this mysterious new thing, the book, began to collect themselves into a shape. Something distinct and alive started to move in a direction of its own, leading me.

With persistence, clarity sets in

That little shift is what escape velocity feels like, and it’s less stomach-dropping rush than a whoosh of clarity that comes from staying with what’s difficult, elusive and unknown. That clarity is the necessary starting point for a project, a sense of its core, its heartbeat. It’s the payoff for deciding to persist, and to keep persisting. And yes, it feels very, very good.

There’s an old formula in physics—I think I saw it on Wikipedia—that goes something like “escape velocity = curiosity + desire x (words committed to paper + concentrated time in the chair).” There’s nothing in there about magic or inspiration—though curiosity and desire are plenty magical. The formula hinges on the energy of actual doing, and in my experience, “concentrated time” provides an intense push.

If you’ve been stuck, dreaming of writing something ambitious, or longing to finish a big project that’s drifted into the realm of “someday, maybe,” give yourself the gift of reaching escape velocity. Here's how:

Seven steps to reaching escape velocity

* Create a container for your “launch.” Decide to devote a month or six weeks to fully beginning or re-engaging with your project. For that period, return your focus to the project as often as you can.

* Clear time to do the writing. If you’ve already created a small-burst writing practice, you might be able simply to lengthen your regular writing periods. Or you may want to schedule all new ones. Defer watching “Game of Thrones” for a month and gain hours there. Write through your lunch hour. Tell your friends/partner/kids that you’re diving into your book, and you’ll be less available for a while. Stake out evenings and weekend time Use your well-practiced time-stealing tactics and steal more.

* Write without judging. Take wild stabs at it. Think you have a lousy draft? Interesting. Keep going. You can edit later. For now, write. Listen for what surprises you and pulls you deeper. Tweak. Try something else. Call what you’re doing “the big experiment” and be curious about what’s happening.

* Write more. Then write more. Repeat.

* Persist. When you find yourself off on a crazy tangent, make a note of it, then go back to the task at hand. Praise yourself for persisting.

* Get help if you need it. Check in with someone. Make promises to someone else that you’ll feel honor-bound to keep. Report your progress. Use the Twitter hashtag #amwriting to give the writing world brief updates. Or let me help you in one-on-one coaching, where we can set workable goals, make course corrections and find out what conditions allow you to persist while having a life.

* Feel the work starting to talk back to you. Enjoy the feeling of liftoff.

Do you have tricks for reaching escape velocity? Share ‘em in the comments.

(Image by StormPetrel1 via Flickr)