Editor’s Note: the original version of this article was first posted on the C2C in 2010.
A puzzling question for many authors, like myself, is this one: Where do I begin my story?
Do I begin in the middle of the action? Do I begin with the backstory of the setting and characters? Or do I begin, unconventionally, at the end, and then proceed to explain everything that lead to this end?
Beginnings are important and that’s why authors are always anxious about them. Why? Because we know that beginnings are only a set up. A set up for the end.
As I approach the climax of my novel’s first draft, I am reminded of my beginning. I have to remember where I started, what I set up, so that I could follow through with it, so I can tie up all the loose ends, so I can make sense of what I foreshadowed, so I can think about creating closure for my characters, or lack thereof. Like two ends of the same string, the beginning and the end must be tied together, into a knot, in order to finally make a complete circle.
At this point the question no longer is “Where do I begin my story,” but rather, “Where did I begin my story?” So…
Where did I begin my story?
That is when I began to wonder (as you have noticed I tend to do): a string of events might sum up a character in novel, but does it really sum up a person–a real live person?
Recently, I realized that I had become trapped by the stories I told about myself. These stories had not allowed me to move forward. The story that said that I was an actor, for instance, delayed me for 3 years to pursue the course that I knew all along in my heart was the right course: to be a writer.
I recently re-read the biography on my “About” page and realized that I was still telling the same story about myself that I had told my readers nearly a year ago. But the stories I told in this bio had passed. What’s more, I had moved passed them. The challenging events that lead me to writing this very blog, where no longer essential to who I was.
Although these challenging events led me here, and I am blessed for what they taught me and how much progress I have made because of them, I am truly passed them. With time comes perspective, and now I no longer saw these events as I had once seen them. I realized that I had become a lot stronger and more capable than I was only a year ago.
Keeping those events as part of my story was not doing justice to how far I had arrived and who I had now become. So it was time to shake that Etch-a-sketch completely, and start with a blank grey screen again.
Now it was with my life, and not with my book, that I asked:
Where do I begin my story?
We should not allow ourselves to be trapped by our stories. You know the ones I’m talking about: I was always the poor kid, the bratty kid, the youngest, the oldest, I never win, I always lose, I’m the nerd, I’m the loner, I was never good at that or this, I went through a hard time once, long ago, I had an awful childhood, my teenage years were just terrible, college was the worst, my middle age what a waste, I fell in love, lost him or her, and I was never the same after that, this person I cared for passed away, I lost my faith, or ran away, or I was lost, or this happened and that happened, etc., etc., etc.
I hate to admit this as a writer, because my work is all about telling stories, but it’s true that we are all more than the stories we tell people about ourselves. A person is far far more than an amalgamation of anecdotes. A person is a growing, changing organism, far more beautiful in his or her constant transformations than as a static, 2-dimensional reenactment plastered on a museum wall.
We are not our history. We are so much more. History doesn’t move, but we move. We must do justice to this constant flux. We must shed all the old stories, to make room for all the brand new ones.
Let us choose more carefully what we say about ourselves. Let us be thoughtful about the stories we tell and cautious about where we chose to begin in the telling of them.
Now, the other night I couldn’t sleep. So I decided to pull out one of the books I was reading, and this one happened to be Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. While I was reading, I landed on this quote, which although it is widely popular, I never quite understood until now:
” ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ (said Alice)
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the (Chesire) Cat.
‘I don’t much care where–’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘–so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added in explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’ “
Can we give up the stories we tell about ourselves? The ones that say I am the one who battles with depression, or the one who can never catch a break, or who never has the confidence, or who always finds it hard making friends, or who is always the victim?
I think that not only can we get past these stories, but that we must get past them.
You see, as long as we don’t care much where we end up in life, and are content with just ending up somewhere, then maybe, the Chesire Cat is right: it doesn’t matter in which direction we choose to go, or where we choose to start, because in the end, we will always end up at that somewhere. All we need to do is travel ”long enough” and we will arrive there.
So, where do I begin my story?
You might still be asking. Well, the answer is simple, even if it isn’t clear:
You may begin wherever you like.