Where To Begin Your Story

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.

much love,

Ollin

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15 comments on “Where To Begin Your Story

  1. Kari Scare says:

    While I really enjoyed the entire post, a couple of quotes stood out to me. First is that “We should not allow ourselves to be trapped by our stories.” This year is one where I am focusing on victory and deliberately choosing to move past some of my stories as I work to make the 2nd half of my life better than the first. The second quote that stood out to me is “Can we give up the stories we tell about ourselves?” I think that I am finally able to answer yes. Well, for many of my stories anyway. I’m working on the others. I do know that I have friends who cling so tightly to their stories that they can’t grab on to anything new. I don’t know what to say to them anymore. They can’t hear me through the noise of their stories anyway.

    • Ollin says:

      I know what you mean. It is difficult when you have moved past certain issues and you see people around you who are still struggling with theirs. The solution is so easy and straightforward to you, but of course, you can’t change anyone but you. So, it’s better to just focus on what you can change: you. And give your blessings to the rest.

      • Kari Scare says:

        Working on focusing on self, not in a selfish way but in a way that says I realize that I can only control myself. The attitude I’m looking for is one that says that I’m accepting of others while not condoning poor choices. Somehow, I need to find a way to get past seeing others waste their lives by not doing and being their best.

  2. Wow, powerful, powerful post. It is true, we need a goal and our words have power. I am listening to a song called “Encourage yourself.” We need to speak over ourselves. What we say has power. I want to move forward, not dwell in the past. There are stories I held on from my past for a variety of reasons. The truth is that when I let go I was freed to move where I wanted to go. Have a blessed New Year.

  3. Diane says:

    Such an insightful post. I particularly enjoyed the quotes from Alice and the Cheshire cat and what that exchange really means. Two points struck me as I read: first, like Karl, I too plan to move past some of my stories this year; second, I am smack in the middle of rewriting a first draft, one in which the story must begin somewhere other than where it does. Oh where, oh where to begin both stories – one on paper, the other who knows where.
    Thanks again.

  4. That’s such a touching and motivating post!🙂 Perfect for beginning this new year. I’ve been wanting to re-read Alice in Wonderland since I re-watched the story yesterday and now that you’re quoting this beautiful story I’m sure going to get the book and go through it again! Hell, we are the writers of our story. It’s ok to revise the first draft of our book but we must not stay on this part and try to rewrite it over and over. We must move on to the last part too, we should move forward… and finish our book where it was meant to be…

  5. Lynne Spreen says:

    Happy New Year, Ollin! Your posts always run on two paths: literary and life. Each essay gives me guidance re both. The fact that you are so wise at such a young age delights me. I just read “Enjoy Every Sandwich,” the memoir of a doc who battled cancer. This very wise, 50-something man who was almost a seer said something very similar to what you say, above, that we create narratives to make ourselves feel better, but those narratives, while comforting, can be limiting. He also swore (yes, regrettably, past tense) by the practice of daily meditation, which freed him from such limitations and opened his mind to “what if?”

    • Ollin says:

      Thank you Lynn. I’ll have to look into this man. Sounds fascinating and someone who I’d be very interested in. Thanks!

  6. Catherine Johnson says:

    Great post, Ollin! Progress happens when you change your reactions, something I’m learning at last. Happy New Year!

    • Ollin says:

      Very wise, Catherine. It’s very hard to do what you say. I’m still trying to work on that myself. But that is definitely an important lesson. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Beautiful post. Thanks so much for sharing a part of yourself.

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