In a recent post, I extolled the virtues of a memorable and perfectly timed conclusion. I examined the detriments associated with the protracted or seemingly unending ending and empathized with lingering finishers. It’s tricky business, all that summing up and loop closing and requisite symmetrical resonance. Most of us prefer the gleaming, unencumbered whiteboard of beginnings with all their hopeful possibilities and mystery to the pressure and bittersweet finality of endings.
That is, unless you have commitment issues.
Potential and promise notwithstanding, taking the first step of any new endeavor requires as much mettle and dedication as crossing the finish line, if not more. After all, a vast expanse of conceivable failure lies between that first mile and victory lane. Whether the venture is a new relationship, business, exercise regimen, or degree program, its commencement requires long-range vision, ongoing planning, the subduing of distractions, and sheer audacity.
Even determining where and how to begin can be paralyzing, as the fictional artist Lily Briscoe, one of Virginia Woolf’s most venerated characters, knows all too well: “She took her hand and raised her brush. For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air. Where to begin? – that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. […] Still the risk must be run; the mark made” (To the Lighthouse).
Ah, those pesky, irrevocable decisions.
The very idea of an unalterable first mark is enough to dissuade us all from leaving the house in the morning, let alone starting anything remotely adventurous. That’s why I’m an advocate of first (and second and third) drafts and pencils and the ever-useful and self-serving Plan B. They allow for false starts and initial missteps without forfeiting the goal.
Beginnings rarely, if ever, define the ending. Some would even avow that the end is where the journey or narrative begins, that our story lives in the retelling. According to novelist Walter Mosley, the completed first draft of a novel represents the margin between potential and work of art: “Now that you have come to the end […], you are ready to write it.” Perhaps that’s what I love most about writing – inherent in the act is the opportunity, the necessity, to revise again and again, sometimes ad infinitum, for as long as the story, poem, or essay continues to enthrall and engage with its prospects.
In life, too, we learn from our mistakes and evolve beyond first attempts. Through subsequent drafts, we learn to critique and analyze and correct. We master interactions and dialogue once executed clumsily and eliminate the extraneous. We recognize the banality in experiences and ideas once thought profound and supplant them with truly meaningful moments and insights. And we find our soul and our viaticum and the courage to begin, revise, and begin again.
This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.
“Admiratrice dans l’atelier” (“Admirer in the Workshop”) by Étienne Leroy, 1885