The writing process 4

The writing process
The writing process: starting a story (Pic by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash)

The writing process can get off to a slow start. You might wander around for hours, days, weeks, trying to find a way into your story. So, with the Writing Reality course a week away, a good topic is the agony of the beginning.

Let’s assume you’ve done the research, transcribed your voice recordings, organised your notes, and all you want to do is start the writing process. But it ain’t working.

This happens.

In two previous blogs (The writing process 1 and The writing process 3) I quoted from a truly inspiring book (Draft No. 4) by journalist and non-fiction writer John McPhee, who has words of wisdom on every aspect of the writing process when it comes to non-fiction. And if you are going to join my Writing Reality course then you’ll find variations of his comments among the module notes.

The agony of beginning

McPhee knows all about not being able to write. Here he is in full swivet:

“Out the back and under the big ash was a picnic table. At the end of summer, 1966, I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into the branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker. […] I went inside for lunch, surely, and at night, of course, but otherwise remained, much of that time, flat on my back on the table. […]

“I had done all the research I was going to do. […] I had read all the books I was going to read, and scientific papers, and a doctoral dissertation. I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.

“The piece would ultimately consist of some five thousand sentences, but for those two weeks I couldn’t write even one. If I was blocked by fear, I was also stymied by inexperience. I had never tried to put so many different components – characters, description, dialogue, narrative, set pieces, humour, history, science, and so forth – into a single package.”

It is this story that brings him “near to tears in a catatonic swivet” – a state of high agitation. (See my blog The writing process 3 for more on swivet.)

One word at a time

Once you’ve got the mojo to begin the writing process, you start, as McPhee says, one word at a time. You get rid of the stuff that doesn’t interest you and keep the rest because you are the measure of what works and what doesn’t in your story. This was the way I went about writing two memoirs, The Waiting Country (about the 1994 election) and Sea Mountain, Fire City (about a year spent in Berlin and how it affected my return to Cape Town).

He says that “factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with. If something is red and globular, you don’t call it a tomato if it’s a bell pepper. To some extent, the structure of a composition dictates itself, and to some extend it does not.”

Which is true, even if it is not particularly helpful. What it comes down to is this: you’ll know how to shape your story once you’ve started writing. Trust in this process. Sometimes it helps to have an independent eye on the process and this is where the Masterclass can come in useful.

The Michelangelo metaphor

Towards the end of his book, McPhee turns to Michelangelo for an analogy of how to “sculpt” a non-fiction story by subtracting material.

“Sculptors address the deletion of material in their own analogous way. Michelangelo: ‘The more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows.’ Michelangelo: ‘Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.’”

The Michelangelo process is about taking away what doesn’t belong there. Translated to writing this means choosing words and leaving out material. A matter of selection is often the way non-fiction narratives are written.

I’ve quoted this passage from McPhee before, but it is worth repeating: “Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: if something interests you, it goes in – if not, it stays out.”

The opening sentences

The first sentences are probably the most important sentences you are going to write. McPhee calls them ‘the lead’. I call them the opening sentences and paragraphs. He goes on:

“Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade round in your notes, getting nowhere. You don’t see a pattern. You don’t know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”


“Writing a successful lead, […] can illuminate the structure problem for you and cause you to see the piece whole – to see it conceptually, in various parts, to which you then assign your materials. You find your lead, you build your structure, you are now free to write.”

The lead is a way into the story. As McPhee says, it gives you the structure of the story. But it might not end up being the beginning of your story. When you’ve finished writing the book, you might need to go back and rephrase the beginning.

McPhee writes, “I have often heard writers say that if you have written your lead you have in a sense written half of your story. Finding a good lead can require that much time, anyway – through trial and error.

My takeaway

Once you have got over the swivets, you need to settle down to those beginning sentences, one word at a time. This ‘lead’ will shape your non-fiction story but always be aware that it might not end up being the beginning of your story. It gets the writing process underway. Eventually you might redraft this beginning entirely.

Get more out of your writing.

Click here to join my short course on writing a memoir,

Writing Reality.

The next course starts on 29 March 2021.