Challenge Journal: Pre-Writing Jitters and Dilemmas

One of my favorite quotes is by a former businessman and philanthropist named William Davidson. It’s so simple, but strikingly powerful at the same time.

“Just Start.”

I first noticed this quote hanging in the tunnel of Crisler Arena, right where the players have their final gathering before taking the court to face their opponents. Having the quote in that location is strategic. It’s there to mitigate nerves, to quell the paralyzing weight of anticipation, and to reassure the players/coaches that once the game starts, things will fall into place and all the preparation will shine through. In basketball, you can spend so much time strategizing and training that you can overthink the game itself (which is a fairly simple one…just put the ball in the hoop). “Just start” is a way of saying, ‘trust your preparation and abilities, and understand that the first step might be the hardest one you’ll take.’

In the same way that “just start” can be used to inspire a basketball team, it can also be used to inspire us as writers, especially before embarking on a project as sizable as the Capstone. We’ve spent a month (maybe more) brainstorming, searching, envisioning, pitching, planning, and strategizing. At some point – a point that is nearly upon us – you just have to start, and trust that things will fall into place.

Personally, I’ve been struggling with some pre-writing dilemmas that I’ve been unable to settle, but that I’m hoping will work themselves out once I start writing. They all have to do with how to most effectively frame my piece, which is going to be a creative non-fiction story about viewing yourself as the main character of your own movie. This concept, sometimes called “Protagonist Disease,” is a relatively out-there and abstract concept, and I’ve been contemplating how to best capture its essence. My plan is to write a series of independent scenes from my recent summer in San Francisco, when I feel like I fell into this “protagonist” way of thinking, which is very self-important and self-loathing. It was a byproduct of me feeling somewhat lonely/sad/lost and wanting to justify those feelings, but ultimately, I believe that protagonist thinking was counterproductive for my mood and perspective. This will all come through in the writing, but I’ve been debating about what tense to write the scenes in.

Instead of writing it in the first person, I want to write it in either the second or the third person to address myself as the “main character” that I was imagining myself to be. The intent is to provide some distance between who I am now and who I was during the summer, and to show that I was out of touch with myself. But I can’t decide whether 2nd person or 3rd person would be most effective in achieving this. Probably it will end up being a healthy mix of both, but I’m realizing that this problem will be solved during the writing process itself, and that I should let my writing answer the question for me.

Last year, when I wrote my re-purposing project about my experience with the Michigan Basketball team, I struggled with whether to use the present tense or the past tense (i.e. “I walk out of the locker room and into the tunnel” vs. “I walked out of the locker room and into the tunnel”). There is a subtle but distinct difference in how it frames the story. The former puts the reader more in the moment with you, and the ladder is more reflective. I found that certain rhetorical situations were more suited towards the present tense and certain rhetorical situations were more suited towards the past tense. But I was only able to make that discovery during the writing process itself. So again, I think that I should just start.

I’m confident that a couple of my other dilemmas, like deciding how many scenes to write and deciding how to embed my research into the piece, will solve themselves once I begin writing too (but I’m also looking for suggestions so comment below if you feel so inclined).

It’s good to think about the dilemmas now and identify the questions that must eventually be resolved, but there is also value in realizing that the answers don’t have to show themselves right now.


2 thoughts to “Challenge Journal: Pre-Writing Jitters and Dilemmas”

  1. Hey Jon.
    Your analogy to basketball is spot-on. If you think and over-think what you’re going to do on the court, that’s when doubt and jitters and nerves are going to negatively impact your performance in the game. As for us, I think Tharp hit on this point in her chapter about the creative “box”, where although preparation is absolutely essential, some people get trapped in the box and never get going. The best way to not get trapped in this box is to just start.
    Something bad I’ll have to admit here is that I sometimes use the phrase “ask forgiveness, not permission” to justify a hastily made (probably poor) decision. But in this case I think sometimes making mistakes in your writing a productive way to move forward. I personally think it’s easier to reflect and generate ideas when I have something tangible down on paper, even if its poorly written or chalk full of errors.
    I think the “Just start” motto, rather than hesitating and thinking about the ways I COULD mess up, is a great way to move my project forward as well. Holes in my research will only appear when I find out where my writing needs to improve. So thank you for your advice Jon, and best of luck!

  2. Hey Jon! Something you said that really stuck out to me was your framing dilemma. I totally agree with you that it’s an important distinction. I remember reading a book written in the first person for the first time and it was really off-putting, because I was so used to third person. I think you could definitely do either for your project, but they might each have different connotations. For instance, if you tell your story through first person, maybe you see the world differently than a narrator would. The narrator might tell the story more dramatically than it really was or vice versa. I think you’re right though that once you start writing, things will fall into place. You might be writing a scene and switch to the opposite view point, because you think it sounds better. Just go with the flow.

Leave a Reply