I rolled and rolled the dough until it seemed right, seemed not too thin but not too thick, either. I could feel tiredness pull at my arms and my wrists felt weak. I cut squares in the dough and lifted each one with a spatula, transferring them to a sheet pan where a co-worker dolloped macerated cherries on each square. I continued to roll out another chunk of dough and cut more squares for the tops. My co-worker then crimped together each sides to make a closed, complete cherry tart.
It’s never been a favorite chore at the bakery, making tarts. The repetition of it, I suppose, gets mundane and too tiresome, doesn’t seem to end. But I’ve actually never minded it, and find that I enjoy knowing that with each push of the rolling pin and each force of my arms and wrists and fingers around that wooden pin to flatten the dough into submission, I feel a little more in control. And by the end, I have found a perfect rhythm.
As with writing, sometimes it is hard to keep at it—day after day, putting fingers to keys or hand to pen to paper. Many teachers and renowned authors have said that the key to writing is repetition, routine, habit. One must do it even when it feels like the last thing on earth you want to do. Many writers have described the various distraction techniques they unconsciously employ just to avoid that submission to “putting-your-ass-in-the-chair” (as a very wise friend of mine once put it).
But it’s hard to build habits, and routine is created over time. The dictionary labels routine as, possibly, a “chore.” But writing, as a routine, doesn’t have to be a chore. Sometimes it might feel like it. It might feel uncomfortable, mundane, and yes, we might resist it. But the hard, uncomfortable, tiresome tasks often produce the deepest insights.
So, where to begin? When to begin? (NOW!) But. . . how? And how do we begin in a good spot?
Last week I had a brief conversation with a new friend about the books we’d read, and I began to think about the books that had made a lasting impression on me. From childhood to present day, I recalled each one that I remembered; then, I found themes the books shared. Those themes, I deduced, must matter to me, a lot. They were the themes that mattered deep down.
Love. Unrequited love? Success. Wilderness. Living in the wilderness. Living in the city. Death. Births. Sickness.
Whatever theme it is and from whatever book, begin a list of all the books that have affected you or made a lasting impression on your life. Try not to be too ethical about it or choose the books that you think should matter to you, but choose honestly the books that you remember because they mattered to who you are (or were). And then, from there, find a memory or a person or a place that speaks to that book, that theme, that story.
Here’s the main idea: Make lists. Simplify. Notice what matters to you. Notice where your eyes go. Notice what you keep looking at. Those are the things you must write about.