When asked by her students where they should start writing, author Anne Lamott said, “Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can…Don’t worry about doing it well yet, though. Just get it down.” We're with her on this. Telling your story is important, even if, at first, it’s just for you. But, sometimes it can feel overwhelming knowing where to begin. Where do we start telling our own story?
When a tree is just a sapling, it’s easy to find it’s origin point. If you were to dig it up in the weeks or months after it was planted, you would still be able to see the place where all its fragile, filmy roots attach and where its lone green stalk stretches toward the light, still supported by the soil. When a tree is just a sapling, it’s easy to see the whole. The further you get from the beginning, the harder it is to see where the tree began, to hold all of its parts at once. The roots don’t grow in a straight line; they split and tangle and curl in on themselves. Above the ground the branches spread out. They part to grow around mountains and buildings. They knot themselves with the branches of other trees until it’s hard to tell if its branches still belong only to it.
When we try to tell our own stories, sometimes finding a place to begin is like finding the origin of a tree. Like the tree, our stories don't follow a straight line. They twine. They break and re-grow. Like the tree, our stories don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in an ecosystem. We worry that exploring and defining our own branches will mean disrupting or hurting the branches of others. It’s easy to let this worry, this tangle, this intimidating height and depth overwhelm us and keep us from knowing how to begin.
Try this: Sit down, get a pen and paper, or a computer, or a camera, and instead of trying to find the beginning and untangle all the roots and branches at once, start with something simple - a single branch - and follow where it goes.
Write about something you love and when you started loving it. Start by writing the words, "I love ___________." Maybe you love the smell of bread. What moment comes to mind first when you think of that smell? Maybe you love swimming or writing code or wearing the color blue. Do you remember the first time you realized you loved it? Sit with it for a while, run your eyes over the branches, and then write it all down.
Write about something you used to hate, but now love. Maybe you used to hate running, and now, years later, you regularly run half-marathons. Maybe you used to hate speaking to large groups of people. Maybe you used to hate church. What happened? What changed? What has that change meant for you? Start by writing, "I remember when I stopped hating ____________." Or maybe you don't remember. Maybe that moment is one of the roots twisted around itself until its hard to see. That's okay. Start by writing, "I don't remember when I stopped hating _______________."
And then keep going. Put your pen on the paper, your fingers on the keys, hit record on your camera and start your story. And, as Anne Lamott tells us, don’t worry about doing it well at first. Don’t worry at all. That’s how you make a beginning.