All good things must begin (again)
Notebook affirmations and secret sentences
Maybe it’s the Mercury Retrograde, but I’m having a hard time beginning this year. We’re 10 days in, and I don’t feel like I’ve even started.
I wanted to write today about beginnings. But part of the problem with writing so much and for so long is that sometimes you have something to say and halfway through saying it you discover that you already said it somewhere else!
Good things get buried. Writing isn’t just about being new all the time, writing is also about bringing things up out of the past for contemporary attention. (It makes me think of one of my favorite lines by André Gide: “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”)
So forgive me for repeating myself, but I find two things particularly helpful when I’m beginning: notebook affirmations and secret sentences.
Here is the inside cover of one of Octavia E. Butler’s commonplace books, from around 1988. She wrote herself many of these motivational notes, which can found in her archives at The Huntington.
That encouragement was probably essential: Butler faced a lot of challenges. She grew up black and poor in Pasadena, Calif., when legal segregation was dead, but de facto segregation was very much alive… In several interviews Butler said she wrote because she had two choices: write, or die. “If I hadn’t written, I probably would have done something stupid that would have led to my death,” she said cheerfully.
Looking at Butler’s notes I was reminded of the notebooks of another fiction writer, James Salter, who wrote all his novels by hand, but would start his notebooks with advice to himself on the inside flap:
This flap, from his notebook for his 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime, has advice from, once again, André Gide:
Write as if this were your only book, your last book. Into it put everything you were saving—everything precious, every scrap of capital, every penny as it were. Don’t be afraid of being left with nothing.
This idea is echoed by Annie Dillard in The Writing Life:
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Austin Kleon to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.