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The Elephant of Beginning

January 17, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 154

When I was seven, my bookworm aunty became concerned at my lack of interest in all things literary, and frogmarched me to the local bookstore to choose a book. Not that one I chose did anything to assuage her worries - it was 1001 Elephant Jokes. As close as she must have been to bashing me over the head with it, her response was something like: oh well, I guess that's better than nothing. And she was right - it was. I'd never have bothered reading what I used to call a "chapter book" anyway - they were for adults. At least memorizing the book of jokes encouraged me to take a small interest in the written word.

One of the elephant jokes has stuck with me too, and it's come to sum up what for me is the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writing - and reading for that matter. The beginning. By that I mean, the most trouble I have is in starting anything. With reading it's not just choosing what books I'm going to tackle (I've been wondering since 2009 whether I should read Hilary Mantel's Man-Booker winning Wolf Hall) or in what order (Don Quixote keeps getting pushed down in the pile next to my bed) it's also about getting up reading momentum. While I generally read at the rate of one to two pages a minute, at the beginning of any novel it takes me five minutes to get through a page. I keep drifting off, losing my place and having to go back and re-read every second sentence. It's only once I'm quarter of the way through that I start flying.

And it's the same with writing. I can churn out a three pages a day of an academic or creative writing once I've started, but give me a topic and tell me to write on it now, and I generally come up blank for at least a week. Which brings me to the elephant joke: Question: How do you carve a statue of an elephant? Answer: Take a block of stone and carve away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. Okay, it's not as funny as I thought it was when I was seven, but it pretty much sums up the frustrations and joys of writing for me. Every time I start a piece of writing I have to ask myself how it's done. For instance, yesterday I asked myself: how do I write an article about my experiences with writer's block? The only answer I could come up with was: take a piece of paper and write away everything that doesn't look like an article. Not very helpful perhaps, but hey, it got me thinking.

And there's another sense in which I find writing - and reading - like carving an elephant. In both cases you start with big possibilities - infinite possibilities perhaps - and work towards something much more defined. Hans Georg Gadamer hit the elephant on the head when he said that the reader projects meaning into the text as soon as some initial horizon of meaning emerges, and that the whole process goes on from there in a circle, from part to whole and around again. It's the same with writing. I mean, you have to work your way around the block of stone, taking each part and balancing it with the whole, and you limit the horizons of the subject as your writing develops. I'll try to illustrate my understanding of this idea with a famous 'beginning':

It is a truth Okay. That's a good start. But it's a big horizon. What truth? It is a truth universally acknowledged Oh, a popular truth then? A truth about what? When? Why? It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, Right. A truth about rich bachelors. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Ah - marriage. Now that definitely limits the horizons. We know what we're talking about. Sure, we haven't yet seen the whole elephant of Austen's coming-of-age story in the social environment of the landed gentry in 19th century England. There's still a lot of uncertainty, but we have enough to go on with.

At the beginning of the writing and reading process it always feels to me like there's an elephant in the room - whether it's the blank page I'm staring at or a novel-that-I-should-have-read-but-haven't-yet. With writing, the elephant in the room can cause quite a bit of anxiety. I'm not sure I completely understand what Keats meant when he said that writers need to have the capacity for accepting uncertainty - 'negative capability' he called it - but if he was talking about the ability to accept the disquieting fact that nothing we write ever perfectly captures the true essence of something, then I think he was onto something. Writing for me is like trying to bash an elephant out of a stone. I have an inkling of what it should look like - or at least, not look like - but I hardly ever get it right first time. Most of the time, though, I have to accept that the first-drafts of my elephants have all the sculptural brilliance of a heffalump made of playdough. It's only through a process of re-carving that I manage to fashion a reasonable approximation of my initial idea. And quite often I have to throw the whole stone away because it looks more like a bear than an elephant (it's too fuzzy) or like a giraffe (sticking it's neck out too much) or like an octopus (all over the place). Nevermind. It'll get better. But it'll never be perfect. Negative capability. Accept it.

Of course the only way to overcome 'the elephant of beginning' is to get chiseling. The more you write/carve, the less anxiety you have to confront because the possibilities become more limited. Limited in a good way: focussed and manageable. In my experience, this process of fashioning limitations is one of the most rewarding aspects of writing. It's difficult to start, because beginnings equal endless horizons. But because writing limits its scope as it develops, it gets easier and more enjoyable as it goes. To begin with, it's like standing in a vast desert plain with no idea where to go. But once you get going, there's nothing like the feeling of getting a handle on an idea - the feeling you get when you really start to get on top of the thing. Like riding an elephant, perhaps.

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Writer S Block


How To Start


Beginning Writing




Elephant Jokes


Matthew Harris

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