Guest blog by Melissa DeVaughn: How do you begin?

Andromeda here. One of the joys of co-piloting this collaborative blog is watching more Alaska writers get online, and hearing from people about their new projects. I really feel like our community is getting to know each other better. New websites and blogs keep getting added to our blogroll. If you see we’ve missed one (your own or someone else’s) please give us a nudge. My latest blog-trawl turned up this post which I asked Melissa’s permission to re-post. If you’ve ever wondered what the life of an outdoorsy Alaska freelance writer — one who runs sled dogs, no less — might be like, her blog is a chance to find out.

By Melissa DeVaughn, from her Deadlines and Stopwatches Blog

So, how do you begin writing a story? As I sat across the table from Willie Hensley today, sipping Kaladi coffee and listening to him talk about his new book, “Fifty Years From Tomorrow,” I wondered, “How could this guy, who has done so much for Alaska, and been so influential in the state’s development condense it all into this cluster of pages that I’m holding?”

Listening to him talk, I thought about my own work, mentally compared it to a kindergartner’s scribble, and felt it lacking.Willie’s story took more than three years to tell, but I’ve started reading it and can’t put it down. His honesty about growing up in a village is so refreshing after so many Outsider stories that glorify the life of Native Alaskans. That’s not to say there is nothing worth glorifying, either, the way he describes summer camp and the beauty of the region outside Kotzebue where he grew up. The descriptions conjure a purer, albeit harder time, and I felt a certain naivety to my own life here in the suburbs of Anchorage, which really isn’t what the rest of the state is about at all.

So, having this conversation with Willie made me think: How do you start a story? How do you put one sentence down, keep going and keep going, until you have a book in hand? I should be able to answer that, having written my own book — but it was a guidebook, more of a resource than the putting-down of feelings and emotions on the page. I’ve written articles, too — some of them thousands of words long. But those, too, were the compilation of a specific topic — a person, a place, a destination — and the focus became clear early on, making it safe to take that first step.What I’m getting at is the larger picture of telling a story on many levels. Willie’s story, for instance, is about more than just “growing up Native.” He touches on morality, humanity, religion, politics, family, love and struggle. He somehow weaves it into a tale that tells more than just the story of his life, but represents an entire culture that is being ambushed by outside influences on a daily basis.

So, he got started on this story. And it grew. And grew. It got so long, his editor made him cut it by 50 percent. He didn’t like it, but that’s the writer’s life, so he did his best.

We talked for an hour. I could’ve listened to him all afternoon. Articulate, funny, thoughtful and a little bit of a rebel, his stories kept me planted in my seat until he finally announced he had to get back to work. My reason for meeting with him — to write a short profile on his book for a magazine assignment — seemed so inconsequential after hearing him talk.

After more than an hour of chatting, I thanked him for his time, tucked my notebook into my bag and got up to leave. Crossing Sixth Avenue to head back to my car, though, I realized I forgot to ask him — “How did you start? What was that first line that got the book moving along? Is there some easy answer that can make the idea of sitting down to write a book that less daunting?”

I’m dragging my heels. I know it. The book is in there, like a tiny dervish that I’m scared to let free. My nickname, after hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1993, was Chaos. I was named so after the times I’d come into the trail shelters and have what the other thru-hikers called a “pack explosion.” One by one, each piece of gear came out of the pack, until a pile of fleece, camp food, cooking gear and sleeping bag/pads were strewn across the shelter floor.

Then, like a bird cleaning its nest, I’d reorganize each piece creating my “home” for the night from my few posssessions.I want to look at my writing that way, as if I can just have a “word explosion” and then reorganize all that chaos once it’s down on paper.

But I’m scared, I guess. I haven’t let myself do it, for fear that the words will be empty, the possessions worthless. The Chaos in me remains buried, waiting for that secret formula — that “first sentence” to propel me forward.

3 thoughts on “Guest blog by Melissa DeVaughn: How do you begin?”

  1. Your “first sentence” might be buried somewhwere near the beginning, buried amidst others, the “throat clearing.” It may only reveal itself (together with the “theme” or “red thread”)after the fiftieth revision. Or it may choose to stay hidden forever. I hate to repeat the cliche, but there’s only one way: start getting words on paper. (As consolation — nobody will look over your shoulder while you write, seeing all the sentences that come before it.)

  2. Chaos. That’s where it all begins. Though not necessarily at the beginning. My first novel began almost at its end. I wrote backward from there, to figure out how these people got in this predicament.

    I love your pack analogy. Now pick up something you’ve stuffed in and flung out. Probe at it. Let it tell its own story. Find its emotional core, the place where it connects with you, and with others. There’s your beginning.

    Thanks for the cross-post, Melissa. It’s a beautiful piece. (I will add by way of the strange world of all things writing that althought Melissa’s name and mine both appear in the author slot of one of those guides, we’ve never met or even spoken, except through 49 writers…)

  3. Kelly O'Neal Thompson

    Melissa – As a beginning writer, I thoroughly related to your angst. (While I say beginning, I should probably clarify that I began at age six with my first story and identification of my ambition to become “an author” – forty-eight years later, I am only now one hundred percent committed and writing daily. Forty-eight years later, I also have the luxury of time and space to write, something I am ashamed to know that most real writers go without. Forty-eight years later, I am truly “beginning”.) I, too, have a book that wants to be written. Per usual, I’ve a million reasons to procrastinate (e.g. I need to go to Kentucky to research my paternal ancestry, etc.) I, too, am in awe of any writer’s who has done the deed and has a book in hand. As Michael E. said, I am just putting words on paper and it’s scary – a character I thought of as peripheral emerged and wants to take over and the entire concept is still in chaotic form – will this character’s story end up as a short story I can send out or is he central to the book? Or both? Oh, but it’s grand to be on the adventure at last…thanks Melissa.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top