The other day I discussed writing with a group of high school students I’m currently working with. We discussed what to do with the words bunched up in our heads. “How do we get them [the words] out?” they asked. The room quiet, waiting for a response, I asked “How do ‘we’ get them out?”
“What do we do with the first line?” they asked. “There is so much pressure, so much riding on the first line,” one student suggested. With nodding heads, there was this wave of anxiety across the room. “I get stuck on the first line,” said another student. “If I can’t seem to get past the first line, how am I going to fill the rest of the page?” he asked. I asked, “What if in the writing process, the first draft, the first line is only that—just a line? And what if that line wasn’t such a big deal.” There was silence for a moment.
After that discussion, it occurred to me, what if we didn’t fall so head over heels for our first lines? Why do we give that line so much power? Sure, once you’re looking at a well-crafted piece, you want that first line to grab your reader. But in the drafting process there’s time to figure that out. I’ve found that some writers, including the young writers I worked with the other day, put so much pressure on themselves to write that first amazing line the very first time they sit down to write. Trying to get that line perfect the very first time can actually sabotage the entire writing experience ending in little to no writing at all.
Let’s think about it: What if the “first line” in your “first draft” is only a line that happened to land first on the page? What if while you’re crafting you imagine the first line doesn’t really matter? What if what matters is that next line and everything else pouring out after it? Would that make you take a few risks in that first line? Would that encourage you to just write and worry about the first line later?
Imagine, what if we actually wrote like writing is a process? When writing, we think we understand it as a process, but in practice, we sometimes think and write like every word has to be perfect the very first time. Deep down inside we know better, but when working on a deadline or a specific piece of writing, the pressure can swallow our thoughts, and slow or impede our progress altogether.
That first line of a first draft doesn’t have to stay there until the writing is done. It can hold a place at the table and wait for the other sparkling words to find their way. Or what if the first line were really the last line so that the foot of the writing turns upside down, inside out, and lands somewhere, anywhere else on the page? What if the first line never makes it to the next draft, left to fend for itself among the ink marks and eraser smudge? What if the cursor peels that line backwards and erases it from existence? It was once there, but now it isn’t, and can’t hold the other words hostage trying to hurry themselves to the page.
Let’s all take a deep breath and just write. It’s only a first line isn’t it? Write it down and see what happens next.