First Paragraphs Crack the Dam, Releasing a Flood of Words

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Steven Pressfield has pointedly dubbed it “The Resistance”—that jumble of fear, miscast self-protection and paralysis that prevents us from stepping out of artificial boundaries. Where we tell ourselves, “No, I could never take an acting class, I’m too shy; no, I can’t do math, I’m bad with numbers; no, I can’t apply for that job or ask that person out—that’s out of my league.”

The status quo, even if it’s the drabbest of miserly things, is known—it’s safe, even if that safety is delusional, and doesn’t ask for you to reach, to explore your actual capabilities.

The key to smothering Resistance is getting that first paragraph written.

Well, it might not be the key to landing that part on Broadway, but I have to come at it from the writer’s point of view. When I have a writing assignment, no matter that I’ve been writing pieces for publications for 30 years, I still fret, fuss and dither.

I will begin writing—but only after I clean up that old paint spill near the garage, only after I make sure all the clocks in the house are set to the exact time, only after lunch. Which becomes dinner. Which becomes tomorrow.

But, get the first paragraph down—whoosh!

Avoidance, Anxiety—and Then Flow

For me, all the avoidance of the first few sentences of an article is a concentrated anxiety. So that when I finally get rid of all my old paint stains and my neighbor’s down the street, and set down to type, glory happens.

The dam breaks. Words, supple and galloping. This is not to say that that first paragraph might not be completely changed in the submitted draft, might not be the right words at all, but that getting that one chunk done, that is liberation.

The first paragraph is a tree in the clearing, a map, an open hand.

I experienced this just this past Friday, when I FINALLY began an article that I’d avoided for 10 days. I’d let the Resistance really dig in its heels because the deadline for submission was loose. Where are those paint stains?

But I wrote the initial first two paragraphs on Friday, felt good about them, and Saturday the next 1,000 words came out to completion (with minor editing later, of course). I knew how this would work all along, but still, my fears that the piece wouldn’t come out well, my writing would sag, I’ll never be able to buy a cup of fancy coffee again, those demons whisper yet.

You can beat the Resistance, my friends. Just write that first paragraph.


Here are some links to my most recently published articles and a piece from the net that I thought helpful.

Walking on the Wild(er) Side in Santa Cruz—Plus Beer!
Taking a stroll above the dramatic cliffside ocean-wave carvings at historic Wilder Ranch State Park and heading north to a brewpub with great grub and beer. Part of my Trail Mix series. Published in January 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

In Search of Henry Miller’s Bohemian Legacy in Big Sur
Big Sur has many charms, not least of which is the Henry Miller Library, which is neither a library, nor a bookstore, but more of a cultural experience. Weirdos encouraged, as Mr. Miller encouraged them long ago. Published in January 2020 in Discovery magazine, the in-flight mag for Cathay Pacific airlines.

11 Mental Tricks to Stop Overthinking Everything
“When we don’t know something, we tend to fill in the blanks, often with garbage assumptions. Why? Many of us would rather be unhappy than uncertain.” Some mind tricks that seem simple, but actually implementing them could make a sea change.

Thanks Mr. Lennon: In His Own Write (and Mine)

I was insane about the Beatles as a kid. I even used to read some of those candy-colored drugstore fan magazines that had compelling facts: “George doesn’t like to ride on buses.” I had a HUGE plastic Army set—that even had exploding bridges!—with tanks, trucks and soldiers galore, and I traded the whole thing for a Beatles wig, which looked like a giant, black, eyeless Maltese. I felt that I got the better end of the bargain. The wig, cleverly, matched my Beatle boots.

So it’s no surprise that the Beatles were my inspiration for my first literary endeavors. I hand-wrote a Beatles newspaper; my handwriting, which is similar to what you’d get if you put a full inkwell up your nose and sneezed it out on paper, wasn’t helpful, but I didn’t know how to type. The newspaper was filled with the kind of thrilling things I’d read and heard about the Beatles, as well as some of my original Beatles poetry. I still remember the line, “The Beatles like to sing and dance, even in their underpants” like it was yesterday.

I made 15 or so copies of the 4-page paper and sold it for a quarter on the street corner of my block, shaking it enthusiastically in the faces of strangers passing by, a few of which would part with a quarter to rid themselves of this bewigged menace. After four issues, I shut the enterprise down, because the public wasn’t ready for my poetry.

John, of course, was my favorite, because he was a wise guy, and because he wore glasses, like me. Imagine that.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lennon. Dreamers make a difference.

Go Ahead—Eat the Ice Cream

A few musings on the writing life (originally an essay for an ebook for Seth Godin’s Triiibes network):

  • Perhaps because I ate too many Snickers Bars as a child, since adolescence I’ve been set upon by bouts of existential dread. It harkens to Sartre’s great work, Nausea, when even everyday objects—the lamp, your keyboard, your wife—appear sinister and threatening. Is it true? Oh, absolutely, everything has its dark side. But you must outwit them: don’t stare the mad dog straight in the eye, but give it a sidelong glance as you skirt its sharp teeth. After a while, the lamp goes back to looking like a lamp. Your wife might be more dicey.
  • I have an inner voice that often tells me I’m a horse’s ass. Though that yoke occasionally fits, much of the time, it’s just the little voice of habit and self-doubt. As most asses need slapping, I’ll step to a mirror, look at the ass looking back at me and say, “You’re just a horse’s ass in the mirror, not my real self. My real self is a combination of Gandalf, Mother Teresa and Eddie Murphy. Begone!”
  • There are a lot of open fields in my neighborhood, where coyotes sometimes roam. I like to think of the mind, with its fears, hesitations and plunges, as a creature—like a coyote. Sometimes I see the coyotes slinking around, cur-like, with a guilty look. Other times I see them racing across the fields, and hear the merry yip-yip-yipping in the evening. I like to think of my coyote mind in this way: when it’s slinking and guilty, it’s but a small turn in perspective to release that mind. Release it to become the version of the Trickster that is both cunning and kind. That coyote brain yips its joy, not its fear.
  • Shakespeare, Faulkner, Austen all had days in which what they wrote was dung. On those days, they went fishing. So, whether in a bassy lake or a lake only of your imagination, drop a long line. Think of nothing. Feel the sun on your hands, the breeze on your forehead. The work will be there waiting for you, so bob that merry line until due time.
  • Laugh often, laugh loud. The world is a preposterous place, of pratfalls and puzzlements, where you go to scratch your nose and put your finger in your eye, where governments bloviate, where your neighbor wears his wife’s bra (not that there’s anything wrong with that), where the day you wax your car for the first time in a year, it rains. You can’t really account for the surreal, the stifling, the boring aspects of life. But this is the life you have—seize it, lick its neck, raise it skyward. The stories about the Other Place in the afterlife are just like filling an inside straight to me: possible, but not likely. So, it’s this world, this NOW, that has so many tears in it—sometimes all you can do is laugh.
  • A writer’s life is a peculiar one, of crooked gratifications and queer slights. So much is interior, subject to the fickle tastes and electrical storms of your own mind, which though you’ve sat in the room with it all your life, remains a mystery. Some days you might sling 1,000 good words over your shoulder, and shrug at its meaninglessness. Some days a single sentence will shine, and that’s enough.
  • The hell with it—once in a while, choose to eat as much ice cream as you want.

Microwaving Peeps, the Greenness of the Grass and a Writer’s Sunrise

It’s one of those cosmic confluences: It’s Easter Sunday, and it’s the opening day of baseball season. Because I am a lapsed Catholic, I tend to mix a dollop of the profane with the holy. The Catholic Church has had a very bad spring training, and has come out swinging, but to this point, its batting average is plummeting. On the holy side, the beginning of baseball season—despite swollen-headed steroidal savages, astronomical salaries, and the fact that they’ve never rescinded the Designated Hitter rule—is a time of promise, the greenness of spring, that singular sound of ball on bat, the anticipation of glory before inevitable (perhaps only temporary) disappointment that allegiance to any team will bring.

Even though it’s the Damn Yankees opening up the season (I can’t ever forgive what they regularly used to do to my Dodgers a thousand years ago), the first games of spring are fragrant with memory and with fresh promise. When I was a child, after my initial fascination with dinosaur books, baseball books became my solace. I read widely, from statistical gleanings of the Baseball Encyclopedia (proudly, the heaviest book I owned) to biographies (the tale of Jimmy Piersall’s madness, fascinating and frightening) to novels, Bang the Drum Slowly, The Natural, The Southpaw.

The Sweet Soulfulness of Baseball Writing
Baseball writing is a long, soaring, majestic fly ball better than other sports writing (see any of Roger Angell’s work), because it often reaches back to its long history, its heros before this era of taint, but also because so many us played the game, whether on the street where we were raised (yes, for me) to Little League (yes) to the slackness and beer-fed, bumpy infields of company softball leagues (yes). It’s hard not to imagine yourself up at the plate, waggling your rump and digging in with your spikes before you embarrass that pitcher’s flat slider by ratcheting it into the gap for a stinging double. Of all the sports, to be a hero in the summer sun waxed most lyrical. My love of reading about baseball (and playing it) shaped the diamond of my writing interest.

When I was 13, I had a five-foot high poster of Willie Mays in my bedroom, flanked by a five-foot high poster of Jimi Hendrix. (Jimi might not have been able to hit a curve, but he could flutter a note like the best of the knuckleballers.) It was a damning contradiction that I had a poster of Mays, since the hated Giants were the storied rivals of the Dodgers, but dealing with contradiction is a fine exercise in focus and grappling with ambiguity.

Easter Gloves
Moments ago, I just got out my glove (I haven’t played organized softball for a couple of years, but I’m ready when the fat contract comes) and pounded the ball in the pocket to smell that ineffable scent of spring. So, Easter Sunday. Baseball season. Let’s remember the fallen as well as the risen. Let’s write well, with long sentences chunky with subordinates and compounds, like the improbable path of an inside-the-park home run ball, and let’s also write flinty and fast, like a Koufax high, hard one only smelled, not seen—a one-word declarative sentence. Yes! Play ball!

Oh yeah: the marshmallow Peeps, if you were lucky (?) enough to get any this Easter. Listen, you really should eat them once in a while, to remind yourself that the world has produced truly strange substances improbably intended for ingestion. Approach them as something exotic, like sushi once was. But if you can’t bring yourself to risk ingesting them, try microwaving them: they expand into huge, oozing sponges. It’s science! It’s fun!