Getting Started By Denise Stephenson

Isolation by Denise Stephenson
 Denise Stephenson
Denise Stephenson

Denise Stephenson is the author of Isolation. She lives in Oceanside, California, and serves as the Writing Center Director for MiraCosta College. She took her PhD in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. She wrote her dissertation about emerging forms of academic writing because she was angry with a professor who said she couldn’t write. Staying inside of boxes or forms has never been her strength. Over the years, she’s published over 20 academic articles and book chapters, many of which stray from traditional conventions. In Michigan, just before the turn of the century, she started writing monologues for her theatre company, Attention Deficit Drama. She’s also written, produced, acted in, and teched plays, including her all-time favorite, Voices From the Edge, a group of intercut monologs of loss following the falling of the World Trade Towers. Stephenson loves to collaborate and many of her academic and theatre works are co-authored. Recently, a group of theatre students at CSU, Channel Islands gave a staged reading of Hibakusha (, a play about nuclear disasters which she wrote with Bob Mayberry. She hopes to one day see it performed on stage.

Isolation, Stephenson's novel.
Isolation, Stephenson’s novel.

Getting started with writing can be elusive. We believe we want to write. We have ideas for stories. We find a phrase turning over and over in our minds. But somehow, we don’t start. Or we do, and it seems to go nowhere.

This is where the professionals have us. They have habit. They write regularly. Often every day. That habit not only strings words together, but it makes it easy to sit down and capture ideas. For the pros, their expectations are lower than for the rest of us mortals. They don’t expect the perfect draft immediately. They know that the writing will twist and turn away from the anticipated destination. They are confident that some of today’s writing will be thrown away.

They are confident.

That’s the big thing. They know that by returning to their craft day after day they will amass, revise, refine, and ultimately, after much work, have a text they are willing to share with readers—be they friends or editors or the paying public.

The rest of us have dreams, ephemeral dreams that we worry will disappear in the light of day. And so they do. Because we don’t have habit and we lack confidence and so we let our worst nightmares take over and we don’t sit down and string words together. The feeling of failure grows within and we say, feeling like frauds: “I’d like to write.” “I can’t find time to write.” “Someday I’ll write the great American novel.”

To do that, we must start. One word in front of another, steps across the page. In the best of circumstances, when the phrase gets caught in my head I sit down not just to write those seven words, but to follow where they lead for 20 minutes or so. Most of the time, I don’t even have that much inspiration so I trick myself into beginning. I read a favorite passage from a writer I admire. I google a bit of research on an idea I heard on the radio. I write an email to someone about something I want to write. Each of these tricks moves me toward beginning without calling it that, without putting the fear of failure front and center.

I’ve also say, “This won’t be part of the story, I’m just getting down some notes.” It’s a little lie, but an effective one. Without the fear, notes can turn into something if I stay with them awhile.

I’m also not averse to opening multiple documents for multiple beginnings. That act starts a revision process. It signals I’m not looking for perfection, I’m looking for an opening, one that will take me through the door, the door to the other side of consciousness where I let my intuition create and I stop trying to be in control. On that side is a bouncy house like they have for kids’ parties. I jump around in pure joy. I sometimes crack my head on someone else’s knee, but only slightly injured I bounce up again and try another tack for where my character might go next.

Even without the professional habit of writing every day (how we all long for that!), I can establish habits that let me go through the door, habits that let me start bouncing, start writing, without a consuming fear that incapacitates me.

Or I can wait for tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. And while the petty pace of life beats on, I will not be the writer I dream of, only the nightmarish ghoul I fear.

When an idea strikes, write it and more. When you find that 15 or 20 minutes and you wonder what to do. Write—or do the acts that lead there—read and research. Lie to yourself that this isn’t writing as you sit at the keyboard and begin: you’re not writing your masterpiece, you’re just writing…one word…after…another.


This guest blog post is courtesy of author Denise Stephenson. Check out her blog: Follow her on Facebook: Visit her author site: Follow her on Twitter:

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