When and How to Begin: Conceiving and Executing Material

I love this time of year, these early days of spring. I particularly love seeing daffodils in bloom. We had a bed of them in the fence row along the side of our farmhouse, a house that now has fallen in on itself and gone to ruin. Those daffodils are still there, though, and will be long after any sign of the house is gone. Sometimes I can drive through the countryside and see a line of daffodils and I’ll know that once there was a house nearby and once there were people who lived in it, and their lives were ones that mattered even if the people themselves are now long forgotten. To borrow a line from a poem by my friend, Roy Bentley, “Certain flowers persist.”

And so it is with certain subject matter that writers set out to explore. An idea comes to us, and often pursuing it becomes a matter of summoning up the courage to begin and knowing the right time to try to bring it to the page. Furthermore, our work often becomes a question of knowing what else to attach to our original conception of the material.

Which brings me back to daffodils. It takes faith and courage this time of year to burst forth in bloom. More and more lately, early spring snows and freezes make such blooming premature. This week, for example, will be a week of snow and hard freezes for some parts of the Midwest. The daffodils are in danger of learning that they made their appearance too early.

Sometime we writers begin to work with material that hasn’t had enough time to mature. We set out too soon, and before we know it the material starts to wither and die. This usually happens because we haven’t lived with the material long enough in our hearts and minds before trying to give it its proper expression with words.

But material can also go dead to us because we haven’t attached it to something else. Imagine Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” with only the story of the family’s trip. A series of amusing anecdotes at best. But attach that story to the one of the Misfit, and then you’ve really got something that will last. The combination of the two brings lived life to the page with complexity and beauty and horror. Or imagine James Joyce’s “The Dead” without the story of Michael Furey. It becomes a satire of manners. When we add the long-ago story of Greta’s dead lover, we have something more than satire. We have a complicated story of the way we prefer to view ourselves that runs up against a moment that reveals more truth about ourselves than we thought we had a right to expect. The result is one that spreads out through the present, reaching backwards through the past and forwards into the future. It becomes the story of one man’s understanding of ego and love.

We shouldn’t be in a hurry to begin writing. We should let material age and mature until we reach a point where we ourselves are nearly bursting with it. We need to write when we feel we have no choice but to begin. We also need to think about that second story line that will enhance the original material. We need to spend some time considering three questions: (1) Why does this material matter to me? (2) What if? (3) What else?

If we know why the material has a personal importance, we’ll write with a greater sense of urgency. If we spend some time imagining various directions for the material, we’ll end up with a more textured piece. Finally, if we spend some time thinking of what else belongs with out material, we’ll end up with a piece that speaks to the mystery of what it is to be alive on this Earth. Two things rubbing together will open up the contradictions and complexities of the characters in a way that will resonate for both the writer and the reader.

Certain flowers persist, and certain writers do, too. Part of the maturation process for the writer involves learning when and how to begin.


  1. Roy Bentley on March 13, 2017 at 9:29 am

    So right, and wise. (Full disclosure, Lee: the phrase “certain flowers persist” is from Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow.)

    Thank you for this and so much more.


    • Lee Martin on March 14, 2017 at 1:38 pm

      Thanks, Roy, for pointing out the Bellow reference. Bentley and Bellow–they make a good team.

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