Begin at the beginning

Begin at the beginning. It’s a basic tenet of writing. It’s what I told my writing students. It’s what I tell my clients: begin where the action begins. Begin when the stakes are high, at the moment on your tippytoes where you are poised for action and there’s no going back. There may be a thousand different beginnings, but pick one of them and start there. And if it’s not the beginning, hack away at the words you have written until you find it.

Which is why, back in January (oh God, has it been that long?) I started this post, this way: “Our friend is dying.”

She was. She was dying of ovarian cancer; died, in fact, the day after I wrote that post. And her death was so many things, most of them awful but a scant few joyous. I had so many feelings and so many thoughts about the whole process but sometimes it just comes down to the simplest way to say it, four small, raw, certain words. Our friend is dying.

Of course, it was a hard sentence to type, even if it was the only one I could form in my head. But writing it was easy compared to reading it out loud. In Manhattan. To 5,000 women. (Or, for that matter, in New Jersey, to two women.) When my post was chosen for BlogHer’s Voices of the Year, I was — obviously — thrilled. But when the thrill wore off a little, it occurred to me that I would have to read a post that opened the way that post opened, and that I would have to lob my opening sentence out into the crowd and that those four words would fall like boulders through the floor.

Our friend is dying.


The night before we headed into Manhattan from New Jersey, Vikki and I read our posts in Deborah’s kitchen and I confessed my fears to them, and they were sort of helpful, in the sense that after nodding and clucking sympathetically for a bit they — and I — started to get a bit giddy about the whole thing, a bit giggly, the giddy and the giggly turning into downright silly, about the intensity of my opener. We began to try it out the sentence in different cadences, different voices, a variety of international accents, emphasizing different words, taking dramatic pauses between the “is” and the “dying,” taking the words to their furthest extreme and gasping for air in the hilarity of the process. It felt slightly sacrilegious, insensitive — gallows humor but maybe a bit too close to home.

And then, during the VOTY rehearsals, as she and her fellow VOTY wrangler Shannon Carroll took us through our paces, Polly Pagenheart suggested that, after we were introduced, we walk up to the podium, take a deep breath, find a spot high above the audience’s heads to focus on, and meditate for a moment on the person for whom we had written the post we were about to read.

And when she said that, tears rushed hot to my eyes and I wondered yet again how on earth I’d be able to get through that first line.

And then, the next day, sitting in the gallery watching the real thing, I remembered another basic tenet, this one about performing: you need to enjoy yourself up there. People like to watch people who are enjoying themselves on stage. Even if it’s the saddest thing imaginable, you have to find the joy and somehow telegraph that.  And maybe it was watching Elizabeth Jayne Liu kick off the evening with her crazily funny open letter to the person who stole her Taco Bell Gordita Fund, but something inside me switched. Something inside me suddenly, fleetingly, caught a vision of just how joyous this moment was: to be here, to have written this piece about at least two people I love, about the extended family and community that surrounded them, to get to share it with a room that had gathered to hear it, to be able to have a life in which I can write and think about the writing process, to understand that one sentence – four words — can encompass so much, from the sublimely miserable to the sublimely ridiculous, that if I were at all lucky I might be able to communicate at least some of that out to the world.

And I walked up to the podium — I was eighth, positioned, I figured, smack dab in the lineup of readers for maximum sadness — and I took a breath, and I thought of my son, and I thought of my friend, and I began.

At the beginning.

I know that Vikki and Deborah were somewhere in the audience, holding their breaths, waiting for me to get through that first sentence. And I did get through it, just fine. And I read the rest of the piece. And even though so many women came up to me afterwards and said, “You made me cry,” I knew that at least in my own head I had found the joy of it all too. And when I finished the piece, and the applause washed across the room, all I could think was, “Helen, my friend, you would have LOVED this.”

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