Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Epically Bad

In 1982, one of the greatest rock bands of all time, The Who, announced that it was over. They put out one last album (It’s Hard) and toured North America, culminating in a concert in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in December. The tour brought them to New York for two nights at Shea Stadium. Given that the Mets were in the process of finishing about a million games out of first place, there was absolutely no chance of a conflict on the date. I had the privilege of seeing them on the second night, October 13, a night of trains, rain, and music, and not getting home until close to four in the morning—and then having to go to school the next day. As my mother said the following day: “That’s the last time you go to a concert at Shea Stadium.” Turns out she was right about that. It also turned out that I saw the Who more after their ‘retirement’ than before (coincidentally, on Thanksgiving night the following month, I saw another great British band, Squeeze, in their ‘final’ New York appearance. Like the Who, I ended up seeing them more after their ‘retirement/break up’ than before. Go figure.). As Seinfeld might say, “Everyone knows the first break-up never takes.”

I went with three of my friends, one of whom was on the school newspaper. A few days after the show, he told us he had been tasked with writing a review of the show for the paper and, since we’d all gone, he figured we should pitch in. So we got together, sat down with a notebook in front of us and….

Nothing.

The problem wasn’t with having four differing viewpoints about the show. We all loved it. The problem was getting started. We just didn’t know how to begin. After spinning our wheels for some time, someone suggested we start at the beginning.
What was the beginning? The unexpected set by David Johanssen? Maybe we should start with the Clash, a band that many had anointed as the natural successors to the Who (and who would be broken up within a year). Or was it when the Who hit the stage? We didn’t know. We couldn’t start, until someone wrote down what we thought of as the real beginning:

“First, we went to Lee’s house.”

What followed was a lengthy recount of the night’s events, which included opening a beer bottle on a garbage can, changing trains multiple times, having a couple of guys offering us $10 for the shirts we had just bought for $14 (hey, it was 1982; the concert tickets themselves were probably less than $20), wading through nearly ankle-deep water in the outer concourse that seemed to emanate from the row of port-o-johns, and a four AM walk-through at a Burger King drive-thru. Oh, and there was music, too. The hallmark of this piece was that, aside from the first line (“First, we went to Lee’s house.”), every other sentence began with the word “Then”. So, it went something like this:

“First, we went to Lee’s house. Then, Dave came. Then we drove to the train station.”

Etc., etc., ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

We knew as we wrote it that it was not publishable in any way, shape or form, and not just because there was cursing and references to underage drinking. It was bad writing, plain and simple, but a hoot to write (and it’s a hoot to read—every few years, we get together and have a reading of what is now known officially as “The Epic”, not to be confused with “The Script”, which is a much better piece of writing in which two of my friends were turned into Superheroes trying to save Levittown from nefarious evil-doers. That one might actually be considered good. But I digress).

Once we got the silliness out of our system, we were able to write an actual review of the show, one that focused on the night of music that we had witnessed. I won’t claim that it was a great piece of writing–when one of your sentences states that drummer Kenney Jones “pounded the skins and rattled the tins”, how good can it be?–but it got the job done. But we did indeed need a starting point, a way to open the mind get words on the paper.

So much writing time is spent in thought. I know sometimes feel like I spend every waking moment thinking about my book or my story, worrying over this event or that line of dialogue, wondering if there’s enough at stake, and on and on and on. The worst time for writers is often when they first sit down, be it at the computer, the typewriter, or the coffee shop, notebook at the ready and pen poised, and stare at all that white space. Everything that was rattling around in the brain, the characters, conversations and situations that were so vivid, go as blank as the page. Now what?

Just start. Even if it turns out to be nonsense, the important part is to just start, just put some words that relate in some way to a character or situation down on the paper. It may be bad (but it won’t be as epically bad as “The Epic”; trust me on this) but it’s something. And when you’re just getting started, whether it’s as a writer in general, or a new project, just getting started is more important than the quality. I also find that the quality tends to improve as I warm up.

Just write.

Have a pleasant weekend, all.

5 Responses

  1. Jennifer Hillier, author of CREEP, gave me similar advice last week when we munched on lunch. I told her I was having a hard time putting an outline together for my second novel. She advised me not to wait for everything to come together, but rather to just write the scenes I already knew. And as soon as I'm done with my kid's college app stuff, that's exactly what I'm goon do. Even if it's an EPIC FAIL! At least it'll be written down.

  2. Good advice. Starting anything is always the hardest part of writing for me–once I start writing, though, I can see my options more clearly and start building from there. Still hard to follow this advice sometimes, but it's a good piece of writer wisdom.

  3. Oh-so-true. I hate that panicky feeling I get when I first sit down to write…like right now. It takes me a while just to open the document.

  4. Thanks for the comments, as always. I suppose it ends with a statement of the obvious, but I guess it can never hurt to hear once in a while.

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