The First Words are the Hardest to Write

Todd Brison
Nick Morrison/Unsplash
“The first hole is the hardest.”

It’s been two decades now since I read Louis Sachar’s Holes, but that line is bolted to the wall of my mind. Though I initially remembered the line because of it’s prevalence in the story, it now serves as incredible writing advice.

You remember Holes, right? our hero Stanley steals some shoes and winds up at a place called Camp Green Lake. Unlike regular juvie, the punishment is to dig a single hole every day. How the owners sold this idea to the justice system is a mystery.

Digging can be hard in any conditions, but at Camp Green Lake, it’s worse. The ground is hot and hard, always. As Stanley takes his first pitiful attempts at digging, a boy named Magnet says the line for the first time:

“The first hole is the hardest.”

Stanley uses them as fuel. It works — until he finishes. When Stanley is done for the day, the other boys immediately change their tune to tease him, saying the second hole is actually the hardest. Stanley learned that was true the next morning. As Sachar writes:

“The second hole was the hardest. It would take a miracle . . . He took it one shovelful at a time, and tried not to think of the awesome task that lay ahead of him.”

The next day, it’s the third hole that will be the hardest.

Then, the fourth.

The fifth hole is definitely the worst.

Stanley gets progressively more irritated, and he begins to believe every hole gets worse. He begs his parents to let him leave, fighting sickness and loneliness. But one day, he goes to dig hole number fifty-something and has a realization:

This hole isn’t the worst.

It isn’t the worst because Stanley has not only the body to plant his shovel in the dirt as the sun rises, he has the skill and will to make it happen as well. In the movie, you don’t see this. You just see Shia Labeouf. In the book, though, Stanley transforms from a chubby, out-of-shape kid to a muscular, rock-solid young adult. Stanley still has to dig each hole just like he did the first and the second and so on: one shovelful at a time. It’s just that he is far more equipped to do so.

For that reason, I say a version of Magnet’s line every morning:

“The first words are the hardest.”

Just like Stanley, the only option you have as a writer is to dig. Except you don’t have the luxury of dirt. You get the most harrowing terrain there is — your own mind.

Dig with reckless abandon. Dig on the slow days. Dig on the sad days. Dig on the happy days, the hot days, the scary days, the peaceful days and everything in between. Dig no matter what is going on around you. The more you dig, the better you are. You must stare at the dirt and hit it with your shovel, knowing that you may only find a coin or an interesting rock. You dig, promising yourself lunch later, or at least a few sunflower seeds.

As you dig, you improve. You figure out tricks to get started. You learn to move faster. No matter the number, you still have to dig.

And just like the boys of D Tent, you won’t know exactly what you’re looking for. You won’t know if what you find is valuable unless told. If it is valuable, you will nod. It’s nice to provide value.

Then, the next morning, you put your shovel in the dirt again.

The next hole you dig will be the hardest. But also, it won’t be.

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I write books. When you're ready to write yours, call me.

Dickson, TN

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