A missed first sentence.
In college, we studied Moby Dick in one of my American Literature courses. The first question on the test over the book asked:
“What was the first sentence of Moby Dick?”
I got it wrong. Some English major I was. It’s only one of the most famous first lines ever:
“Call me Ishmael.”
Did you know it?
A few of my favorite first lines.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (came to him in the middle of grading papers)
“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.”
—Homer, The Odyssey
“All of this happened, more or less.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
“I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
-Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
“Skater. Hesher. Tagger. Lesbo-Slut. Wannabe. Dweeb. Fag. Prep. What-up. Bad-ass. Gangster. Dork. Nerd. Trendy. Freaky. In a few weeks it’ll be solid like cement, but right now nobody knows yet.”
-K. Kvashay-Boyle, “Saint Chola”
“As Gregor Ssamsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” -Franz Kafka, “Metamorphosis”
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
—J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
One of my all time favorite first lines…
“I was on the front porch, drowning a mouse in a bucket when this van pulled up, which was strange.”—David Sedaris, “Nuit of the Living Dead“
Yesterday, I picked up reading How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish. As the title states, it’s all about sentences–appreciating them and the power they have and understanding their structure.
Actually, this one sentence from the book sums up what the books is about:
“Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation.”
The author recalls advice he received from his department chair when trying to outline one of his books:
“Just get the first sentence right, everything else will follow.”
It got me thinking.
Is this true? I think it can be for some. I think feeling confident about a first sentence can help a writer gain clarity on what her story is really about. It helps a writer narrow her focus.
Although, I don’t think when you’re getting started on a piece of writing should you obsess over the first sentence. I think that can stall the creation process.
When helping kids get started on a piece of writing, I tell them not to worry so much about the beginning at first. I tell them to just put the pen to the paper and start in at the heart of the story. Get the ideas down first. Start with a small truth about what happened (when writing personal narratives). You can always go back and revise it later.
Then I like to drop this idea on them: Sometimes, you have to write a bunch of stuff you won’t use to get to the stuff you will use.
I usually get a scrunched face. I don’t know if it’s a look of confusion, a look of intense consideration of my words, or a look of repulsion at the idea of having to revise.
It’s probably the first or the last one.
Revision Workshop Challenge:
- Read the first sentence of a piece of writing you’re working on. Even if it’s an email.
- Copy and paste the first sentence in a word document labeled “Scrappy Cap Ideas” (or wherever you save ideas) and save it.
- Go back to your original document.
- Delete your first sentence.
- Write a new first sentence.
- Repeat steps 1-4 ten times (more if you have time).
- Let it sit overnight.
- Re-read your original first sentence.
- Does it stand up against all the others you’ve created?
- You decide what’s next.
I want to hear from you.
- What are some of your favorite first sentences?
- How do you suggest getting started on a piece of writing?
- What have your favorite writing teachers said to you that changed the way you think about writing?