Wednesday, June 02, 2010

First Lines of the Morning

In Writing Life Stories, by Bill Roorbach, I'm studying how to make memories into memoirs, ideas into essays, and life into literature. That's the book's subtitle, by the way.

These were my first assignments:
1. Clear a writing space for yourself. (Still working on that one.)
2. Set aside an hour a day to read something challenging - something that's been on your list, but you know it'll take extra effort to get through. For me, that's something like a novel by James Joyce or a book of nature writing by Edward Abbey or a book of science writing like The Moral Animal.
3. Form a writing circle to meet a couple times a month. (Done.)
4. Set aside scheduled time to write daily. (Done, but will be even more intentional.)
5. Find 10-20 "first lines" that work.

I was going to skip that last one, but then I decided I'd better play this game full out - and let me just say, it fed my soul to search through my book shelves to find my favorite books and essays, and then to type up their first lines.

Some of them, like Cormac McCarthy's The Road made me cry just to type them up. McCarthy nails the theme of love between his two main characters in that very first line, and that fierce desire the father holds to do whatever it takes to see his son to safety in a dangerous post-apocalypic world.

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night, he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.
The Road, Cormac McCarthy

Others, like Richard Selzer's "The Masked Marvel's Last Toe-Hold" and Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face surprised me to start with such simplicity. When you finish their stories, though, you understand that Selzer's giving you another day at work - which is not just another day at work, and Grealy's giving you the shock of what it is to survive face cancer and be subject to the standards of beauty our society holds.

Morning rounds.

-"The Masked Marvel's Last Toe-Hold," Richard Selzer


-Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy

And I got to re-visit Cannery Row and how that first line is pure poetry about the contradictions of the simple but complex life on Cannery Row. I remember stopping at the end of that first sentence the first time I read the story, and re-reading it for what it felt like.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.

Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

And here are the others, including the ones above. I'll let them all speak for themselves now:

lake level: 4206.00'
Mimi passed away this morning at 5:10 A.M., June 27, 1989.
-"Screech Owls," Terry Tempest Williams

By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.
-The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard

Nine months Landsman's been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered.
-The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon

My desert-island, all time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:
1. Alison Ashworth
2. Penny Hardwick
3. Jackie Allen
4. Charlie Nicholson
5. Sarah Kendrew
-High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, "That afternoon when I met so-and-so... was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon."
-Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden

When I teach a beginning class, it is good.
-Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.
-The Road, Cormac McCarthy

Morning rounds.
-"The Masked Marvel's Last Toehold," Richard Selzer

Not dead, yet: We found him where he had tried to die in his car -- a huge old Mercedes pulled to the side of Reservoir Road, a washed-out dirt track encircling, what else, a reservoir.
-"The Dead Man," Justin Cronin

At daybreak Billy Buck emerged from the bunkhouse and stood for a moment on the porch looking up at the sky.
-The Red Pony, John Steinbeck

-Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy

He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet.
-Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, Anne Carson

Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood.
-The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan

The line gets drawn, and the line gets drawn again.
-"The Line Is White, and It Is Narrow," Beth Kephart

My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born.
-Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt

In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.
-The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers

That last one just kills me. McCullers nailed it there, too. What the two mutes mean to each other is just going to explode as that story unfolds.

If you've read this far, do you have a favorite book with an opening that nails it? Add to my list...


Anonymous said...

Annie B Gallagher Yearout

Not since Jurassic Park have I seen such murdering of foodstuffs.

Anonymous said...

Jody 'Bauer' Hoppis

When I write a book someday about my moms heart transplant, it's gonna start out like this:

"I spent four nights with my Dad in a Travelodge".

Anonymous said...

Ellen Notbohm

Of all the heartless things Annie's mother has done to her in 26 years, this might be the corker.

Anonymous said...

Laura-Lynne Powell

absolutely have to mention the first graf of rocket boys (memoir that was turned into the film, october sky)

anjie said...

Anjie Seewer Reynolds

Here, L.L., Rocket Boys:

Until I was able to build and launch rockets, I didn't know my hometown was at war with itself over its children and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live their lives.

anjie said...

Oh, I meant to add this to my previous comment:

That looks excellent. I take it that's a must-read? It's going on the list...

So are Ellen's (this month!) and Jody's.

Annie, I've already read yours. Warning: my son eats like a Velociraptor.

Anonymous said...

Ashley Marlaine Hurn

"My wound is geography."
-Pat Conroy, Prince of Tides.

Anonymous said...

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed."

Scott Shinn

anjie said...

Scott, I've seen you write about that book twice now! Time for me to put it on my must-reads. Steven King's stuff is so compelling (to say the least) - and that one's considered his masterpiece, isn't it?

Ashley, I was just thinking yesterday of Pat Conroy. Prince of Tides was powerful; My Losing Season is a memoir just referenced in a book I'm reading.

Anonymous said...

Ashley Marlaine Hurn

I read it at least once a year. Does anyone do imagery better than Conroy?

I have South of Broad and My Losing Season on my book list this summer.

Anonymous said...

Jameson Morrell

"HE SWAM ONE HUNDRED AND fifty strokes out to sea and the same number back, as he did each morning, until he felt the round pebbles of the shore beneath his feet."

The Painter of Battles, Arturo Perez-Reverte

Anonymous said...

Shana Berger Van Cleave

"They're out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them."

--narrator Chief Bromden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

... But my favorite line a little later in the first chapter:
"I been silent so long now it's gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It's still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn't happen."

Anonymous said...

Marc Carlson

I always think of this one:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way." - Charles Dickens.

Of course, maybe that is a dull and old fashioned choice. But there it is.

anjie said...

Shana, that book is amazing. I forgot how brutally it starts out - but it sure makes sense. And that extra paragraph you included? Insane. (No pun intended.) So good.

Marc, there's a reason that one's a classic!

And Jamo, I'll add that one to my list of must-reads. Should I start with that book you quoted, or go with one of his earlier books?

Anonymous said...

Jen West Brotherton

You'll like this Anj:

"The kitchen was alive with the smells of baking as Benny first put down her school bag and went on a tour of inspection."

Totally by heart! And I could go on and on!

anjie said...

Oh, Farky, I totally had to bring my hand up under my nose with a finger over my braces to laugh at that one!

Thanks to you, I feel like Maeve Binchy was one of the Garden Girls.

Anonymous said...

Jen West Brotherton

Totally forgot I did that. For all the damn good the braces did. My teeth are crooked again.

I love Maeve. And I don't mean the Miller's dear departed mutt, though she was nice as well.

Jennie Englund said...

You know I'm a sucker for Selzer.

All of those lines you listed--from a variety of genres--are incredible.

I'll have to think about my fave. Have been reading about terrorism for a whole year now. Need to purge.

anjie said...

fyi: i lifted these comments off FB because i wanted to see the responses on the blog for years to come. hope it hasn't been too confusing.

jennie: i'd love to see the first line of your favorite terrorism essay.