Photograph by Dan Deschenes

As I wrote earlier, I sometimes begin a new session of classes with a lesson I call Beginnings. And so I did again with the new winter class in Newburyport. Rather than going to the local bookstore to look for terrific openings, I checked books that either I, my son, or my daughter own. I did remarkably well in finding strong, intriguing opening sentences. When I typed them up in a list to hand out to the students, I found that I had, by and large, chosen openings that are informational. The narrator, omniscient or first person or, in the case of Italo Calvino, second person, relays information to the reader that sets the tone for the book, and—I would guess, since I haven’t read all of these books—this information is relevant to the whole book.

So when Hunter S. Thompson tell us, in the first sentence of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” the reader has a clear idea of where this book is going. Likewise, Michael Pollan’s oft-quoted opening to In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” As one student said, You really don’t have to read the rest of the book.

On the fiction side, Rebecca West’s narrator invites the reader directly into her family with vital information: “There was such a long pause that I wondered whether my Mamma and my Papa were ever going to speak to each other again.” And Stephen King opens The Gunslinger with one of my favorite beginnings: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

My takeaway from my freeform lesson is that I am susceptible to opening sentences that state a fact (P. D. James’s opening to A Taste for Death: “The bodies were discovered at eight forty-five on the morning of Wednesday 18 September …”) or that plunge me directly into a scene (Penelope Lively’s memoir Oleander, Jacaranda: “We were going by car from Bulaq Dakhrur to Heliopolis. I am in the back.”). I am immediately thinking, Why are you telling us this? What is going to happen next? And I sit down and read the book.

Two of my students have written openings to their novels that make me ask those questions. First, Pam Conway’s Memoirs of a Dairy Queen:

      “I don’t know if my intense loathing of 1950s doo-wop music came before or after the January of 1985. I turned sixteen that year, the age at which I could legally hold a job, and my parents began elbowing me out the door and into the IRS database. I was winning the battle of wills until they hit upon their weapon of mass destruction: the employment anthem of their youth, “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes. I knew I was going down the first time they came into my bedroom singing, “Get a job, sha na na na, sha na na na na.” My hate is now so complete it feels like such songs have always compelled me to cover my ears, but I can’t be certain. The only thing I’m certain of is that I ended up at the Dairy Queen because of it.”

And Ginny DeLuca’s As if Women Mattered:

“The four women met in the fall of 1972. That was the year Ms. Magazine began publication and the United States carried out the heaviest bombing of the Vietnam War. Title IX passed, allowing girls and young women access to school team sports, and Vivian’s boss at IBM agreed to train her for advanced technical work—if she gave him a blow job. And that year LIFE rejected Emily’s photo essay of women and their children protesting the Vietnam War as not politically relevant.”

Different voices and different approaches to obviously different novels. Yet in both cases, the authors provide information that makes me ask, And then?

That makes for a fine opening.


Copyright © Pam Conway. Copyright © Ginny DeLuca

6 thoughts on “Back to Beginnings”

  1. Wonderful first sentences. They do make us want to plunge into the books–and hope the new writers are published soon! Glad you picked the Rebecca West. She’s an amazing writer and I think people are forgetting about her. Plus, Oleander,Jacaranda is a huge favorite of mine.

  2. I was hoping yo u weren’t going to forget voice. John Irving said he mulls over novels for as long as fifteen years and when he starts to write the voice is there, And that means the character is there.

    1. This is why I think beginnings are so often rewritten, and then rewritten again, particularly after a book is complete. The author may not have had a good grasp of voice/narrator/character when she began. After all, we can’t all be John Irving. And I can’t imagine having a book sit in my head for fifteen years!

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