The Fifth of April is an unusual first day of school, but today was just that for my students and me as we began our new chapter and sat down together for our first class in our new building. In each of my three English classes, we were also beginning novels. Here are their opening lines:
The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.
Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
(I’ll post the book titles a bit later; see if you know them.)
Reading the first lines of novels always reminds me of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which asks for “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” The contest is named for Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote this jewel before there even was a contest:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. (Paul Clifford, 1830)
In 2010, this sentence won the prize:
For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss–a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.
Speaking of bad beginnings, as I write my beloved Red Sox, picked by many to win the AL East if not the World Series, lost another game, which means they are now 0-4 to begin the season. All of us good Sox fans are quick to lean into what the old song says, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
In the middle of this first day – during my free period – I read Letters to One-Armed Poet, which is the wonderful work of my friend Nathan Brown chronicling his grief before and after the death of his dear friend and fellow poet, Jim Chastain. In a piece called “Walking Shadows,” Nathan writes,
And I’d’ve liked an ending more like Butch and Sundance –
revolvers firing and flashing as we strut and fret our way out into a certain, yet glorious death.
But the disease forced you to follow the script, even though none of the actors in the screenplay liked it.
So, we played our parts. . . planted our poems like literary landmines in the red dirt and brimstone of the Southwest . . . until . . . your hour upon the stage was up.
Sometimes the endings aren’t what we hoped either – and often for reasons beyond our reach.
Here’s a shout out to the middles.
Nathan quotes from Jim’s poem “Folding the Laundry” in another piece:
Today is the future
if tomorrow never comes.
Why not insist on
a few interesting moments
We have moved far enough into Lent for Ash Wednesday to be a memory, yet Resurrection Morning is still several sunrises away. This is gut check time for me in my journaling: am I going to keep my promise to write every night? In this particular venture, I don’t get a shot at a make up. Either I wrote every night or I didn’t. Granted, there’s not a whole lot riding on my writing, other than my promise to God and to myself. Still, the exercise and discipline has far reaching implications, should I be willing to lean in and learn, or re-learn, I should say. Every beginning has a back story, every ending a trail of preparation. In the middle is what makes all the difference.
My friend Joy Jordan-Lake has a blog where she explores the writing process. Recently she wrote about Kate DiCamillo, who wrote Tale of Despereaux.
If you’re a writer yourself, or someone still trying to carve out the time to begin, you’ll find encouraging the interview below in which Kate discusses her schedule: stumbling out of bed at 5 o’clock for coffee, then writing just one hour a day, stopping after two pages, no matter what kind of roll she’s on.
Even that’s a challenge for most of us, sure, to capture an hour all to ourselves. But it does shoot down the excuse for many of us that we’d produce heart-warming stories, too–if only we could quit that job, hire that staff of household servants and pay someone to dress like us and show up at our meetings.
One hour. Two pages. Coffee.
After my new first day of school, I went to get my prescriptions refilled, got some milk at King’s Red and White, happened upon my friends Mike and Becky and their new “Pie Pushers” pizza truck and got to see what it looks like in person, and then picked up my father-in-law from the Senior Center where he goes during the day as his Alzheimer’s continues to disappear him a little at a time, and then came home to cook dinner. The day held beginnings and endings, pasts and pendings, hopes and hurts and home, like most any other day in the middle of my life as far as I know.
It was a good day.
P. S. The novels are Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, and The Great Gatsby.
you have to write every night – please!
I write every morning. Coffee, two hours, one post (and the starts and bits of what may come to be others.)
I wouldn’t know who I am if didn’t do this.