Where It Starts Is How It Goes

Kanjuro Shibata XX “Ensō (円相)”, via Wikimedia Commons

My next novel arrived today.

As always, it begins with a person bearing a particular problem, and a context that makes that problem matter. But I’m also realizing this evening that it has a subsequent starting point, which is the opening sentence.

There’s a lot of blather in writing circles about the importance of the first sentence as the hook that makes a fickle and impatient reader hang on for a few seconds further. That’s just market research, it’s Twitter-think. There’s a reason that TikTok videos are ten or fifteen seconds and novels take ten hours, you can’t just cobble a tweet onto the front of a book and think you’ve got something. (Though the writers at Saturday Night Live often seem to think so, for instance, coming up with a great ten-second gag that they stretch out to fill six minutes.)

No, I think that the first sentence is important for the writer, not for the reader. The first sentence sets the terms of engagement, sets the trajectory through which the terrain will be approached. If you’re a micromanager like me (to use Zadie Smith’s term), you start with the first sentence and end up a few months later with the last sentence, and you’ve made every single decision along the way as a part of the run. It’s like race driving: you don’t get to stop halfway through the course and say, “I didn’t come into that curve the way I wanted to, let me back up thirty seconds and hit it again.” I know that there is a vast community of writers who would find that sentiment to be (at least) naive and (at worst) lazy, because they believe that every decision is fungible and swappable at every moment. But that’s not how I write. Like Zadie Smith and many others, I write like a reader reads: “And THEN what happened?”

So my first sentence (or maybe, to be fair, my first paragraph) does a pile of things. It names the temporal starting place for the story, not at the protagonist’s conception but at some meaningful moment along her or his life course. It establishes why that moment is, in fact, especially meaningful. It sets the narrative voice, lays out what kind of sentences matter and the kind of narrator by whom that kind of sentence would be said.

I’m increasingly wary of cultural appropriations, the idea that because I heard a cool word once, I understand all of its meanings and implications and can take it on as a normal part of my vocabulary. We do a lot of that. We talk about someone being Zen, someone being enlightened, someone being a saint or a mensch, a Brahmin or a good ol’ boy. We don’t really own those words, most of us, certainly not all of them. We borrow them as one borrows any precious object: with care, with respect. We borrow them as metaphors rather than as native expression. (Nora always laughs when I use some Yiddish expression like gathering one’s farmegens, but it’s an enormously helpful idea. The fact that Yiddish words don’t have fully agreed-upon English spellings is part of their history.)

As a teacher, I love metaphors, always searching for that secret code that will help you see what’s before you in a way that you can best absorb. So I’m going to give you a word today as a metaphor rather than as a literal expression: ensō, the circular form that is drawn in a single brush stroke as a result of meditative absorption. You prepare yourself—sometimes for minutes, sometimes for years—and then you act. The resulting form does not belong to its maker; it now exists independently in the world.

The opening sentence of a story is, for me, an ensō. It launches me down the mountainside.

Just for fun, here are my first sentences or paragraphs. Each of these is from a different book, in the chronology that I wrote them. Some are sentences and some are paragraphs simply because ensō don’t come in uniform size. Each was the seed that grew to be its book.

Dearest Mother, I do hope that this letter finds you in better health, and that your arthritis is relieved as the days become warmer. (The Abbot of Saginaw)

Clay was a good cook, limited in range but reliable within it, but had hardly cooked anything at all in the three years since he’d left Elaine. No one to say thank you, no one to appreciate his effort. (The Host: Triptych Book 1)

Clay had watched television cooking shows as a child while his mother was at the college and his father at the club. He loved to watch the chefs talk as they casually tossed in ingredients that magically appeared from bowls and ramekins arrayed across the counter. He felt like they were speaking directly to him as a friend. They had taught him not only how to cook, but how to be simultaneously genial and utterly controlled. (The List: Triptych Book 2)

Clay wiped his forearm across his brow to clear a light sheen of sweat, and divided the pot of steaming rice into three glass bowls. (The Test: Triptych Book 3)

In the early 2000s, I was teaching in the University Writing Program at Duke, one of my favorite jobs ever. But something caught my attention. I kept hearing my colleagues, all relatively recent Ph.D.s, referring casually to something that their mother or father had once done as a college faculty member or administrator. If it had been one or two people, I’d have left it alone; in any crowd, there’s probably two plumbers or two golfers or two college faculty members. But this was a constant background sound, like a refrigerator motor or tinnitus. (The PhDictionary)

Even though I knew it was coming, it was always a surprise. (The City Killers)

Colin had been in anonymous roadside shopping centers like this thousands of times, built two dozen of them himself. Even though he had a different purpose today, he still found himself reflexively itemizing construction flaws—poorly installed flashing, stained stucco from insufficient roof drains, cracked mortar that indicated foundation settling. (The Opposite of Control)

This is a book for those thousands… hundreds of thousands… millions among us who write in silence. For all of us who write carefully, patiently, thoughtfully, and whose work has not (yet?) found its audience. (Slush)

This is how you kill a profession. (The Adjunct Underclass)

The very most important things about you were decided by lottery. (Trailing Spouse)

Is it possible to hate a machine? Or do you hate what, or who, the machine represents? (Leopard)

I don’t hold these out to be exemplars of literary sophistication. What they are, each of them, is the expression of preparation that then, once manifested, allowed the rest of the book to spring from the reservoir.

So I know what this new story is. I know what it’s called, though that may change. What I don’t know, yet, is its first stroke. Once I have that, I’ll be lost to it for months.

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