I dislike writing beginnings…almost as much as I dislike writing endings. In my mind, there’s a lot of pressure to start a chain reaction of inspired events and characterization in that opening phrase. In reality, no one is breathing down my neck, waiting for me to type the perfect opening line. I know it’s unfair to expect greatness from a first draft. It’s not as if I’m looking for “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” or even “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” but I wouldn’t mind a miniscule flash of literary brilliance.
Even so, my own writerly neuroses insist that the first line of a new piece sets the tone for everything that follows, and therein lies my problem. I’m stuck because I have a good idea and I want to do it justice from the very first keystroke. Rationally, I know it’s absurd to think that the first words of my first draft are of any consequence, but since when are humans rational (or writers, for that matter)?
So, here I am. I have a story I want to tell and the talent to pull it off, but I find that I can’t write a word. The cursor in my blank Word document is flashing, flashing, flashing, flashing. And I can’t write.
In one of my favorite films, Throw Momma from the Train, Billy Crystal is a novelist hung up on his first line. After four years of agony, he has only written: “The night was…” The night was what? Humid? Moist? He can’t decide and he can’t bring himself to continue until he’s captured the perfect hook. When he finally discovers it, his pent-up novel pours out onto the page.
Now, as much as I love that movie, I know it doesn’t work that way. Some words come effortlessly while others languish and have to be forced into the light of day. That’s true of the first line, the second, the third and the fourth. There’s nothing magical about the first sentence — I’ll probably end of changing it in revisions anyway — so there’s no point in worrying too much about it. I just need to start writing and the words will come.
Wish me luck.
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Sometimes, I find myself at a loss for words, but I usually have plenty to say on Twitter. If you’d like to follow my ramblings, my handle is @jonnyeberle. As always, I love to hear your responses and insights in the comments (conveniently located below).