Saturday, December 15, 2007

Study Opening Lines

One of my Christmas presents from Josh is called "The Observation Deck: A Tool Kit for Writers." It contains a deck of cards with writing assignments. I promised Josh that every weekend I would pull a card and do the assignment to help me with creating my portolio to apply for grad school.

I won't be posting these assignments here, I just happened to find this one particularly interesting. It said, "Study opening lines." I stared at it for a moment before getting up and going to the bookshelves in our living room where I keep most of my favorite books. Unfortunately for this assignment, Josh has taken many of them with him to Denver to read.

I can't remember any of these books' opening lines. There are pieces I recall, but, unlike Alan who has the whole first page of his favorite book The Great Gatsby stored in memory, I just don't hold on to information like that.

So I found some others that I have loved. They are below, in order from most recently read.

(1) "This was the time when all we could talk about was sentences, sentences—nothing else stirred us." short story The King of Sentences by Jonathan Lethem.

(2) "I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door." What Is The What by Dave Eggers.

(3) "There used to be many families like the Ziskinds, families where each person always knew that his life was more than his alone." The World to Come by Dara Horn.

(4) "I loved a girl once. Every story starts that way, right?" short story Gabriella, My Heart by Cristina Henriquez

(5) "The Salinas Valley is in Northern California." East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

(6) "The American wife sits on the floor in front of a fireplace." My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki.

(7) "I was young (I am young: I'm twenty-five--it was just last October, October of 1988) and I was down in Washington, District of Columbia, visiting an old high-school friend." The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton by Yann Martel.

(8) "I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975." The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

(9) "Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened." The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

(10) "This is the room of the wolfmother wallpaper. The toadstool motel you once thought a mere folk tale, a corny, obsolete, rural invention." Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins.

(11) "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were." Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

Reading over these sentences I find myself surprised by how plain many of them are. East of Eden, one of my all time favorite books, just states the setting. But I still couldn't put it down. And #7, with the title almost as long as the opening line, is a favorite story of mine, but the opening line is so convoluted that just in typing it I was ready to toss the book aside.

It's got me to thinking about what makes us read, what pulls us into a story and makes us not want to put it down. Which lead me back to a memory with Josh several years ago. We sat down one day to watch a movie, but couldn't decide what we wanted to watch. So we watched all of the trailers to all the movies he owned, then ranked our favorites. In many ways, looking at the lonely senteneces above, I feet as if they were trailers, more so even than the blurbs on the back of each book. They express a tone if nothing else. Each is indicative of how that writer writes, but none tells a story or even fully introduces it.

In the end, I realize that opening lines are typically something I'm quite good at. I feel as if I could put my opening lines right up there in the list and they would fit. But unlike the authors listed above, I haven't been able to keep it up for the full length of a book. I'm left wondering: Where's the assignment on how to do that?

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