BY MADONNA HAMEL
“It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chickens that he kept his chefs working around the clock.” “The most influential black man in America for the hundred years following the Civil War was a figure no one knew.” “I go by many names, none of my own choosing.” “The English language- so vast, so sprawling, so wonderfully unwieldy, so subtle, and now in its never-ending fullness so undeniably magnificent- is in its essence the language of invasion.” “A dancer who describes himself as a singer will do neither well.” “I’ll begin with babbling and doodling.” “Many of us live one-eyed lives.” “Yo, Bernd- I’ve been diagnosed with a severe illness and am trying to get my final disposition arranged in case I drop sooner than I hoped.” “Not too long ago Grace went looking for the Traverses’ summer house in the Ottawa Valley.” “Early this morning, even before you were out of bed, your hands and arms came to life, goading your weak and helpless body into the new day.” “I heard on the morning news that some kidnappers in the Bronx telephoned the wife of their victim with a demand for $100,000 in ransom money and she talked them down to $30,000.00” “Grace.”
The above is a list of first lines of books. It’s a writing exercise I’m trying out before I use it on others. Take ten to twenty books off the shelves of the library or your home, or better, someone else’s home, and note the first lines. It’s a very revealing activity. And easy.
I leaned over and randomly grabbed a bunch of books from my shelf- fiction, nonfiction, essays. I realized what a range of subjects grab my attention. I swoop down on books, like a curious crow, lining my nest with them, then forgetting I own them. Or I find myself musing “I know I read that one but I can’t remember any of it.” In one book I found a drawing I did of an ex-boyfriend’s hand, in another a love note, in another a boarding pass for a flight to Halifax. For the sake of the exercise, I took note of the opening lines that worked on me, piqued my curiosity, had me making my way to the couch to continue reading, in some cases a whole first chapter.
I have a fondness for first lines. Cracking open a new book is like meeting someone new whose first words to you are so delightful, or funny or engaging you laugh out loud. This is going to be good, I say to myself, and I settle in, I lower my phaser shields; I’m in for the night. However, I don’t hang around for openers that are adversarial, patronizing or prurient. And I don’t care how adorable, famous or devastatingly handsome you are, I find it highly suspect, not to mention presumptuous, actually, to try for titillation out of the gate. Call me old-fashioned, I think this can be said for people and books. I want to know I’m in good hands before I commit.
I only have so much time, and so many books. I calculated that it will take me twenty years, at a book a week, to get through the ones I own. And yet, I spend a lot of time checking out what’s new at the library. Ask Judy, our librarian. She’s an enabler. She knows I am already in a relationship with three thousand other books, yet she encourages my checking out others, (although is stymied why I would want to read half of what I reserve). It adds to our branch circulation and chances of staying open, way out here, where the only other form of entertainment is the bar. And Wednesday afternoon coffee at the Senior’s Centre.
Point being, I’ve read a lot of first lines, but I remember only a handful. So this exercise helped me consciously realize the power behind first lines. I’ve always respected the power of words. But introductory phrases are to words as confessions are to sobs. Both have energy, but the confession situates us, places us on the earth, on solid ground, manifests something with a beginning and an end. Invites. The sob leaves us floating, foundering.
Now I’m wondering how many first lines I’ve absorbed, taken up as a life’s leit motif or a promise or an angle of approach. For example, Charles Dickens begins David Copperfield with: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Now, if you were to ask me, I would have sworn the line went like this: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life or forever its victim!” At the time of reading the book I must have been having doubts about my ability to take care of myself. And I completely forgot the “whether that station” line. (But I consider that a good thing; I can’t imagine making someone else the hero of my life.)
Try the exercise. It’s fun. And I have an ulterior motive. We are celebrating World Storytelling Day in Val Marie on Sunday the 24th at the Community Centre. Pancakes all you can eat at $5. How about we get the openers of our own story ready? If you can’t make it but have a story you’d like me to share in my column contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, here’s the titles and authors of the books belonging to those opening lines: The Passion by Jennette Winterston; Rising From the Rails- Pullman Porters by Larry Tye; The Parcel by Anosh Irani; The Story of Everything by Simon Winchester; A Fair Country by John Raulston Saul; If This Is Your Land Where are Your Stories? by J. Edward Chamberlain; To Know As We Are Known by Parker Palmer; Life Everlasting- the Animal Way of Death by Bernd Heinrich; Passion by Alice Munro; The Hand by Frank R. Wilson; With All Disrespect by Calvin Trillin, and In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand.