Monday, September 11, 2017

The Power of the First Sentence

I've been thinking a good deal about the first sentence. It's the one writers belabor. It's the starting block, the firing of the starter's gun, the beginning of everything. Sometimes it's perfect at first blush. Sometimes it's tweaked once, twice, a million times. It carries weight, but maybe more than it should. Still, it is the first ingredient of our story's recipe and it must be...just...right.  



Author Joyce Carol Oates thought a great deal about first sentences. "The first sentence can't be written until the final sentence is written," she said. That may or may not be true, but knowing where you're going after writing that first line is critical.

What are your favorite first sentences? Share in the comments below. 

Here are some of the famous ones...

"Call me Ishmael." — Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

"Maman (Mother) died today." —Albert Camus, The Stranger.

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish." — Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.

"Last night at 3:00am President Kennedy had been killed." — Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke.

"For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can." — Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book I

"The sun shone, having no alternative." — Samuel Beckett, Murphy.

"We were somewhere on the edge of the desert when the drugs started to take hold." — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 

It can also be for song lyrics.

"So, we already wrecked the rental car." — First line from The Decemberists, "Mistral." 

And the most famous...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. 


"First sentences are doors to worlds." — Ursula K. Le Guin


My recently published memoir, October Song, starts like this: "It was late in the fading light of the first day of the long trip, somewhere on the Tri-State Expressway about forty miles southwest of Chicago."

I'm working on a manuscript about the nature of home. A few tweaks remain. But I think I'm staying with the first sentence. 

"My boyhood home was on a hill, a Cape Cod in Western Pennsylvania near a forest of wild cherry and locust trees." — David W. Berner, The Consequence of Stars

And what about you? Other writers? I asked. 

"Anastasis Manoulakis loved cats." — Phillip Duke, The Village. 

"Dawn crept in like a ninja in feety pajamas." — Dave Kurman, Pavlov's Dog

"Crap—she's up, the living room lights are on at 2:30 a.m." — Helen Donovan, You Never Know.

"For the record, I am completely against having ice picks shoved into my eyes in order to scramble my brain." — Sue Rovens, In a Corner Darkly: Volume 2

"You see her posters on telephone poles all over town." — Alvarado O'Brien, The Missing Girl.

"Dan smiles at my wife again." — Nigel Cooper, The Pursuit of Ordinary.

"I was getting used to being ignored." — Bruce Wilkerson, A Glance at My Other. 

"Lightning slashed across the storm-swept sky." — Ashley Ledigo, Emajen (Children's literature)

"I don't quite know how to put this." — Stuart Walton, Give Us This Day.

"My Australian girlfriend took a luscious lick of her ice-cream and said, 'Why is that man wearing gloves on the hottest day of the year?' — Peter Bartram, Murder in the Morning Edition.

"Tuck fought the growing urge to vomit." — Danielle E. Shipley, The Legend of Allyn-a-Dale.

"There's a graveyard visible from his window, and it grows a little bigger every day." — Steve Conoboy, A Graveyard Visible.

"On the second Monday of September, Judy Talton put on the new jeans she'd run through three washing cycles and the fatigue jacket she'd found at the Salvation Army resale shop, went to the Student Union and, for the first time, took a seat on the Freak side of the Tune Room." — Rita Dragonette, The Fourteenth of September.

"I'm not psychic." — Steve Bellinger, Edge of Perception.

"I refuse to let my story end with an arranged marriage." — Kim Schultz, Three Days in Damascus.

"He was running as fast as he could through the clearing towards the woods." — Greg Kopp, The Journey of Delphos: Kopp Chronicles. 

"I have come to learn that you mortals like to blame animals for your worst indiscretions as if human reason is the bridesmaid of infallibility." — David Wozniak, An Obliquity.

"Pulliam folded back the sheet and set his bare feet on the hardwood floor." — Floyd Sullivan, Called Out.

"Moods are the weather of the soul." — James Hartley, Cold Fire, Shakespeare's Moon Act II.

"The night sighed and Bethany felt the chilled touch of her dead mother's hands on her shoulders." — Dave Rank, A Godawful Thing.

"Pardesh, look: it's a Humphrey Bogart." — Bull Garlington, The African Queens.

"Mike and I were standing in front of the Music Box Theater on Southport Street in Chicago, looking at posters of the Dirty Dozen." — Roger Prosise, Housing Projects, Mansions, and Schools: An Educator's Odyssey. 

"My Da's uniform hangs in the closet, squeezed in between scratchy wool coats and my Ma's ratty fur,  but my Da went straight to the hospital after the Great War, and never came home." — Bibi Belford, Crossing the Line

Don't you love these? Do you have favorites not mentioned here? Bring them on. 





Friday, August 25, 2017

Writing as Watercolor

I know why I like Karl Ove Knausgaard.

It's not necessarily his incredible sensitivity to the world around him and his gift for finding the meaning in the mundane as evidenced in his Proust-like opus, My Struggle. It's not his celebrity, although fame comes to him reluctantly. It's not his disheveled yet so very cool writing studio, strewn with coffee mugs, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, the layers of books, a drum set, a guitar leaning on hard copies of his auto-fiction sensation. And it's not his hair, although he has great hair.

(Photo: WSJ. Link: WSJ Magazine)

I like Karl Ove Knausgaard because he is an artist of full heart, clear insight, and he may be the most like American writer Jack Kerouac in his approach to the craft that one has seen since Kerouac himself. Different, yes. But the same.

Knausgaard's writing—at least that found in My Struggle—has been largely linked to Marcel Proust and the masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, a novel in seven volumes. Yes, a novel. Fiction. But so much has been said and written about its auto-fiction approach—autobiography told as fiction. The same approach employed by Knausgaard in My Struggle. This literary connection has merit. But in a recent NPR interview aired on the eve of the publication of Knausgaard's new work—Autumn and its subsequent three volumes entitled Winter, Spring, and Summer—the Norwegian writer likened his writing to that of a watercolorist, maybe in the spirit of Kerouac and less like Proust?


To understand this, you must understand how an artist works in watercolor. In an interview on the website The Artist's Road, painter Gerald Fitzer was asked why he creates in watercolors.

"...it is the immediacy of the medium and the way the pigment responds on your paper to your personal emotional response to your subject. It is as direct of a medium as can be, there can't be any hesitancy while you are painting. You have to decide where you will place each brushstroke of color and then let it do its magic."

Knausgaard's new volumes were not edited. In that same NPR broadcast, he insisted this was on purpose. He wrote his words and let them be, certain that he carefully chose the right words (his paint) at the very moment he was writing them and let them be exactly what they were intended to be at that very instant. Writing in watercolor, one might say; writing without revision. 

Kerouac did the same thing, albeit, with less discipline, some would argue. Nevertheless, his work was that of a watercolorist. Jazz-like and free form, but still watercolor in that it was created in one take, to use the vocabulary of a studio musician. There was a certain fearlessness in Kerouac's writing. Knausgaard certainly shows the same in My Struggle. Less so in Autumn. But fearlessness is not a requirement for working in watercolor; only precision. And the precision is apparent. Read the piece entitled "Twilight" in Autumn if you have any doubts.


To paint in watercolor and to offer a work worth admiring, one must be a master. The same with writing in watercolor. Mastery is essential. Creating anything in one take requires it. Otherwise, the writing—the painting, the music—is an artistic mess. But yet our natural storytelling instinct is to go forward with just "one take." Knausgaard writes with clarity and exactness without second regard. Therein lies his mastery but also his humanness. He understands that there is no other visual form like watercolor, singular in its beauty and alone in its execution. And no more honest way to tell a more human story, one that is less literary in the traditional sense yet literary nonetheless, devoid of traditional plot and literary tools and more like real life. Knausgaard is that kind of writer, saying what he wants to say, painting in words that he hopes to paint with both emotional spontaneity and accuracy in a single brushstroke.

How can anyone not find that marvelous?




Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Writing in the Dark

I've been thinking a good deal about writing in the dark. Not writing inside my writing shed with the lights off at 3 o'clock in the morning, but instead writing without knowing where I am going, where the story is leading, uncertain of what I am trying to say.


Writers talk about the mysteries of writing, especially fiction, a strange and powerful force that leads you to the story, that propels you to...something. Characters come alive on their own. They take on their own reality. And if it's memoir you are writing, it's that spooky moment when, as you write, the clarity comes out of the shadows. You finally know what you are trying to convey, a relative truth. Before then, you are in the dark and only when the ghostly essence appears does your writing start to come into its own light.

Norman Mailer used to call it "the spooky art." "You never know," he wrote, "where those words are coming from." Others call this spookiness or the mystery of writing—"pantsing." The urban dictionary defines pantsing as "yanking down someone's pants." But in the art of writing, "pantsing" is the act of flying by the seat. It's the opposite of plotting, planning, or outlining.


I have never plotted a story. Don't think I ever will. So, this makes me a "pantser." I write and let the story take me where it will. Inevitably this approach needs an enormous amount of reworking and rewriting for the story to make sense, to have a cohesive presence. But "writing in the dark" is the purest form of the art. This is true for fiction but it is most true—I believe—when writing memoir or personal essays. Joan Didion said, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what is means. What I want and what I fear." Joan is a bit of a "pantser." She writes in the dark. And she may be the 20th century's greatest essayist.

I'm currently working on a project that I have no idea where it will take me. Yes, I have a rough focus and I'm taking daily notes and jotting down thoughts many times a day. But what it will become at the end is a mystery. What I will eventually write remains in the darkness. At some point, I will gather my notes, find what rises to the surface, and start writing...start pantsing...begin my work in the dark and hope for the light.










Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Five Books for Summer's Last Fling


August is here. For so many this triggers an awful feeling of woe. Summer is coming to an end and fall is lurking. Truth is, there's plenty of summer left. But August brings with it thoughts of another year of school, returning to classes, lost vacation time, and the dread of squandered seasonal opportunities. Still, there are days remaining, precious days...time for walks in the park, canoe trips, golf, a swim or two, a rod in the water, a road trip, and, yes, time to read. 

Here are the five books I'm concentrating on in the last days of summer. Old and new. 

Travels with Charley—John Steinbeck: This classic is worth rereading many times over. Certainly Steinbeck was a master writer but he was also a master observer. This cross-country journey in 1960 is teeming with spot-on insight and remains keenly relevant more than fifty years later. Be sure to reread the paragraphs on "Lonesome Harry" at the end of Part-Two. They are brilliant. 

The One Inside—Sam Shepard: The great artist's death is fresh. But I started reading his last manuscript several weeks before he left this world. Yes, like much of Shepard's work, the book is otherworldly, challenging, spiritual, odd with a Twin Peaks sensibility, and yet marvelously insightful of the human condition. If it starts to move out of your comfort zone, I urge you to stay with it. It's worth it. 

So Much Blue—Percival Everett: I'm not sure why Everett is not on the top of the bestseller list every single day. Well, I actually believe I know why, but that's for another blog post. This novel is absolutely perfect. I am not one who quickly puts books in the "perfect" category but his story of artistry, love, death, danger, and human longing is as good as any story you will ever read. 

The Zen Commandments—Dean Sluyter: I have always been interested in Zen philosophy but I've  struggled to immerse myself in the discipline. Much of what I read is either too simplified or far too complex. Believe me, I've tried. I've wondered many times if I am simply incapable of fully understanding, reaping the benefits. That was until I started reading this book. Sluyter quotes Bob Dylan, William Shakespeare, the great rock critic Lester Bangs, and Aristotle. How can a freshman student of Zen go wrong? 

Walking—Henry David Thoreau: This was originally an essay in the Atlantic Monthly, taken from a lecture Thoreau gave around 1850. It remains a classic for the environmental movement, linking man and nature as profound partners. But what I find most endearing about this short, tiny book is how it promotes the art of movement, how it urges man to get out and see what is around him, to saunter and wander. Not to hurry through life; not to rush from one event or the next. It encourages and champions what many of us would categorize as "wasting time." Take a walk, Thoreau says, because it will replenish you.

The days are ticking away. Go read. 






Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Digitized: The End of the World?


Let’s get one thing straight from the top. I am not one who believes the Internet, the smartphone, or the digital revolution are going to destroy mankind, turn us into cyber zombies, or wither our brains. If you are old enough to remember, similar warnings were made when TV sets became affordable enough to land in living rooms all over America. And oh my, then there was cable! And let’s be clear, author Larry Kilham, the very knowledgeable and astute observer, researcher, and scholar of the digital world and author of the book The Digital Rabbit Hole (FutureBooks, 1/2016) is not suggesting society’s digital transformation is the beginning of the end of the world. But he is suggesting a cautionary tale. And that is enough. 

https://www.amazon.com/Digital-Rabbit-Hole-Larry-Kilham-ebook/dp/B01A3MTVBS


This is not the place for the debate on whether smartphones and the digital arena are a detriment or a revelation for society. Certainly all of us have experienced both sides of this issue—the good and the bad. There are incredible merits to smartphones, the Internet, wearable media, and the overall digital dynamic, but when our children appear to have been sucked in by the power of the cyber monster and zone-out on us, well, that’s the time we curse the new world order. This argument and dilemma have been bandied about in myriad of ways—op-ed pieces, documentaries, countless news stories, and certainly books. What is debatable is whether we needed yet another book on the subject, one more cautionary tale. Despite my disbelief that the digital world will somehow end all good and bring us only despair, I believe we do need this book.

The Digital Rabbit Hole is an insightful scrutiny of our digital place in the world. It does not necessarily offer gloom and doom; although Kilham does make the suggestion that tossing your smartphone off a bridge into a river might be a good idea. And at times the book even offers a true hopefulness for what a digital life can bring. “Digital media and services will be a basic resource for people to advance their lives,” Kilham writes. The caution in this cautionary tale comes in the strong proposition that all of us must find a way to limit our time with digital media in order to manage potential anxiety and the seeds of narcissism—our desperate need to be noticed and recognized. But the most important observation Kilham makes is a much larger one, a societal one. He writes prophetically about how digital media may be eroding truth. “A major problem in households as well as in an active democracy is whether people lose interest in the truth or even how to find it,” Kilham writes. He intimates that by gorging on instant and constant information through a deluge of digital media outlets, we are many times only confirming what we already believe or just using this collected information to “make us feel good.” And if that is the case, then “why take the time and effort to see if there is deception, misinformation or misunderstanding involved?” This is the most significant of the cautionary tales. Not that we might ignore a dinner guest because we can’t wait to check our online banking account or that our children are compelled to Snapchat one more experience when they should be doing homework. It’s a bigger, bolder issue, one of profound consequences. Kilham addresses it clearly and with a sharp vision.



The Digital Rabbit Hole is written in a readable, relatable, and conversational style, yet it delves into serious and sometimes complicated issues. Kilham explains them and shares them with ease. This makes for a gratifying read and one that I would suggest might be good to share as a family—all members agree to read the book and take some time to discuss it, talk about it, debate it. You’ll not only be focusing on one of the more pertinent issues of our time, but think about all the personal non-digital talk time you can chalk up without once looking at your smartphone.



Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Writer Went Walking

I've been thinking a lot about walking. Coincidentally, I was reminded about walking and its intrinsic connection to writing when I was...taking a walk. It is the ultimate mindful release. One foot in front of the other—briskly or leisurely wandering. And it has been celebrated by writers for centuries. 




Great writers walked. William Wordsworth, it has been said, walked some 180,000 miles in his lifetime. Virginia Woolf walked the English countryside. Dickens walked at night when he couldn't sleep. Hemingway walked to work out kinks and hiccups in his writing. Think A Moveable Feast. Henry Miller said most writing happened away from the typewriter, much of the work while out for a walk. And Henry David Thoreau famously walked in the woods around Walden four hours each day. “The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours …but it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day," Thoreau wrote. 



We know the health benefits. Blood flow. Exercise for the muscles. But there is also mindfulness. Silence. Solitude. Walking permits the gods to enter your spirit, especially when one has no destination. No place to be. No set agenda. No Google map to adhere to. It's the essence of freedom; freedom at its most primal. Walking frees the mind. Famous thinkers walked. Aristotle—a great mind working while moving. John Muir—the man who walked through the woods he called home. And the Danish writer, Soren Kierkegaard who wrote until noon each day and then walked his way through Copenhagen each afternoon—thinking and writing in his head. "I have walked myself into my best thoughts," Kierkegaard said. 



But yet, with all this talk of walking and its benefits for the creative mind, one must also be reminded of the beauty a simple walk allows—for the process itself, when properly permitted, is a journey of the soul. 

I leave you with Rilke. 

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and charges us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.


                       —Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Write or Publish...or Both




Are you a writer? You are, you know? If you write most days, you are a writer. If you write poems to yourself, you're a writer. If you write lyrics to songs no one hears but you and your closest friends, you're a writer. If you write short stories, personal essays, big books, little books, manuscripts unread, posts in your journal—you are a writer. And you can call yourself that proudly. 

It's the next step that makes you a professional. 

Writing is one thing. Publishing—in any form—is another. When a writer publishes—self-publishes, posts an original poem on Facebook, or has one of the Big-Five sign you to a contract, you are immediately compromising. You are adjusting and reworking and editing for an audience. And if you get paid, in any form, you can call yourself a professional writer. But I don't want to confuse the profession with the obsession, if you wish to label it that. Maybe that's too tough a word. (It rhymes with profession, so it seems good to use.) Still, writing as a profession is different than writing because it's a form of expression. Yes, some writers do both beautifully. Many of the greats had and have this dual spectrum. Still, as a writer—and you are one—you must decide what category you best fit into. 

It's okay to be in any one, or both, or have the desire for one or both. But the sooner you decide what kind of writing life you want to lead, the better writer you'll be. And, the more confidence you'll build. 



On July 20 at 7pm at the American Writers Museum in Chicago, I will be conducting a workshop on how to get your writing out into the world...how to get your writing published. That can mean a lot of things and the kind of writing you do and the kind of writer you are will help shape your publishing goals. What do you want to accomplish? What is the next step for you? I will touch on this and all the practical steps for getting your work out there. We'll discuss your writing, self-publishing, traditional publishing, and hybrid publishing. We'll talk about editors and agents and how and when to submit your work. There are a lot of places for your writing these days, more than ever before. 

 American Writer Museum, courtesy CBS2

Let's figure it out together what kind of writer you want to be, set some goals, and develop practical steps to move forward. You can sign up HERE. The American Writers Museum is a great space and I promise to make it worth your time.

Let's get your work out to the world.