I’ve read a ton of books on writing in the past year.  Too many to count.  In one of them, about writing memoir, the author explains that writing about your memories has the effect of replacing them.  You end up remembering what you wrote more than what you actually experienced.  I’m sorry I can’t remember which book it was, so I can’t attribute this point to the author – if I do remember, I will update this later to give credit where credit is due.

I can imagine how this could happen.  You put so much time into thinking about what the right words are to capture some thought, feeling, or experience.  At least I do.  My tagline on this blog is ‘Me and my battle with words,’ for a reason.  I fully believe the right words are out there – it’s just a battle to figure out what combination is best.  And, there’s probably more than one combination that will work, but there are a zillion that don’t come close enough.  That’s what makes writing worth it – finding the right words.  It’s also what makes reading a great book so exhilarating.  Anyway, back to memories and how they change…

In The Black Swan, Taleb speaks of memory, in a section titled ‘Memories of things not quite past.’

“Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a serial recording device, like a computer diskette.  In reality, memory is dynamic – not static – like a paper on which new texts (or new versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information.  (In a remarkable insight, the nineteenth-century Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire compared our memory to a palimpsest, a type of parchment on which old texts can be erased and new ones written over them.) Memory is more of a self-serving dynamic revision machine: you remember the last time you remembered the event and, without realizing it, change the story at every subsequent remembrance.

So we pull memories along causative lines, revising them involuntarily and unconsciously.  We continuously renarrate past events in the light of what appears to make what we think of as logical sense after these events occur.

By a process called reverberation, a memory corresponds to the strengthening of connections from an increase of brain activity in a given sector of the brain – the more activity, the stronger the memory. While we believe that the memory is fixed, constant, and connected, all this is very far from truth. What makes sense according to information obtained subsequently will be remembered more vividly.”

I’m sure I’ve solidified mis-remembered memories as things I now believe to be true simply by remembering them repeatedly.  In fact, I’ve had odd discussions with both of my parents about two stories I remember hearing of my falling very ill as a baby and as a toddler.  Each parent remembers one story, but not the other, and they both swear by the story they remember, even though they are entirely different stories.  Neither has any recollection of the version the other believes, while I always thought both were true.  Maybe that says something about why they divorced.

Poor judgment

I’m reading The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  This book, like Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, is partially about our capacity to judge probabilities and numerical values as humans, which according to these authors, is essentially horrible.  This fact (and I call it fact because I have been pretty convinced by the studies cited in both books, but really it’s just my opinion on what they posit) both fascinates and amuses me.  There are many simple examples in both books, though the underlying ideas are somewhat more complex.  For example:

When asked to propose a value for two sets of dishes, Set A, with 24 pieces, all completely intact, and Set B, with 40 dishes, 9 of which are broken, the following results were obtained:

– Average price of Set A when evaluated by itself – $33

– Average price of Set B when evaluated by itself – $23

– Average prices of Sets A and B when evaluated together – A, $32 and B, $30

This just defies logic, but apparently, our brains are not that capable of good judgment in areas like this.  Perhaps that is why The Price is Right has lasted so long.  It seems we are very swayed by the element of broken dishes.  Even when comparing the two sets, those that participated in the study seemed to think that the first 24 items were worth $30, but the additional 7 in Set B were only worth $2 more.

Another example:

An individual has been described by a neighbor as fololows: “Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.” Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?

Because this description of Steve is aligned with stereotypical traits we associate with librarians, most people instantly think he is more likely to be a librarian.  Statistically speaking, however, there are more than 20 male farmers for every male librarian in the United States, so Steve is much more likely to be a farmer.  Our brains just don’t work this way, though.  Well, some people’s brains might – in fact, I can think of a person or two I know that would probably recognize the statistical significance before answering the question, but most of us rely on stories, stereotypes, and other forms of narrative to perform fast associations, because it’s easier to process.

I would highly recommend both of these books to anyone interested in the psychology of decision-making, and the things that influence our thinking.  Our brains are much less sophisticated then we might think.

Cat’s Cradle

Since I’ve been ruminating on the time in my life when I was still not burdened with much responsibility and mostly got away with wandering from one job to the next, or one state to the next, or one book to the next, I thought I’d pull out a few of my Vonnegut books, because I worshiped them back then.  I was like a religious fanatic that lived and breathed whatever nonsense was contained in the tome of truth for that religion.  In that sense, reading Cat’s Cradle (over and over, as you can see in the accompanying pictures of my a couple Vonnegut books off my shelf) gave me my first vin-dit towards Vonnegut worship.  These books were a sort of life blood for me, validating my strongly held beliefs that the world was full of a bunch of idiot-robots without souls that were so preoccupied with their own existence that the rest of the world could just fall away and they wouldn’t really notice.  Let me say, I no longer view the whole of society that way, but I still sometimes miss the days when I did.  A chapter from Cat’s Cradle:

Bicycles for Afghanistan

   There was a small saloon in the rear of the plane and I repaired there for a drink.  It was there that I met another fellow American, H. Lowe Crosby, of Evanston, Illinois, and his wife, Hazel.
They were heavy people, in their fifties.  They spoke twanglingly.  Crosby told me that he owned a bicycle factory in Chicago, that he had had nothing but ingratitude from his employees.  He was going to move his business to grateful San Lorenzo.
“You know San Lorenzo well?” I asked.
“This’ll be the first time I’ve ever seen it, but everything I’ve heard about it, I like,” said H. Lowe Crosby.  “They’ve got discipline.  They’ve got something you can count on from one year to the next.  They don’t have the government encouraging everybody to be some kind of original pissant nobody ever heard of before.”
“Christ, back in Chicago, we don’t make bicycles anymore.  The eggheads sit around trying to figure out new ways for everybody to be happy.  Nobody can get fired, no matter what; and if somebody does accidentally make a bicycle, the union accuses us of cruel and inhuman practices and the government confiscates the bicycle for back taxes and gives it to a blind man in Afghanistan.”
“And you think things will be better in San Lorenzo?”
“I know damn well they will be.  The people down there are poor enough and scared enough and ignorant enough to have some common sense!”
Crosby asked me what my name was and what my business was.  I told him, and his wife Hazel recognized my name as an Indiana name.  She was from Indiana, too.
“My God,” she said, “are you a Hoosier?”
I admitted I was.
“I’m a Hoosier, too,” she crowed.  “Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier.”
“I’m not,” I said.  “I never knew anybody who was.”
“Hoosiers do all right.  Lowe and I have been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything.”
“That’s reassuring.”
“You know that manager of that new hotel in Istanbul?”
“He’s a Hoosier.  And the military-whatever-he-is in Tokyo…”
“Attache,” said her husband.
“He’s a Hoosier,” said Hazel.  “And the new Ambassador to Yugoslavia…”
“A Hoosier?” I asked.
“Not only him but the Hollywood Editor of Life magazine, too.  And that man in Chile…”
“A Hoosier, too?”
“You can’t go anywhere a Hoosier hasn’t made his mark,” she said.
“The man who wrote Ben Hur was a Hoosier.”
“And James Whitcomb Riley.”
“Are you from Indiana, too?” I asked her husband.
“Nope. I’m a Prarie Stater.  ‘Land of Lincoln,’ as they say.”
“As far as that goes,” said Hazel triumphantly, “Lincoln was a Hoosier, too.  He grew up in Spencer County.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers,” said Hazel, “but they’ve sure got something.  If somebody was to make a list, they’d be amazed.”
“That’s true,” I said.
She grasped me firmly by the arm.  “We Hoosiers got to stick together.”
“You call me ‘Mom.'”
“Whenever I meet a young Hoosier, I tell them, ‘You call me Mom.'”
“Uh huh.”
“Let me hear you say it,” she urged.
She smiled and let go of my arm.  Some piece of clockwork had completed its cycle.  My calling Hazel “Mom” had shut it of, and now Hazel was rewinding it for the next Hoosier to come along.
Hazel’s obsession with Hoosiers around the world was a textbook example of a false karass, of a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done, a textbook example of what Bokonon calls a granfalloon.  Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows – and any nation, anytime, anywhere.
As Bokonon invites us to sing along with him:

If you wish to study a granfalloon,
Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.

Jobs from my youth – The Downtown Club, 1993

A few weeks ago, I posted about a writing exercise in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories.  It had to do with creating a timeline for some period of your life, to help jar your memory about details and spawn some story ideas.  One of the things I did when I started my timeline was go through old tax records, which reminded me of various jobs I had when I was much younger.  There was a period between 1993 and 1995 where I reported income in two states for each of those tax years.  I moved a lot back then.  I was trying to find a way out of Wisconsin, and it took me a while to make that work.

In 1993, I reported income from five employers in Wisconsin, and one in Illinois.  All those jobs, and my income only came to $5436.18.  I wasn’t great at holding jobs back then.  Nothing made me happy, and I hadn’t developed the will power it takes to stick with something you don’t like.  In one job, I waited tables at what was a new restaurant/dance club in Sheboygan.  During the day, we opened for lunch, then closed for a couple hours to get ready for dinner.  At 9 0’clock, the dinner tables went away and the place turned into a night club.  I learned some interesting lessons at that job.  The Downtown Club billed itself as a fine dining restaurant, and back then, there weren’t many to be found in the area.  However, that also meant that those of us that worked there didn’t really know what fine dining was – not the food, not the service, certainly not different wines.

I did my best, but I remember a wealthy couple in for lunch one day.  I served their sandwiches or salads, or whatever it was the ordered, and they were drinking coffee.  As I made my rounds to see if anyone wanted refills, the wealthy woman nodded that she did.  I picked up her coffee cup, and topped it off.  She told me condescendingly this was not the way to refill someone’s coffee cup.  I should lift the cup on the saucer, so as not to touch the cup itself.  I clenched my teeth and bit my tongue instead of apologizing and walked away quickly, hoping they would soon leave and I would still get a half-way decent tip.  I felt a certain shame that I didn’t know those fine details about how things are done for wealthy people.  All my coffee-pouring skills were learned from the overworked waitresses at IHOP who poured my coffee only occasionally after they left the “Bottomless pot” on my table.  Even then, I was lucky if they didn’t pour the coffee in my lap as they leaned across the table to reach my mug.  I’ve never completely gotten over the bitterness I felt at people who had money, coming from a mostly lower-middle class background myself.  I still carry a chip on my shoulder, even when I choose to go to fancy restaurants now, and money is no longer a big issue in my life.

Another lesson from my job at the Downtown Club was how to tend bar, Wisconsin-style.  I’ve learned since then that the way people make drinks in Wisconsin doesn’t really match the way they make them anywhere else.  For instance, the Old Fashioned is a very popular Wisconsin drink.  Age doesn’t matter – everyone drinks them.  You can order an Old Fashioned with either whiskey or brandy, and order it either sweet or sour.  This is a departure from the traditional Old Fashioned, which calls for no soda whatsoever.  In Wisconsin, though, sweet means put 7-up in the drink, and top it off with a cherry wrapped in half an orange slice, impaled on a plastic sword.  Sour means put sour soda in the drink.  I have yet to find any other place where “sour” means sour soda.  When I first came to California, I’d order a sour drink – Amaretto Sour, Whiskey sour, whatever – and the bartenders put that horrible sweet and sour mix in the drink – the kind you’d find in a margarita.  The first time I took a sip, I almost sprayed it all over the people standing in front of me.  

50/50 was a popular sour soda used as a drink mixer.  It was a grapefruit & lime soda, and all bars had it.  It’s soda, but not as sweet as 7-up.  I have no idea why this soda seemed to be such a regional drink.  The closest thing I’ve been able to find in California is called Collins Mix, and it’s not available in bars.  I eventually switched to ginger ale when I wanted whiskey with something less sweet in it here.  Bourbon and ginger ale was my standard drink for a few years.  Lately, I drink fruity drinks, which I get a lot of crap for from all my friends, because I am not supposed to like girly, fruity drinks.  Maybe I’d drink Old Fashioned’s again if “sour” meant what it does in Wisconsin.


I bought a used book a month or so ago on Amazon.  It’s called News from the Border, and is a captivating memoir about a mother and her autistic son, written by Jane Taylor McDonnell.  I had read her book on writing memoir, Living to tell the Tale, in which she used excerpts of her memoir to illustrate various tips about technique, and I enjoyed it enough to buy the book.  As I mentioned, I bought the book used – why not save a few dollars, right? When I opened the book, the first thing I saw was a red stamp that said, “DISCARD,” with the name of the library it once belonged to.  I immediately felt a little sad. Even though I had yet to read the book, there was something about the finality of that red stamp, the callous rejection it implied, that bothered me.  I don’t think I’ve ever run across a book that was so clearly marked for the dump or some other such final resting place for garbage.  It evoked an image of a stuffy librarian wearing a flowery shirt and a light cardigan sweater, glasses hanging on a sparkly chain around her neck, sitting in front of a stack of books that hadn’t been checked out often enough to warrant the space they consumed on a shelf somewhere.  She opens each book, firmly pressing down on the plastic stamp that marks her prey as rejects as she moves each text to a new pile of “discards.”

Let me say, I’m not one of those people that is so enthralled with books that I treat each one as though it was as sacred as the Old Testament to an Orthodox Christian.  I like books – very much, even.  But I’m not generally that sentimental about them.  In fact, I’m one of those people that likes to get rid of things, books included.  When I get rid of books, I either sell them back to Amazon or drop them off at a recycling center that has a book section where others can come and pick through the books and take them for themselves for free.  So, I guess I never thought that there is actually a cycle of life a physical book might have, with a sort of death at the very end.  Obviously, despite being stamped “DISCARD,” this book has yet to meet its final end, so perhaps I’m being overly dramatic.  Nonetheless, I just didn’t like that angry red stamp.

P.S.  To my friends that have a library science background, I apologize for the blatant stereotyping.  I am sure that none of you will ever be a stuffy librarian that wears flowery shirts, cardigan sweaters and glasses on a shiny chain around your neck.


Another exercise suggested in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories has to do with timelines.  The idea is that you create timelines for various years in your life.  He suggests jotting notes in a box for each month of the year you are digging into.  I took a slightly different approach that suits my super-organized way of doing everything.  I used Excel.  On each row, I entered the date in one cell, then a description of some event in another cell.  This way I’d never run out of room in any given boxes for a period of my life, and I can just keep adding to it as I find time to work on it, periodically resorting the list in chronological order.  I then went through a lot of files I keep.  The two that were most interesting were my old taxes and my medical records folder.

My timeline file has only 57 events in it so far, but by going through my old taxes (I had copies of every year from age 17 on), I was able to reconstruct the jobs I had when I was younger.  I’ve had a lot of jobs, which I will talk about in another post – but my timeline showed me just how many jobs I had during the few year stretch immediately out of high school – from factories to dive restaurants to department stores.  It was fascinating to look back at how little money I made, and how often I changed jobs.  I also moved a lot.  There were three years where I filed taxes in more than one state because I was moving around so much.

The medical records were eye-opening, too.  Since I live far from home, I must have requested copies of my records from the local hospital where I had a few surgeries and other health encounters that landed me in the ER.  If you can get your hands on copies of your medical records, you should.  Not only for practical reasons, but to read what these people actually wrote about you.  It’s really interesting to read about the actual procedures in medical terminology, and the opinions the doctors have of how you presented to them.  I will find something to share one of these days, but to get back to the point of sharing my first experience with the timelines exercise, it really did do a lot to jar my memory of different events.  I’m kicking around the idea of writing a piece just based on the medical mishaps of my youth.  I recommend the timelines exercise to anyone that wants to take a different angle on remembering their past.

And more first lines

I’ve looked at first lines a couple times in the past, here and here.   Below are some others from books on my shelves…

The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson.
This new world weighs a yatto-gram. But everything is trial-size; tread-on-me tiny or blurred-out-of-focus huge.

I like this opening because it evokes senses, but not quite images.  That makes me want to read further.  After looking through my notes and finding this blurb, though, I realize I’ve been unconsciously copying the hyphenated phrase style she uses here.  I am a big fan of Jeanette Winterson, so it doesn’t surprise me a ton.  What I like about this approach is that it alters the pace of the sentence itself.  Often, writers talk about pace in the context of a whole work, zooming into a scene and providing lots of detail and dialogue, slowing down the pace versus summarizing larger chunks of time passing with narrative.  I thought it was worth looking at pace within a sentence based on the use of language and punctuation itself, though.  The other thing I like about this style is that it’s a way of creating a new word when the right word doesn’t quite exist.

The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy.
My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.

I think these two lines work because they immediately introduce paradox.  When I think anchorage, I think home.  Comfort, familiarity.  When I think wound, pain and discomfort come immediately to mind.  I think this is a great introduction that at the very least, explains to the reader that place will be important, and the narrator’s association to that place will be complicated.

From My Father’s House, by Sylvia Fraser.
My father’s house was a three-story, frame building on a shady street in Hamilton, Ontario

I don’t like this first line that much.  It gives a bit of information, but it doesn’t hook me, beg me to read more.  Having read the book, I can say it is very well written, and a worthwhile read, and with the benefit of retrospect, the important element of this first line may be in its references to a large house – that can evoke a spooky feeling, especially from the perspective of a child.  The use of the word shady introduces a dark element, too.  When I read this the first time, though, those things didn’t mean anything to me yet.  To me, this is an example of how a great book can live without a great hook, though.

Middlesex, by Jeffery Eugenides.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

This opening line tells the reader exactly what the story will be about, and the subject itself is unusual and promises to be intense.  References to place and time help set the stage for the inherent struggle the narrator will have in dealing with gender identity.  Most of the language is straightforward, unadorned, though the first four words imply the significance of the subject matter.  I like the combination of the gravity of the first phrase, and the almost boring everyday description of the remainder of the line.

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen.
Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook.

“Only three people were left,” – this part of the sentence implies that we’re joining the narrator at some later point in the story – I expect to hear what led up to there being only three people left.  The terms “grease joint,” and “fry cook,” both make me think of lower class characters – people that don’t have much money.  The line isn’t earth-shattering, but it sets the stage a little bit, and the opening words make me want to read more.

The History of Love

In a recent “First Lines” post, I shared the opening lines of Nicole Krauss’s History of Love.  If you haven’t read this book yet, go get it now.  You don’t know it yet, but your life will not be complete with out it.  That said, I wanted to share a little more from the book.  At first I thought I’d post the first few paragraphs here, but then I read a bit further, and wanted to include those, then a bit further, and I wanted to include those, too.  It’s that kind of book.  Every new sentence draws you in further.  It’s a brilliant tale of humor, love, tragedy, loneliness, and trying to find meaning in life.  Enjoy!

“When they write my obituary.  Tomorrow.  Or the next day.  It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.  I’m surprised I haven’t been buried alive.  The place isn’t big.  I have to struggle to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, kitchen table and front door.  If I want to get from teh toilet to the front door, impossible, I have to go by way of the kitchen table.  I like to imagine the bed as home plate, the toilet as first, the kitchen table as second, the front door as third: should the doorbell ring while I am lying in bed, I have to round the toilet and kitchen table in order to arrive at the door.  If it happens to be Bruno, I let him in without a word and then jog back to the bed, the roar of the invisible crowd ringing in my ears.

I often wonder who will be the last person to see me alive.  If I had to bet, I’d bet on the delivery boy from the Chinese take-out.  I order in four nights out of seven.  Whenever he comes I make a big production of finding my wallet.  He stands in the door holding the greasy bag while I wonder if this is the night I’ll finish my spring roll, climb into bed, and have a heart attack in my sleep.

I try to make a point of being seen.  Sometimes when I’m out, I’ll buy a juice even though I’m not thirsty.  If the store is crowded I’ll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction.  I’ll get down on my knees.  It’s a big effort for me to get down on my knees, and an even bigger effort to get up.  And yet.  Maybe I look like a fool.  I’ll go into Athlete’s Foot and say, What do you have in sneakers?  The clerk will look me over like the poor schmuck that I am and direct me over to the one pair of Rockports they carry, something in spanking white.  Nah, I’ll say, I have those already, and then I’ll make my way over to the Reeboks and pick something out that doesn’t even resemble a shoe, a waterproof bootie, maybe, and ask for it in size 9.  The kid will look again, more carefully.  He’ll look at me long and hard.  Size 9, I’ll repeat while I clutch the webbed shoe.  He’ll shake his head and go to the back for them, and by the time he returns I’m peeling off my socks.  I’ll roll my pants leg up and look down at those decrepit things, my feet, and an awkward minute will pass until it becomes clear that I’m waiting for him to slip the booties onto them.  I never actually buy.  All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.

A few months ago I saw an ad in the paper.  It said, NEEDED: NUDE MODEL FOR DRAWING CLASS. $15/HOUR.  It seemed to good to be true.  To have so much looked at.  By so many.  I called the number.  A woman told me to come the following Tuesday.  I tried to describe myself, but she wasn’t interested.  Anything will do, she said.

The days passed slowly.  I told Bruno about it, but he misunderstood and thought I was signing up for a drawing class in order to see nude girls.  He didn’t want to be corrected.  They show their boobs? he asked.  I shrugged.  And down there?

After Mrs. Freid on the fourth floor died, and it took three days before anyone found her, Bruno and I got into the habit of checking on each other.  We’d make little excuses – I ran out of toilet paper, I’d say when Bruno opened the door.  A day would pass.  There would be a knock on my door.  I lost my TV Guide, he’d explain, and I’d go and find him mine, even though I knew his was right there where it always was on his couch.  Once he came down on a Sunday afternoon.  I need a cup of flour, he said.  It was clumsy, but I couldn’t help myself.  You don’t know how to cook.  There was a moment of silence.  Bruno looked me in the eye.  What do you know, he said, I’m baking a cake.

More First Lines

I wrote a post recently on the first lines that open books. Below are five more first lines and my thoughts about them…  I did cheat a bit in two cases, and I included the first few lines because despite the punctuation, I felt they were meant to be read together.

Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris.
We were fractious and overpaid.

I recently shared an excerpt of this novel, Joshua Ferris’ debut.  I loved the book, and identified with the humor of the ad agency world contained within it.  This first line is incredibly short and simple, but I think it grabs the reader very effectively.  The line clearly indicates the story will be about a group of people and have something to do with jobs.  The reason I love the line, though, is because of the use of the word “fractious.”  What an awesome word, and one I doubt I’ve seen in print anywhere! gives two great examples of the meaning and use of the adjective:

1. refractory or unruly: a fractious animal that would not submit to the harness.

2. readily angered; peevish; irritable; quarrelsome: an incorrigibly fractious young man.

Looking at this first line after having read the book, I couldn’t possibly pick a more appropriate opening line, and I think that also underscores it’s effectiveness.

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss.
When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.

I absolutely love this first line, and I loved the novel.  The reader is introduced to Leo Gursky, the main character, and knows the story will be narrated by him.  It also immediately introduces sarcasm and humor, both of which are big pluses in my book.  The narrator’s name to me reads “quirky,” and I know that Leo is old or doesn’t expect to live long for some other reason.  If you’ve never read this book, go get it.  It’s brilliant.

The Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal.
What was it Arthur said last night?

This simple first line doesn’t tell the reader a whole lot, but it does instantly convey that he is not in top mental shape.  It sets the mood, though, as I quickly pictured myself with eyebrows scrunched, searching my memory for something I couldn’t quite remember.  I love that readers do that – fill in details themselves as they read, whether its’ picturing themselves or another person with an expression that’s well-described, or painting a picture in their heads of a character, even though only certain details are provided by a story.

Fool’s Crow, by James Welch.
Now that the weather had changed, the moon of the falling leaves turned white in the blackening sky and White Man’s Dog was restless.

This sentence primarily sets a scene, though it also introduces the main character and illustrates his general state of mind.  The language is descriptively rich, and continues that way throughout the book.  As a tale of Native American life, this type of description runs throughout the entire novel.  I don’t believe it is the type of first line that completely grabs the reader, but the question of why White Man’s Dog is restless is compelling, and the many references to nature, weather, and season do set a certain ambiance.

Lighthousekeeping, by Jeanette Winterson.
My mother called my Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.

Again, these statements are classic Winterson.  You know instantly that you’ll be reading a tale that has some fantasy in it.  Punctuation is missing, which subtly reinforces the concept that this character is  truly a combination of precious metal and pirate – there is nothing to separate the two elements of the character.  The unique and odd combination itself begs for more information, so I think these lines do their job.

 What are some of your favorite first lines?  Or, if you don’t have any off the top of your head, open up a couple books and jot them down – what do they do for you?

The Stone Gods

I finished The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson, yesterday. I have been working on making my way through the last half dozen or so things she’s published, and one of the things I love most about her writing is her ability to capture darkness, loneliness, sorrow, wonder, loss. The darkness that is inside all of us, the weighty parts of our souls, our inability to comprehend our place in the universe, or define the why’s of our experience, our existence. This is just a short passage from the book, but it spoke to me.

Far out, too far to see with the human eye or to hear with the human ear, is everything we have lost. We add to that loss feelings that are unbearable. Send them out into deep space, where we hope they will never touch us. Sometimes, in our dreams, we see the boxed-up miseries and fears, orbiting two miles up, outside our little world, never could rocket them away far enough, never could get rid of them forever.
Sometimes there’s a signal, and we don’t want to hear it: we keep the receiving equipment disused, we never updated the analogue computer. Shut off, shut down, what does it matter what happens if we can’t hear it?
But there it is – a repeating code bouncing off the surface of the moon. Another language, not one we speak – but it is our own.
I don’t want to recognize what I can’t manage. I want to leave it remote and star-guarded. I want it weightless, because it is too heavy for me to bear.