First Sentences

I’ve been paying close attention to first sentences lately. The Best American Non-Required Reading usually includes a collection of them. One that I remember, first from reading the story, and then from seeing it included in the Non-Required anthology is, “The sun is shining, mynah birds are hopping, palm trees are swaying, so what.” It’s from “The Minor Wars” by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and it’s a short story in a collection (The House of Thieves) which is responsible for turning me on to the genre. I like the sentence because it sets the mood. And although there is a high likelihood that it didn’t happen this way, I like to picture the writer in a crappy mood, getting a writing prompt to “set the scene,” and coming up with an opening sentence like that, from which a whole story unfolds. I’m a writer, not a critic, and so I have a tendency to ignore an analysis of the text and instead imagine or empathize with the writer at work.

The next first sentence is from “High in Hell” by Kevin Fedarko, originally published in Esquire and included in this year’s (2007) shockingly good Best American Travel Writing. Warning: Do not read the following sentence if you have severe asthma, a serious breathing condition, or are reading it aloud with food in your mouth:

“So if you ever happen to find yourself skimming through the troposphere high above the Horn of Africa, the engines of your cargo jet clawing at the currents of sub-Saharan air rolling off the lip of the Ethiopian plateau and down toward the Red Sea, there will come a moment when you’ll have to admit that the cockpit of an aging DC-8 with a broken oil-pressure gauge and a washed-out picture of a Ugandan mountain gorilla emblazoned on the tail offers a damn fine view of the most wretched place on the planet.”

I do not recommend writing a sentence like that unless your passport is so full of stamps that you can legitimately call somewhere the most “wretched place on the planet” and you are going to write a brilliant story about delivering, distributing and chewing khat-a drug illegal in the United States–in Djibouti, where it is the “opiate of the masses.” I’m still spinning from that sentence.

This is the first sentence of the book I’m reading now: “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.” That’s an opener to an epic, right–love, fate, and torture, all in the first line? It’s the kind of sentence you can use when there are 932 pages to follow. It’s from Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, a book my brother convinced me to read by showing me the first page. If you expect people to read your tome, that hook better be damn good, and it is. I’m about a third of the way through the novel, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say beyond the first sentence.

“My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking.” After reading that, my first thought was, that’s a lame opener. I find it interesting that the guy is talking, doing something, which throws the reader immediately into the action, and most of the story is Herb talking, so the first line works. The next few lines aren’t particularly engaging. “The four of us were sitting around the kitchen table drinking gin. It was Saturday afternoon.” This is the part where I tell you the lines are from Raymond Carver’s short story, “Beginners,” in the current fiction issue of the New Yorker, which hit the ground of my foyer about 2 hours ago. I’d never read any Carver, and thought I should, since he’s famous. And since he’s famous, I thought he must know what he’s doing.

Anyways, I read the story and wasn’t super impressed by it, or not as impressed as I thought I should be. That’s when I noticed the context for the recent publication in the New Yorker. “Beginners,” the story I read, had been severely edited by Gordon Lish and had been published years ago as, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in a collection of the same name. There is now talk of publishing Carver’s stories from that collection in their original, unedited and “true” form. All of this backstory and the historic literary drama is in the New Yorker, and the website includes Lish’s entire line edit of the story. Which is educational and fascinating and certainly raises issues around editing, editors, and the artistic intent and interests of the author. Since I started this post about first sentences, I’ll return to my point. Lish’s edited first two sentences are: My friend Mel Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right. Although I’m sure I won’t agree with all the edits (and I do think it’s a bit aggressive to change character names and titles of stories and well, everything), I do think the edited opening sentences read much better.

There is one more first sentence to mention and not include: mine. You might have read it on the post that mysteriously disappeared this week. The opener didn’t quite jive with the content of the post, which I don’t think is necessary when blogging, but I was writing about a youth organization and the opener was inappropriate. When I was testing out Google searches, including one for the youth organization, my post came up on the second page. I became fearful that a parent might Google the org and find my blog. Taking down blog posts is an awful habit for a neurotic, paranoid person like me to get into. But I panicked. And even if I do put the post back up, the first sentence will be gone. Those first sentences are all too important.

4 Responses to “ First Sentences ”

  1. p3k Says:

    Nina!

    Read “The Bath” (from What We Talk About…, 1981) and then “A Small Good Thing” (from Cathedral, 1984). The latter is Carver’s own revision of the former. As the story goes, “A Small Good Thing” is the story as Carver himself intended it, and “The Bath” was the result of Lish’s greedy red pen. We can assume that the collection Tess Gallagher is trying to push now (with all of Carver’s WWTAWWTAL stories in their “true” form) would read something like these two stories when held up against the Lish-edited versions. And really, the leap from “The Bath” to “A Small Good Thing” is astounding.

    Also, here are two killer first lines:

    “In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard.” (from Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?”)

    and

    “This is not a happy story. I warn you.” (from Richard Ford’s “Great Falls”)

    Blog on.

    Pete

  2. nina Says:

    Wow Pete.. Thanks so much for the info and the first sentences. I will definitely look into those stories.
    Blogging is fun when people comment…

  3. procrastinator Says:

    agreed, thanks for the info, and yes read some carver, he’s got game!

  4. Wesley Says:

    I just noticed the New Yorker piece on Carver and was interested- I loved his style and at some point in college, got around to writing a paper on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. When I read the first sentence of “Beginners”, I recognized the situation, but, like you immediately felt that something was missing. Found myself searching the first few pages any reference to the line “Mel was a cardiologist…and sometimes that gave him the right.” Those first sentences were so strong for me, that when I couldn’t find them in the New Yorker version, I actually became frustrated, and ended up googling it-which is how I found your blog. I’m glad that you feel the same: that the edited sentences hook much better than the original by Carver. Unfortunately. But I still enjoyed Carver’s “Cathedral” very much, which, according to the New Yorker piece, mostly unedited by anyone other than Carver.

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