The only real point to life is for it not to turn out the way you expect. Think about it. If, at an early age, you mapped out a life for yourself, and it played out exactly the way you wanted, you would be fantastically bored. In fact, if nothing or no one placed obstacles along the preordained path of your life, you would probably introduce those obstacles just to experience a little variety. I think you can make an argument that those of us prone to self sabotage are not necessarily fighting some deep interior hatred of ourselves but simply bored.

We humans also feel a deep-seated need for order in the world that stands in contrast with our desire for conflict. This is probably why we create gods who are all powerful and ostensibly running the show, but presume those gods afford us free will. There is a plan, but we are permitted to fuck it up. Or we look to distant and irrelevant celestial bodies to help us understand who we are, but the interpretation of these stars and planets are left to infallible humans.

This is why I believe most good stories follow a certain template. A character’s life is pushed out of balance and he spends the rest of the story attempting to restore order. Each time he succeeds, new and greater complications arise, creating a back and forth effect, an increasing push and pull effort until no greater threat can be imagined, at which point the character either overcomes his obstacles or is overcome by them. Or some ironic blend of the two.

Of course a novel or a film or any medium may incorporate one of these stories or scores of them, depending on its scope. The threats might be real or imagined. They might be contained within a family or cover the entire planet (or galaxy). But this template functions because it appeals to our inner struggle between order and conflict. Play all you want with a certain medium, introduce new variations on form and structure and language, but do not argue with me about the underlying way a basic story functions. That template is what joins the story with our biology.

Our lives are stories. We are rarely in balance, and even when we are, we seek ways to temporarily push ourselves out of balance. Perhaps the wise among us, as they grow older, realize this and try to reverse field. But I would wager that even our most comfortable and intelligent seniors still look for daily reasons to complain about something.

If life is a story, perhaps its most impressive climax is romantic love. In my opinion, there is nothing in the world more miraculous. Billions of parents around the world might disagree, but intellectually I find romantic love more interesting because of the relative rarity compared to its familial counterpart. Perhaps the love a mother feels for her child is more powerful, but the truth is there is a functional purpose for that version of love, a very real biological source.

You might argue how lust and temporary romantic partnerships are also driven by our genes, that all life is a machine, but my definition of romantic love stands outside that model. Finding a suitable biological partner might amount to nothing more than hip-to-waist ratios in females, or height and breadth combinations among men, and the general health and beauty of both. But coupling those physical attributes with our complex, brilliant, chemical brains is something I’m not sure evolution has grasped yet. Or something we humans can really understand. In the first blush of a crush, it’s hard to separate the physical urges from the intellectual. You can’t really know if the attraction you feel is a biological imperative or the far more complex joining of two individual minds. Most often, the attraction is weighted on one side more than the other, and this is why the most fulfilling relationships are so scarce.

Complicating matters even further is how often it happens that one person experiences the complete picture of romantic love and the other does not. Due to social norms and biological pressures, relationships like this might last a lifetime, but this happens far less often than it once did, at least in Western culture. Today there are too many options available to us, and countless love stories have taught us to accept nothing less than a magical union. Functional relationships burdened with these fanciful expectations often experience structural failure, and millions of people wander aimlessly wondering why they can’t find someone perfect with whom to share their lives.

It’s no secret why love stories are usually written about the chase but rarely about what comes after. The excitement of courting or being courted is the engine that drives the story. The obstacles one experiences while driving toward the climax of admitted and recognized love is the story. The sense of balance one experiences by beginning the relationship is not a story. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s the end of the story other people might find interesting. You don’t write that part in a book or film because the chemistry between those two people is so unique that it likely wouldn’t be entertaining to a wide audience. Who wants to listen to their friend prattle on about how awesome their partner is? Wouldn’t you rather hear her admit how she believed she was important to him, only to find out he’d been using her as a toy all this time?

Maybe it’s depressing to recognize these things about ourselves, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, understanding humanity is a way to make sense of our lives and set expectations. Extended happiness and true romantic love does exist in the world. There are many examples of it. But recognizing the scarcity of these things may prevent you from being disappointed when you don’t find them, or at the very least help you accept something less in your life. After all, the earth will continue to rotate no matter how you feel about it, and your acceptance that every day won’t bring roses will help you make the most of those many sunrises and sunsets.

In any case, since it’s true life rarely turns out the way you expect, it’s also possible the most amazing event of your life will happen tomorrow.

That you can’t ever know for sure is what makes life so beautiful in the first place.

 

A photograph often tells a thousand words, or so it’s been said.When you add poetic verse to animated images and the inquisitive eye of both Erica Lewis and illustrator Mark Stephen Finein you find yourself victim to the backward realities and ideas that lurk inside the book titled, Camera Obscura.Memories are ingrained in our minds but are subject to change upon our re-telling or remembering them, but a photograph cannot morph or change into an altered version of reality. While a photograph can age and the shape and images can fade, that moment in time stands still. In examining how a memory can be kept alive or reinvented is discussed in the pages of illustrations here, all while remaining safe in the creator’s mind. Images actually reside in the receptacle of saved images the mind keeps tucked away.  This hybrid work of art and poetry asks us, the memory-makers to look closely at what we hold so dear.  What is real and what is imagined? Do recollections through art (written and photographed) stand the test of time? Do they outweigh the memories in our mind? How and why we recount stories the way that we do? How accurate are our re-telling of stories or viewing of old photos can be when we lose the organic nature of each simply in the re-telling.

I struggle with beginning paragraphs whenever I write, most especially the opening line. It’s a compulsion. I gnaw away at it like a beaver with a freshly-felled log, hoping to turn the raw material into the foundation of something solid and enduring. Days can pass while I write, revise, edit, and annotate, drafting and redrafting until the opener is shipshape, but once it is the rest of the story tends to come easily.

Of course, nine times out of ten I finish the manuscript only to realize that the opening paragraph doesn’t work at all with the rest of the story, and wind up cutting it entirely.

It didn’t used to be like this; time was I would simply dump whatever effluvium happened to be percolating in my forebrain out onto the page, only going back to clean up and correct after the rough draft was completed. This changed after I served a stint as a fiction editor for my university’s literary magazine. I quickly found that the opening paragraph of a submission was a great litmus test for the rest of the story; if it wasn’t up to snuff, odds were good the remaining pages weren’t either. It was humbling to realize this applied just as much to my own stories as the anonymous ones regularly deluging our tiny little office.

Any seasoned traveler will tell you that how you begin a journey is crucial, even if you’ve no idea where you’ll end up. So it is with writing. And that first sentence is the lynchpin of the opening paragraph, the coy seductress who coils her finger at the reader and whispers hints of the pleasures that might lie in wait, if only the covers were parted just a little further. There’s an indefinable alchemy to it; you know the moment you read it whether or not the opening line works, even if you cannot quite say why.

All of which is the long way of saying I’ve decided to offer ten of my favorite opening lines, and to discuss, as best I can, why they work for me. These aren’t necessarily from my favorite books, or by my favorite authors, or my Top Ten All-Time Favorite Opening Lines; these are simply lines that happen to stroke my particular literary erogenous zones in just the right ways, both as a reader and a writer, each culled from a novel in my personal library.

In the spirit of fun, I’ve listed them initially sans author or publication information, as something of a challenge to you, the reader. Audience participation, if you like. How many do you recognize, and how well – or badly – do they engage you when you read them free of context?

One quick caveat: All books by TNB contributors, as well as those of my professors and former classmates who’ve gone on to publish, are disqualified for consideration in this essay due to favoritism on my part. I’ve yet to read a book by a TNB contributor that didn’t hook me from the get-go, because you’re all so damn awesome, and this essay is already biased enough as it is.

Here they are then, in (mostly) no particular order. The identity of each and a brief description of why I favor it follows.

1.) “For a man his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”

2.) “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

3.) “In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.”

4.) “Squire Trelawny, Dr. Livesay, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17— and go back to a time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.”

5.) “Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm.”

6.) “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

7.) “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

8.) “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

9.) “The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped onto its side, and lined the collection box in red crépe paper – was written by her in a two day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”

10.) “Call me Ishmael.”

BONUS LINE: “I was crossing the Belltower’s shadow away from the commons when I ran into Hannah Marshall, her rust-colored Doc Martens crushing the unraked dead leaves underfoot as she stomped across the grass towards me.”


*****


1.) J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace. This novel of post-Apartheid South Africa remains one of the most emotionally devastating books I have ever read, a sparse, trim volume that barely clocks in at 220 pages. The phrase “the problem of sex” leapt out at me right away; the notion of sex as a problem with a quantified solution is a backdoor into the mind of the protagonist, a Capetown professor of modern languages who in the course of those 220 pages discovers just how wrong his presumption is.

2.)  William Gibson, Neuromancer. Possibly my first conscious encounter with cognitive dissonance. It was a dated reference when I first discovered it in 1994, a dead channel during the age of ubiquitous cable TV looking like either static or those damned colored bars, so I had no idea what this might in fact look like, but my imagination was immediately engaged in trying to conjure it.

3.) Patrick Suskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The pairing of “gifted and abominable” here is like a dollop of warm caramel wrapped in dark chocolate for my brain, but I also love the rhythm of this as it uncoils, making the boldfaced claim that the protagonist is a person beyond redemption. I was dubious about the book going in, unsure as to how interesting a story about the world’s greatest sense of smell might be, but after spotting this line, I wound up reading much of it in a single sitting. Loved the film, too.

4.) Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island. A bit longish and unwieldy, but if you’re a nine year-old boy when you first read the book (as I was), you recognize it for what it is: Stevenson’s promise the story contains everything a good pirate yarn should. A perilous sea voyage to an exotic, treasure laden-locale? Check! Grog-soaked, leathery sea dogs? Check! A mention of a sabre wound, and thus the potential for more swashbuckling action and derring-do? Check! Nary a girl in sight? Check!

5.) Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller. Yes, THAT Hugh Laurie, the one currently starring as the titular protagonist of the TV series House. He published it in 1996, and it’s actually pretty good, a satire of the spy genre that also happens to be a pretty entertaining action/adventure story in its own right. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about that line, but an invitation to contemplate the best manner of inflicting a specific form of grievous bodily harm certainly gets my immediate attention.

6.) Graham Greene, The End of the Affair. This was as a curiosity when I first encountered it. I was already familiar with the story, having taken a date to the Ralph Fiennes/Julianne Moore adaptation, and expected the novel to open with the same line the film does: “This is a diary of hate.” It comes in somewhat perpendicular to the narrative, but I like the existential, musing quality of it, and it sets up nicely the free will vs. divine intervention subtext that runs though the rest of the novel.

7.) John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck is well-remembered for his stories and characters, but I sometimes think his facility with the English language goes overlooked, as readers seem more keen to discuss the underlying social commentaries in his work than anything else. He’s one of the few writers I’ve encountered able to deploy the third-person omniscient POV subtly, often to great affect. This line – the entire first chapter, really – reads almost as the poetry of desolation.

8.) Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. This is the first line ever narrated by Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s quintessential hard-boiled private eye. Like Steinbeck, I’ve always enjoyed Chandler’s skills as a linguistic stylist. Though he’d previously published several detective stories in the pulp magazines that were later rewritten as Marlowe tales (collected in Trouble is My Business) these are Marlowe’s first true words, and they immediately betray his cynical perspective to the reader.

9.) Ian McEwan, Atonement. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the novel that I understood just how much work this line is doing, and just how clever McEwan is about hiding it. Inside this sentence is everything the reader needs to know about Briony, about her priorities and the choices she as a character will later make; in this one line McEwan lays a foundation that pays off several times throughout the novel, all while describing a child’s creative enthusiasm. That’s skill.

10.) Herman Melville, Moby Dick. This is a small thing, but one that I’ve always enjoyed, and only rarely seen referred to in criticism: through three very selective words Melville establishes his narrator as potentially unreliable, which has colored my perspective of the book both times I read it. This isn’t a declarative statement (“My name is Ishmael”) by any means; it’s the phrasing used by a person with something to hide. I use this line whenever I teach I writing workshop as a lesson in how, with the proper word choice, a writer can say a great deal with minimal effort.

BONUS LINE: Trick question! This is one of mine, from my unpublished first novel. Though I’m not happy with the book overall, I’m rather fond of this bit.

…although, now that I look at it, I can see a few places where it could use a little tinkering. Excuse me, would you?


*****


All right then. These are some of my favorite first lines – now how about yours? Feel free to go with fiction, poetry, film, or even song lyrics – whatever it is that grabs you by the lapels and shakes you whenever you encounter it.

In the wake of a conversation that left my partner feeling funny, we’ve started a gossip jar. He struggled to articulate not precisely shame, not exactly sheepishness, and not really guilt. More like a creeping sense that he’d caught himself gossiping about a person there was no need to talk about. The jar, he figured, would serve as a deterrent against trading inappropriate information and as a punitive measure when he slipped up: a flat rate of one dollar per character, per story. Recounting something overheard in line at the fruit market would cost a buck, while a long and detailed vignette casting a wide net over no fewer than five co-workers and incorporating judgments about their collective assholery, and which rambles on and on through dinner and into dessert might tap out at $10.

Prior to being expelled from the team and subsequently the school for stealing Coach’s cell phone, deleting all of his contacts to conceal the stolen item, then turning around and selling said stolen phone to another player, Delonta was a college basketball teammate of mine.

Delonta was no taller than 5’6″ with shoes. He was, by all means, an unlikely candidate for the sport, particularly on a roster of towering trees on the hardwood. However, Delonta had freakish athletic ability evident in his lateral quickness, vertical jump, and uncanny ability to create sufficient space between him and the defender, which allowed him ample time to get off the open shot. He was a sharp shooter who lived mostly behind the 3-point arc, but once inside the paint lived predominantly above the rim gliding by and above defenders over a foot taller.

He had a shiny head that he shaved regularly, a bright smile, and hands the size of our starting center, Stanford, who was well aware of Delonta’s pilfering past and prior misdemeanor convictions.

“Keep a close eye,” Stanford had said when Delonta appeared through the double-doors on the first day of tryouts.

After Delonta made the roster and our first away game scheduled, I was in Coach’s office shooting the breeze about our potential for the season when Stanford moseyed in through the door. He folded his giant body into the lone chair beside me in Coach’s office. He slouched a bit, positioned his elbow on his knee, and propped his face in his hand.

“Coach,” Stanford said, “I don’t care if the locker room door is bolted shut with a logging chain and a 5-inch thick padlock, I’m not leaving my shit in the open for sticky fingers to snatch. I’m telling you Coach, your golden boy is a thief and will pick the pocket of more than just the opposing player.”

Coach was The Redeemer in a way. He was all about second chances. No one was flawed in his opinion, only misguided, and could be put back on the straight and narrow with the proper mentor—someone who could identify the struggles of the individual and help them overcome it. One way of doing that was to be part of a team, an interconnected group of individuals whose success depended on the whole of the team and not on one individual. It was a way for a kid turned sour to turn good again. He could play basketball as well as earn his degree, and with an education came a better future and more open doors.

“I’ll pay close attention,” Coach responded, trying to appease Stanford. “But give him a chance, will you? People change.”

Stanford rose, sort of shook his head a little and unwillingly agreed to give Delonta the benefit of the doubt—for Coach’s sake.

For the short time I knew Delonta, he was a likeable guy and could tell a story with the best of them. On our third road trip that season, Stanford sat in the back of the bus with his headphones in, nodding along to the music in his ears. His left leg was stretched out and straightened in the aisle.

The entirety of the team went through their pre-game road rituals.

Jerel began freestyling.

“I like that,” Chris said in response to Jerel’s freestyle before beginning his own.

Then Buck jumped in.

Then Juan.

Keshawn Pickens sat beside me and Bird Owen and Palmer to the right of us.

My ritual consisted of reading Larry Bird’s autobiography, Drive, every road trip—a habit that, more than anything, grew out of superstition.

“I think you’d appreciate this,” Coach had said to me, handing me the book prior to one of our away games.

That night I went out and scored 19 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, and dished out eight assists in a win. Therefore, as a rule of superstition, it became a necessity to read Drive every trip while twiddling a crumpled Dennis Rodman trading card between my fingers for hours on end as I read.

Delonta initiated his road ritual that day, a ritual that would only last approximately two more games before being banished from the basketball team for good.

“I have a story,” Delonta began. He licked his lips and rubbed his thumb against his heavy eyebrow, a habit of his that accompanied the onset of a brief narrative.

“When I was in first grade, I was a good speller,” he started. “So I’m standing up there in front of the school in the auditorium. The year-end Spelling Bee. The Big Finale. It’s just me and another kid. We’re the only two left. Everybody else has been knocked out. Kids sitting down, still crying ’cause they missed a word ten minutes ago. One boy had to be picked up and carried offstage by two people because he was so upset he lost. Me and this other kid are going back and forth; the judges trying to make one of us slip up. My moms is in the front row, smiling. Proud of me.”

“‘Bicycle,’ the judge says.”

“‘B-I-C-Y-C-L-E,’ I respond. My moms gives a big thumbs up.”

“‘Hydrant,’ another judge follows.”

“‘H-Y-D-R-A-N-T,’ the other boy spells.”

“We’re neck and neck. It goes on like this for a solid two-three minutes. Neither of us falters.”

Delonta pauses. Jerel has stopped freestlying, as have Chris and Buck. All eyes are on Delonta except Stanford. He’s still in the back of the bus. Sleeping. Leg stretched out.

“Then the judge says, ‘Crayon.’ My smile gets this big.”

Delonta smiles from ear to ear.

“You stupid,” Bird says to him, laughing.

“So I’m thinking, ‘I got this Bee.’ This kid doesn’t have a chance. I’m taking home the gold today. ‘Crayon,’ I respond. ‘C-R-A-,'”

Delonta pauses again.

“‘C-R-A-Y-O-‘”

“I’m picturing my crayons in my hand, coloring. My favorite color green. I’m smiling. I’m gonna win the Spelling Bee. My moms is smiling. Everybody in the auditorium has their attention focused on me. The principal is looking at me. My teacher.”

“‘C-R-A-Y-O-L-A, Crayon.'”

“‘I’m sorry, Delonta,’ the judge says. ‘That is incorrect.'”

“‘C-R-A-Y-O-L-A,’ I spell out again.”

“‘I’m sorry, Delonta.’ He looks at the other kid as if to give him a chance to spell it.”

“‘Crayon. C-R-A-Y-O-L-A. Crayon,’ I say, crying. My moms is up from her seat, walking hurriedly toward the steps to the stage. The principal is nodding his head at the assistant principal. The auditorium is in complete silence. The kid who had been crying for ten minutes because he spelled a word wrong ten minutes ago has stopped crying. He’s looking at me.”

“‘That’s how they spell it on the box,’ I say to the judge.’That’s how they spell it on the box!'”

“At this point, my mom has whisked me from the stage and taken me behind the curtain. Her hand is over my mouth. My feet are dragging the ground.”

“‘Crayon,’ I hear the other kid say, ‘C-R-A-Y-O-N, Crayon.'”

“I’m throwing a temper tantrum, protesting to my mom and telling her they are cheating. My mom is whipping my ass behind the curtain. And everybody’s clapping for the other kid who just won the spelling bee.”

Less than a month after telling this story, Delonta was expelled from the team after Coach’s cell phone went missing and was traced to another player on the team who it had been sold to. Whether or not Delonta’s failed attempt at winning the coveted Spelling Bee championship in 1st grade after being robbed of the crown on account of corporate branding and product monopolization was the result of his descent into a life of crime and kleptomania is anyone’s guess.

Nevertheless, his theft did result in his banishment from the basketball team for good; and though Delonta may have been a kleptomaniac, it was never suspected he was a pathological liar and had made up the Spelling Bee story. Stanford would later transfer on scholarship to an apprentice school in Norfolk and be zapped by a high voltage of electricity while working as an apprentice in the shipyard. He would be okay.

Fin.


Last weekend, The New York Times ran an article in the Magazine encouraging people to default on their mortgages because, essentially, this is what big business does all the time under the rubric of “strategic defaults.”

Basically, the argument goes, when big business does it, it’s strategic. When individuals do it, it’s unethical. So why not adopt the morality of big business? After all, they were the ones who duped us into taking the mortgages in the first place. Right?

The author gives two reasons such defaults are frowned upon. The first is that defaulted mortgages depress neighboring property values. The second is that “default (supposedly) debases the character of the borrower.” Gotta love that parenthetical word. It’s as if “keeping one’s word” were something that we’ve all just been kind of force-fed by a society which wants nothing more than to exploit our good, trusting natures.

Well, so maybe that’s so. What then? Do we return to the Wild West? Obviously, one op-ed piece isn’t going to change anyone’s mind (well, maybe a few), but it just strikes me as another symptom of our deepening sense of ambivalence about what, after things we believed in begin to fall way, we should keep of the “old ways.”

Aren’t things like “character” worth keeping? Do we want to relive the Wild West? I don’t know. Anyway, who am I—a novelist—to complain? It may have been hard living, but it sure made for some good storytelling.