Nicole Elizabeth: Hello Gary. I was thinking we’d do a craft talk specifically on first lines. One of the groups you are Admin of at Fictionaut is the “First Lines We Love” outfit. It seems to be a great forum for writers to get together on the web and discuss other works they’ve loved, been inspired by, and want to share. How did the idea for the first line group come about?
Gary Percesepe: I was noodling around on Fictionaut one day and lighting struck. Also, Jurgen begged me. He said, “Groups Groups, Gary, we need Groups!” I was in Montauk at the time, trying to enjoy the beach. So I dropped my cigar, put down my Myers Original Dark & Diet Coke and said OK, and created about a dozen on the spot. Jurgen is very insistent. He owes me a fortune.
What is so important about the first line in any work of fiction?
Surely you jest.
One of my favorites is the first line to Annie Beattie’s “Dwarf House,” which is: “Are you happy?” McDonald says. “Because if you’re happy I’ll leave you alone.” What are some of the lines the Fictionaut group has agreed are great, but more importantly, why has the group felt they were great.
That’s Ann’s take on Tolstoy, maybe? Her own private Anna Karenina moment. The first line of Anna Karenina has always fascinated me. It’s one of the most widely quoted lines in literature, as you know, and has many English translations, including : ” Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I admired the line, but didn’t fully realize its power until I was having lunch one day in Yellow Springs with my friends Mary Grimm and Nolan Miller, and I sort of mocked that line from Tolstoy and Mary looked at me calmly and said, “That sentence changed my life.” And I was intrigued, and asked her why, and Mary said, “I was in a bad marriage and that line woke me up, and gave me the courage to get out.” Mary is really a terrific writer. She’s part of the Fictionaut community now, and pretty soon I am going to feature in Line Breaks one of her early New Yorker stories, “We.”
Fictionauts have posted some pretty swell first lines. You should put Ann’s up there. My personal fave, among the lines currently up there now, is from Amy Hempel: “Things really turned around after I saw the breathing Jesus.”
How does the first line chime in during your own writing process? Do you start at the start and work toward clarity? Does it come later?
Sometimes it comes later, sure. For me, sometimes the last line comes first. I often hear endings, like a musical phrase bouncing around my head, and then I write toward it. But sometimes the first line does come first, which is always a delight. This happens with poems pretty often, for me. It happened with the novel I recently finished, Leaving Telluride: “This bed is a wreck.”
As a reader at a literary journal, how important is the first line in orienting the editors toward the story? As a writer how important is it? As a lover of literature how important is it?
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of a good first line. Hemingway used to advise, “Write the truest sentence you know. Then another. And another.” Just lay them down. The great editor and writer Gordon Lish, I am told, used to forbid a writer to read more than one sentence if the first sentence did not work for him. End of workshop for that unlucky writer! As a reader at the Antioch Review, many years ago, I started with the best intentions, wanting to read every word, every sentence of every story, and I did that for time. But I soon learned that if the story was not working in the first few pages, if I wasn’t hooked, chances were that the reader would not be hooked either. Plus, we were publishing maybe twelve stories from over five thousand submissions. Very competitive. In time, I was scrutinizing the first page of submissions, looking to fall in love, and finally, toward the end of my time there, if a writer did not grab me in the first few paragraphs it was pretty much over. I would often keep reading, out of a sense of duty, but my heart wasn’t in it.
As a reader of literature, as you put it, I find that I am far more forgiving when reading a novel than a short story. You’ve pretty much signed up for a long read, and it’s part of the readerly contract, I suppose. It’s a different kind of reading experience than reading a short story. Novels are baggy, but stories are taut as a string. Same with poems, for me. With flash, same deal-even the title has to do a lot of work in a flash piece. It had better.
What are some writing exercises you can suggest to our writers who would like to better craft first lines?
Listen to the blues. You get some great first lines that you can write a story from, and the first line is repeated, of course, in the blues. Repetition can be very effective in a short fiction. You can also listen to country music and get great ideas for first lines, once you de-countrify them. Vallie Lynn Watson just published a story at Fictionaut called “A River So Long” that put Ann Bogle and I in mind of the great Joni Mitchell tune; it’s hauntingly beautiful. For me, reading the poet John Ashbery is a treasure trove of ideas for first lines of stories and poems. Same with Mark Strand’s stuff. I keep a journal of possible sentences, something I learned from reading Fitzgerald. And Cheever’s journals, same thing. But hey, there are a lot of people at Fictionaut who have better writing exercise ideas than me. Like Dylan said. It ain’t me, babe.
Anything else you’d like to tell us here I’ve forgotten, I could go on forever, and according to Todd Zuniga of Opium, most people including writers only have 11 minutes per day of free to read blogs time.
In that case, go back through and cut out half of this. Jacques Derrida joked that when you have too much text you can go back and take out all of the little words– and, the, this, for, but, etc. That’s one approach to editing. Never tried it. Neither did he. I miss him, though.