Tag Archives: creativity

Living the Story

I think all possible stories exist on a different plane, and we just somehow manage to slip our brains into that plane and see the stories. And some of us are compelled to write them down, maybe to try to save them or maybe to live them.

Does anybody else experience writing this way?

And, of course, the problems come in because the stories on that plane aren’t in written form. They’re in some kind of mind meld format, and as we try to translate them into writing we lose detail, like a really high resolution photograph that your outdated computer only sees as low res, and when you try to make it larger it pixelates (to use a really long metaphor). You color it in as well as you can, try to smooth the edges and fill in missing colors.

So the challenge is to see as much as possible about the story while you’re in that plane and then keep the memory vivid so you can refer to it when you’re not in that plane, because you can’t walk around immersed in it all the time and expect to keep your day job. I suppose an independently wealthy person or one whose books were earning plenty of money could be immersed in it 24/7, but then you’ve got a very unbalanced life, and isn’t it possible to have both the writing and the living?

But then writing is a kind of living, or should be. My problems come from the times I spend just watching in that plane and forgetting the details as soon as I emerge, so that the story’s really at my mercy out here in the real world. When I go there and step into the flow of the story, let it wash all over me—when I live it—that’s when I know the story well enough that later I can not just refer back to a photograph of a character but feel around in her pockets for all those critical details.

So the question is, as always, how do I not just get to that plane but let go of myself and feel the story happen?

I know it’s the same thing every writer thinks about, because it’s just not easy to do. Writing anything—a blog, for example, or a journal entry—helps me finger the edges of it, and sometimes I can slip in from that small hand-hold. But, I swear, other times I could use a jackhammer and get nowhere.

I know having the right food helps a lot of people, but it’s not enough. Music can help more, for me at least. Doing it in the middle of the night when everyone in the house is asleep helps a lot, especially when combined with a hot pot of coffee. But I have yet to find a sure-fire way to get there. I’d love to hear how other people manage it.

But even more than that, I want to know how people let go of themselves once they get there. My ability to do that is so fragile. The mere energy of another person awake in the house can destroy it. At the same time, sometimes the connection to the story is so strong that an actual interruption, like having to take the dog out, doesn’t weaken it. So, what do I do differently those times when it’s really strong and I’m fully there? I don’t have a clue.

Has anyone discovered the key to this? Or a lock pick? Credit card? Anything? How do you move beyond watching the story?



Filed under Uncategorized, writers, writing

The All-Important First Sentence

Joan Didion told the Paris Review in 1978, “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”

Hey, no pressure.

For me, writing first sentences begins with a state of paralysis and then becomes a creative joy. Once that first sentence forms out of the murkiness in my head, or wherever it is that writing takes place, honing it is a profound pleasure. But before that, when you know you’ve got a lot to say but you need to say it in a way that people will hear, which means the first sentence must capture the reader intellectually, emotionally, viscerally, or all of the above—that’s when I’m paralyzed.

Getting past that paralysis and forming the right first sentence, for me, requires sinking my mind down deep into my psyche and letting thoughts and images and colors all swirl around me until something begins to take shape.

An English professor once told me that the first sentence of a great novel lets the reader know what the novel is really about, underneath all those plot devices. That’s even truer of journalism, of course, and with technical writing; it’s just the writing style that differs.

I have to say, though: I just visited Amazon.com and read the first lines of a number of great novels, and while I can see that case being made for some of them—for example, in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Hazel Motes is on a train, not sure if he wants to jump out or lean forward into the journey—most of the others I checked had much more to do with setting the emotional scene of a lead character as he or she is at the beginning of the novel, or even just setting the physical scene.

In my own novel, Voices, I tried to do as my English professor taught—to encompass the most fundamental theme of the book in the first sentence. Maybe that’s a mistake; somebody said that the more education a writer has the worse his or her writing is.

Naturally, in journalism, especially with the shorter pieces, the first sentence must get the gist of the rest of the story into those first few words. In longer pieces, you can take more time; use an anecdote to illustrate what the piece is about. If that progression is followed, a novelist should have the whole first chapter to make the basic theme clear.

Unfortunately, readers today have shorter and shorter attention spans. They want the goods immediately, and they don’t want to have to work for them—or, at least, that’s my perception. That first sentence is even more crucial these days to hooking your reader than it was in days past.

So, how to write that perfect first sentence for today’s reading public? Sources on the web recommend being “short and snappy,” introducing a question that the reader will want answered, and including a shocking or surprising element.

Maybe a more important question is this: are you just out to “hook up” with your reader, or do you really want to make love to him or her? Maybe taking a little time to build a reader’s desire to move further into your world isn’t such a bad thing. Or maybe that’s a surefire way to not get published.

I’m wondering what tricks other writers use to come up with the best possible first sentence. Some people just start scribbling and then delete everything except what really resonates and develop the sentence from that. Some people stare into space for an hour or more waiting for inspiration to emerge from the depths like a wavering light slowly approaching on a foggy night. Some people just write any old thing and come back and agonize over it later, once they know exactly what the whole piece is going to say.

What do you do? What are your favorite first sentences and why? How do you formulate your own first sentences? How do you get past the paralysis, or do you experience that at all? I would be fascinated to hear from you.

Never stop writing,



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