First Sentences

Oftentimes, I’ll be sitting around (or more inconveniently, lying in bed) and a sentence will pop into my head, and I think to myself, “that’s it. That’s a perfect first sentence for a story.” Whenever I can, I write down these sudden sentences, come back to them later, and try to expand them into full stories. I have notebooks full of disjointed, unrelated sentences. Pages and pages of little seedlings that will perhaps someday grow into full fledged tales.

I thought about sharing a few of my hastily scribbled first sentences, but there’s something romantic and comforting in knowing that for now, those thoughts are mine alone. That they’re stashed away, waiting patiently for me to turn them into something more.

I love contemplating first sentences. I love opening a book, reading that first line and thinking about how it came to be. Was it the first thing that was written? How many times was it tweaked or changed? Did the story grow from this one initial thought, or did the story itself produce this first sentence, this introductory idea that opens the door and welcomes me into this carefully constructed world.

It is 10:30 on a Friday night and I am sitting alone on my living room couch, enjoying what turns out to be a rather large glass of wine. Dan has been in bed for some time now, having stayed up until 5 in the morning to complete a final paper for school, only to be awake again by 7 to travel to Harrisburg, PA for the day for a work trip. He is certainly deserving of a good night’s rest, but I, not yet tired on account of having enjoyed a regular night’s sleep last night, have yet to join him. And so, left to my own purposefully quiet devices, I am spending my night reading, and thinking about first sentences.

I have pulled 10 books at random off of the living room bookshelf, so that I may share their first sentences with you all.

This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come to lunch.

-The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

I still remember the shock I felt the first time I saw the transient.

-The Outsider: A Journey into My Father’s Struggle with Madness, by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer

We have been lost to each other for so long.

-The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

As you look down after takeoff from O’Hare International Airport, headed west for San Francisco, California, it’s only a few minutes before the intricate complexity of Chicago’s suburban streets is overcome by the rolling swell of the prairie.

-Methland: The Death and Life of An American Small Town, by Nick Reding

Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.

-Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood

Eat food.

-In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan

They came across the border like a band of bearded outlaws, eight reggae rockers in a black tour bus that smelled of chewstick, garlic, and marijuana, three months after starting a U.S. tour, three weeks away from going home to Kingston.

-She’s Gone, by Kwame Dawes

A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!”

-The Awakening, Kate Chopin

Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.

-Ahab’s Wife or, The Star-Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund

The circumstances of my mother’s life in no manner differed from the circumstances of the lives of those inarticulate people without number who compose the “lower” classes.

-Jipping Street: Childhood in a London Slum, by Kathleen Woodward

I have read some of these books, and not yet gotten around to the others. I know where some of the stories go, but the rest are a mystery to me. But either way, I love knowing that there are hundreds of pages to follow. That it all starts with a single sentence and grows from there into a story. That stories are something we create, something at which I can work slowly, and piece together bit by bit. I like the thought that writing first sentences and creating stories can be my life.

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