Sadly, the day finally came last year when my son’s standard opening for all his reports and essays was edited out by one of the sixth-grade teachers. Hello. My name is Sam Zafris and I’m here to tell you about (insert topic here).
I’d come to really love this opening line. It was simple, it got the job done, and it had personality and voice. Granted, it was not the most sophisticated sentence possible and would hardly have wowed the admissions folks at Kenyon College, but it always made me smile. And I do believe that if I could just start all my stories with Hello, my name is Nancy Zafris and I’m here to tell you the story of (insert story topic here), I would get a lot more written with much less pain and suffering and writer’s block.
But all young writers as well as their writing eventually reach puberty. What happens when we leave artlessness and blemish-free skin behind and try to recapture it on the other side?
There’s usually a period of Hey! I’m an adult! That’s when you write opening lines with really big words in them. And I applaud this phase. Love of words is one of the very strong reasons you were drawn to writing. In fact, I’m suspicious of 20-year olds who already write like Raymond Carver or Hemingway. Come on, where’s your excess?
Which brings me to phase two: excess. Not a bad thing. Why? Excess carved away is very different from inherently skinny prose. There’s something struggling to get out. In people who have to diet, it’s fat. But in prose, it’s depth. So to all us dieters out there: let’s just think of ourselves as really deep people.
Then there’s the Hey! I’m an adult and I can do what I want! phase. That’s usually when experimentation kicks in. Perhaps you carve up really stupid sentences, the kind that boring old people might write, and paste them back together randomly. But as you well know, boring old people are just not going to appreciate you, or the opening lines that result.
There are other phases, too. I mean, now that I have a puberty metaphor to work with, I could go on and on, but eventually, let’s say, you climb and claw your way back to the other side. That no make-up blemish-free look? You get the idea. That simple, artless sentence on the page is now deceptively simple, deceptively artless. It’s doing a lot of work, albeit invisible work, and it delivers personality and voice.
And what do you get as your reward?
People read right over your sentence and move on to the next sentence without even pausing to admire it. Or they say something like, You’re a writer? Or even worse, My 12-year old could write that. Which is at least a slight improvement on Picasso’s Nude and Still Life, which a mere 10-year old could paint. So there. Writing is harder than painting.
It’s no wonder that writers trying to escape the slush pile are lured into embellishing their openings a little more. But resist that urge to write to impress. Write the sentence that tells your story the best way possible.
The new opening line my son came up with?
You may think the government is just one big thing, but I’m here to tell you that it is actually split into three parts or branches.
I like that one, too.