Openings

Nancy Zafris
October 31, 2006
Comments 5

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?

No respect.

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.

5 thoughts on “Openings

  1. I couldn’t understand some parts of this article Openings, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

  2. Sam Zafris is cool. It’s funny–his opening line makes me think of something my mother always says on the telephone whenever I call to see what’s new. She’ll rattle on for a while about someone who died or the new Subway sandwich franchise that opened up in my hometown, and then conclude, “so that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” She always says this and I never know how to take it. Is it from a movie? Is it something Adam Sandler says? Or Garrison Keillor?

    One of my students at Brockport just wrote a cool first line: “I brake for squirrels.”

  3. Hello. My name is Jay Teitzell and I’m here to tell you how much I resonate with Nancy Zafris’s blog post.

    The key part of Sam’s opening is, “I’m here to tell you.” I love the declaration, “I’m here.” It’s everything you want in a person: their presence. Their reassurance. I’m here anticipates the question, “Where are you?” In this context, it’s a presence that’s literary and feels literal. I’m here in the story, I’m here in the first sentence, I’m here on the page, I’m here and I’m unashamed.

    Isn’t that were media beyond print so often fails us? Years ago, Pat Summerall dispensed with his presence in the radio commercials for True Value Hardware. The last one I remember sounded like, “AUTUMN IS ROOF AND RAIN GUTTER REPAIR SEASON. HI, PAT SUMMERALL TO TELL YOU YOUR NEARBY TRUE VALUE HARDWARE STORE CARRIES…” The majority of bombarding voices are no longer here to tell us, they are just to tell us.

  4. Pingback: fade theory » opening lines

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