Memorable First Lines – Weekly Writing Challenge

11 09 2012
English: Cover of serial "Tale of Two Cit...

English: Cover of serial “Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week’s writing challenge asks us to focus on the author  who  has   influenced us most, for me an almost impossible task.   So many authors, so many  stories  have influenced me throughout these  years beginning with the ones my mother read or told me on her lap.  How could I choose just one?  So I thought I might  begin this week’s challenge  with a few  great opening lines from some favorite books,  lines  I’d put on my top  100 list and why.

A good place to start is John Irving’s opening sentence in A Prayer For Owen Meany .   If your interest is not pricked by this line  “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice-not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a christian because of Owen Meany.” you were obviously born severely deficient in curiosity.  When I got to the end of the story,  to that very last line in the book, that first line  in the book immediately sprang up  in my mind and I marveled at the serendipity.  “Kudo’s”  I said to the author. I  forgave him for the burden of  his wordiness and any other  small grievances I might  have had as a reader as it was apparent that the ending was known to him from the beginning.  That story was so well crafted there seemed no other reasonable way for the book to end.  Since then I’ve read 5 more of the 12 novels he’s written over the past 40 years.  He remains a favorite.

Recently I read an interview he had given at Good Reads in 2009 in which he explained  his writing process; “For 12 novels the last sentence has come first, and not even the punctuation has changed. From that last sentence I make my way in reverse through the plot, because there always is a plot—I love plot—to where I think the story should begin…..And once I get that first sentence, I can begin writing the novel.  By then I know the whole story and all the important characters; how and where they meet, when their paths cross again.”

Of course.

Another favorite author wrote this  first line “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” in  Love In The Time Of Cholera. The smell of almonds, in all it’s darkest evocations,  permeate the story.  Gabriel García Márquez  leaves no doubt that he  also knew the ending of his story before he ever put the first word of it down on paper.

With this concise, sparse line from The Gunslinger, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Stephen King  invites you into his unknown territory with a sense of deep  foreboding.  King is the master of a great read with an acute understanding of  people, both as characters and as his readers. He knows how to crook the finger to beckon us carefully  into the dark. Contrariwise it him took 12 1/2 years to finish this dark adventure begun on a ream of bright green paper found at the library.  While the rough outline of this story seems  constant throughout it’s  many revisions I find it hard to  believe the last line had been written in  beginning.

Another concise  line  “My name is Ismael” in Melville’s Moby Dick, gives us absolutely no clue to the story and we are left to pilfer around in the words a little to see if we’ll continue. This first line while widely known would not make my list although the book is a favorite. The fourth line however, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”  will probably hook you and could have been a great opening line.

Sometimes what I like best about an author is his ability to construct a masterful sentence as quoted above.  Or one like  Charles Dickens  used to open  A Tale of Two Cities    ” It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” with it’s cadence and dichotomy.

A more modern opener  is the one  John Hawkes used to launch  his 1964, Second Skin,  “I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self. ” I’ve included this second line too because I  particularly like the  truth in it.

Many of the best novels don’t have great opening lines of course, relying instead on the force of it’s characters or a story too  compelling to ignore. But those that do are rarely forgotten by readers and are the ones we as writers aspire to.


A Few Of My Favorite Things – An Old Card

5 09 2012

My reputation is that of the ‘keeper’ in my family, the one who keeps way too many things, you know the one with the overflowing closets and the oddest keepsakes.  The one most all  the relatives shake their heads about and cluck over “… whatever in the world was she thinking to keep this silly old thing?” And while I don’t have the first dollar I ever earned  I do have the first Social Security card I ever received.

Back in 1953, when I was still 13, my grandmother wanted to take a small summer  vacation from her job as dishwasher and chief doughnut and biscuit maker in the little cafe in our country town but she didn’t want her boss  giving away her job in the mean time. As always my grandmother came up with a practical solution to her dilemna that we both thought just about perfect.  Come summer  I’d be out of school and while I was not a cook by anyone’s good measure I could wash dishes quite well. The thought of a real job and it’s possibilities made me almost giddy; real wages, thirty-five cents an hour, for a set amount of hours every week.  For three whole weeks.  It was going to be a great summer.

 In 1952 a Kansas hero who’d  grown up in Abilene less than 30 miles from our town was elected  President.  Irving Berlin wrote a song for him.  We wore his ‘ I like Ike‘  buttons.  Heck, we felt like we practically knew him and Mamie.

Folks were in a patriotic mood that year, Ike was going to end the war in Korea and bring our boys back home. We’d had enough losses. In many places that November people lined up at the polls before dawn on their way to work.  Ike won by a landslide.  His inauguration the next  January was followed by “the most elaborate inaugural pageant ever held”, a two and one half hour  parade that included three elephants, Alaskan dog teams and an atomic cannon named  ‘Atomic Annie‘.  The country was closing the door on the old war era and walking right into the cold war era.   Later that year Stalin died, Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, Swanson sold it’s 1st TV dinner, the 1st TV Guide was published as well as the 1st James Bond novel  and the 1st Corvette hit the road.  CERN, NASA,NATO,NORAD and a National Highway System were established that year.  In a darker turn GE announced  it would fire any worker who was a communist, Fidel Castro and his brother were  setting the stage for the Cuban Revolution and the CIA sponsored  a panel to discuss UFO’s.

Holding that old card  in my hand it would be easy to fall prey to the nostalgia that the memories of being 13 in that time of such great enthusiasm conjures up. We were full of optimism, the world was full of possibilities, we expected to work hard and succeed, we liked Ike and every good patriotic thing he stood for. Looking back now, through these adult eyes  sharpened  with the cynicism of  time and hindsight, I know the McCarthy hearings  are coming, that polio is not yet down for the count, that the cold war will continue till the 90’s,  that  school desegregation and civil rights  will come only at a high price; and that many things that look like progress are really just another  retreat in disguise.  Our world changes and we make accommodation. My old card could not be used today because it carries the stipulation ‘not for identification’.

None the less progress  was made that was real, that  endures.  The Cold war ended, the Salk vaccine stopped Polio cold and many other childhood diseases are rare.  We have a wealth of devises not even imagined then. In so many ways we are blessed with success beyond our  dreams.  Today the  Americans I know remain  full of optimism towards the promise of the future, believing in the best of  the ideas that unite us  but perhaps not quite  as naively as that long ago teenager.

And they still like Ike in Abilene. This summer they showed that love with another parade.

An Obsession With Hope

4 09 2012
Spitzer Spies Spectacular Sombrero

Spitzer Spies Spectacular Sombrero (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sombrero Galaxy is this huge, magnificent, psychedelic,  galaxy  in the Virgo cluster 28 million light years from earth containing a black hole believed to be one billion times more massive than the mass of our sun.  Think of those numbers for just a moment; 28 million light years away and that is in one of our nearer galaxy clusters. A mass 1 billion times greater than our sun. This is the universe we live in and are just beginning to understand. An understanding  that is in its infancy.

We are just remembering how to crawl.

We have sent Curiosity, a breath-taking feat of imagination and engineering, to walk about on Mars and report back to us; and we are still in the infancy of our exploration of near space. In far space  the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Telescope has found the stunning,  super massive, Phoenix  Galaxy Cluster  5.7 billion light-years from Earth  just as we’ve begun to dip our toes into the  nether of the cosmos.  It is churning out stars at a rate of about 740 a year.  There is music of a sort, a mermaid’s song,  in the formation of stars; the famous Perseus cluster, as it formed stars,  “produced sound waves with an incredibly deep B-flat note 57 octaves below middle C. “

As Dr. Seuss said “Oh, the places you’ll go.”

It puts the concept of infinity beyond the scope of my puny imagination.  It puts the glory of our Creator beyond my pitiful ability to imagine.   I am less than the amoeba gazing up at a man.  I am less than a mote in eye of God.

And yet, in spite of all I know of  man’s inadequacies, man’s limitations, man’s insignificance  in this universe  I am filled with hope because man appears to have been deliberately engineered to possess  an unlikely  obsession with hope. A feeble creature born audacious,  born with blinders to his limitations and the    improbability of his successes,  born to turn his phoenix  face to the shining sun and dare the destruction, again and again; determined to hear the music of the stars and to dance among them.

“I knew the moment had arrived

For killing the past and coming back to life”  Pink Floyd

On A Foggy Morning

1 09 2012
East Texas Sunset 5571

East Texas Sunset 5571 (Photo credit: Paul Lowry)

In East Texas foggy mornings are a given, especially in the spring and fall. These are some of my favorite times of all, everything seems hushed, tranquil and I am shrouded,  enveloped,  in nature’s peace. The world seems new-born, full of comfort,  and slightly alien.  On those mornings the sounds I choose as a background for the day’s awakening and  the  morning rituals are Gregorian Chants.

On other mornings when I must venture out into the world, on to the highways, though piney woods, over hills and into the day, the sounds I choose to take with me  on the journey mirror the mists and mysteries I seem to be traveling through on the way from here to there.

“The sweet smell of a great sorrow lies over the land
Plumes of smoke rise and merge into the leaden sky:”

from Sorrow by Pink Floyd

The Sound Of A Hero Faltering

31 08 2012
Photo of Clint Eastwood and Don Hight from the...

Photo of Clint Eastwood and Don Hight from the television program Rawhide. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clint Eastwood has been my hero since the time of Rawhide, back in the old black and white days, long before “Make my Day”  became  synonymous with the toughest kind of cool.  I’ve loved every laconic phrase he’s ever spoken, every sardonic little jibe, every sexy stroll down every  dirty wind-blown   noonday street in every spaghetti western he ever made.  He was the dusty ‘aw shucks’  cowpoke who’s sharp acerbic wit, delivered with a low growl and a  slightly crooked grin, was  as lethal as any bullwhip, the menace foreshadowed only in the slow  tightening of the squint of his eyes or the quick turn of the head to  expel  the cigar  perpetually clenched between his teeth.

The man behind the cowboy  was a man of huge intelligence, full of benign self depreciation who seemed to just go on, as great as always, forever. I admired him immensely.

So when the  Republican Convention’s big back stage lit up last night  with a famous image of the Gunslinger I smiled in anticipation.

Roland on the cover of the comic The Dark Towe...

Roland on the cover of the comic The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born #1. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the still lean, still tan  hero ambled out on stage to the roar of a cheering, mostly surprised crowd  I thought, well – how great is this? The Gunslinger  seemed genuinely pleased by the  crowd’s affection.  After smoothing down his thinning white hair he began strongly enough.  But when he got to the place in his performance where he was  supposed to carry on a one-sided conversation with an invisible  president sitting in an empty folding chair the parody fell apart.

As any comedian will tell you and what the planners of this portion of his appearance, being politicians and not entertainers, did most obviously not know; delivery and timing are every thing in a successful comedic skit.

Time and circumstance  have slowed both this laconic  man’s delivery and his timing. Perhaps  his misplaced trust in the evening’s planners led him into a performance he would not have attempted other wise. Perhaps his ego did.  At any rate the result was calamitous. It appeared to me that he knew right away the skit was in trouble but he soldiered on. After all what else was Dirty Harry to do?

The sound of your hero faltering is a terribly painful thing to hear.

I  turned off the TV,  got up and walked out of the  room.


The Captive

30 08 2012

I’m writing about sounds this week as part of a challenge and thought this episode from my past might  be worth telling as it shows some ways that sounds influence our life, our emotions and our memories.

Port Arthur

Port Arthur (Photo credit: Mathew Knott)

In the late 60’s I moved  myself and my five children, a son and four daughters,    into a beautiful old 1920’s  house along the ship channel in Port Arthur,  Texas while my husband built office buildings in Houston.  He stayed with a brother there  during the work week coming home to us late  Friday then returning on  Sunday.  Through the rest of the week I was a ‘single’ Mom.  Money was tight so several things had been  postponed till later while we got the Port Arthur  household set up and the kids enrolled in school.  A phone  and a TV were  on the ‘postponed’  list but I’d grown up without either so it was not a big  deal.  The library was close  and we had neighbors.

For a family from the middle of Kansas it was like living a great adventure  in a foreign  country.  The  street our house sat on was lined with palm trees,  from our  front porch we could watch the barges and ships navigate the channel, feeling as  well as hearing the melancholy booms coming from  the horns of the passing ships.  The sea wall was within walking distance for a son who loved to fish.  The beach was a short drive away.

On one  side of the house lived  a tree  so overgrown with  entwining wisteria  it’s vines created a green, cool, intensely  fragrant  bower-like  cave. The kids spent many make-believe hours playing inside this enchanted space calling  it “Heaven”.  In the evenings after dusk the  songs of backyard crickets, cicadas  and frogs  blended with those of the ship  horns to create a comforting if not melodious background  to accompany our end of the day routines.

One evening, after we were all upstairs in bed, the kids quietened at least  if not quite asleep and me reading a book,  I heard a different kind of  sound. One I did not like.

Quietly, I put down the book and concentrated on listening very carefully.

Again I heard the familiar but disconcerting sound of wood slipping against wood. I thought back, going over all the steps in my ‘closing down the house’ routine. The doors were all locked – I was certain of that.  We’d had some windows open downstairs letting in a cool breeze.  Surely I’d checked, closed, and locked each window  on the sun porch and the kitchen.  But what about the ones on the back wall of the dining room or the living room? Unquestionably, I knew I had not checked every window downstairs.

Again that sound slithered through the quiet of the house.

Heart pounding I slipped out of bed and put on a house coat.  Remember, we had no phone, it was on the postponed list  and these were pre-911 days.  On silent feet I moved carefully across the hall to my son’s room knowing there was a baseball bat in a corner there.  Shaking him awake gently while telling him to keep quiet,  I whispered to him that I thought I had heard someone opening a window downstairs, I thought there was an intruder.  Retrieving the bat from a corner I told him my  plan, he was to stay close behind me as we moved down the stairs and towards the doors directly beyond the stairs.  When we got to the doors  he was to  run next door and get the neighbor while I stayed at the bottom of the stairs with the bat. You run no matter what happens, I told him, I have the bat and it will be enough till you get back with the neighbor.

Scared, filled with dread we made our way as noiselessly as we could through the dark, down the hall and carefully down the top three steps, me with the bat, my son right behind me when once again that slipping sound wedged itself into us.

“Mom, it that what you heard? It that the noise that scared you?” my son whispered.

“Yes.”  I nodded in the dark.

 “Mom, that’s my frog.”

“What?”  me, not quite  so quietly.

“My frog”  he said again “the one I’ve got in the coffee can  in my closet. When he jumps,  he hits the lid of the coffee can and it moves a little bit across the floor and it  makes that noise. Come on – I’ll show you.”

End of that  story.

The Sound of Noon

29 08 2012

Noon (Painting II)

The sound of noon was the same every single day of the week, Sunday as well as the other work-a-day  six, every single month of every single year I lived in that small town in a slight  valley  not far from the cool brown of Gyp Creek in the middle of wheat fields, in the middle of a state, in the middle of the country in the middle of the ’40’s  and ’50’s.

That sound was as dependable as the cycles of nature, it  never had a sick day, never  took a vacation and it never malfunctioned.

Our Town  Whistle   blew   reliably  each and every  high noon with a shrill and arrogant audacity,  mounted on the tower, powered by an air compressor, sounding like a cross between a steam  organ on steroids and the shriek of a banshee, breaking the working day asunder, signaling  that half the work  was over.   On Adams  St.   teachers  were compelled to lay aside  books and send the  town kids home  and the country kids down to the lunch room,  some for hot meals, some for cold.  Lucky ones got to spend a penny on the candy jars in one of the two grocery stores on Main street.   Elsewhere  a workman laid down his work, picked up his lunch bucket and  headed  for the closest shade. A little further out from town a farmer untied the bandana round his neck and wiped the tyranny of the field from his face and headed on up  towards the house.

On any given  Sunday that sound  reminded the Preacher that a chicken  dinner was also a needful thing.

Every once in a while that jolting sound of noon came crashing, careening through the stillness of  night, tearing dreams apart  and wrenching  us all out of bed and down the stairs in a frantic  attempt to get the furniture up on blocks out of the reach of the  cold dark waters rushing, breakneck,  down on us from Gyp creek.

On those nights  the  sound of noon became our one  thin  shield against calamity.

I get back to that sweet-smelling land sometimes and drench my ears in the sounds along country roads; the rustling sunflowers, the whispering cottonwoods, the sound of a breeze so slight in the fields it almost isn’t there. Later hot and dusty, I wander down  towards the fountain on the square for a drink of cool water.

And once again I hear it.

The sound of noon  remains there still, unmuted and fierce,  the audible  promise of community still loud and clear,  still unchanged,  full of ear rending clarity, clanging out it’s song of  one for all and all for one  to  any body who wants  to listen.

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