On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.
—Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
By coincidence, that’s exactly how this blog was born. A hundred or so years later on another continent, mind you, and under a different astrological sign, but otherwise the resemblance to Merton is uncanny—humble but auspicious origins that led to wide recognition and the admiration of millions.
Eventually, maybe. In fact, we’re talking ourselves up today only because that’s the focus of this installment of First Line Friday—we’re looking at memoirs, autobiographies, and self-portraits in prose. There’s something about sitting down to tell the chaotic story of your own life that tends to produce impressive beginnings. A little ego-inflation gives you a sense of control and helps things get started, apparently. With that out of the way, let’s proceed.
Carlos Eire shows off an arresting style in Learning to Die in Miami: “Having just died, I shouldn’t be starting my life with a chicken sandwich, no matter what, especially one served up by nuns.” One line down and we’re already smack in the middle of a crazy story, even before we get to the nuns.
Talking about death turns out to be a great way to talk about life, as Thomas Lynch demonstrates in The Undertaking: “Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople.” Serial killer? No, he’s engaged in the “dismal trade” of the mortuary arts, which has given him remarkable perspective on himself and his fellow humans.
J.R. Moehringer opens his memoir The Tender Bar in two different ways, once in the prologue where he emphasizes the place that formed him, and again in the first chapter where he emphasizes the person that place helped create. Both sentences compel attention:
- "We went there for everything we needed."
- "If a man can chart with any accuracy his evolution from small boy to barfly, mine began on a hot summer night in 1972."
How can you not order a round for the house and listen to the rest of the story?
No two memoirs start the exact same way, but they often jump off from similar points. Mothers, for instance, are a very effective prism for authors who are trying to view their own lives. Take NPR correspondent Jacki Lyden, who puts her manic, occasionally delusional, yet captivating parent front and center in Daughter of the Queen of Sheba: “My mother’s hand was open like a bisque cup, all porcelain, and Christ Jesus’ fingers were tentacles entangled around her palm.” With a delicate simile embraced by a monstrous metaphor, the sentence captures the subject perfectly.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is also about a troubled mother-daughter relationship, but its opening scene takes place when both characters are adults: “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.” Every aspect of childhood that Walls had to overcome seems present in just those few words.
Even in the absence of pyschologically unbalanced parents, it’s only natural for an author to start a life story early. As the adage has it, the child is the father of the man. Or woman. Eudora Welty, in One Writer’s Beginnings, tells of her foundational years as follows: “In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.” Mildred Armstrong Kalish’s Little Heathens describes a quick coming of age in less genteel surroundings during the Great Depression: “My childhood came to a virtual halt when I was around five years old.” Ishmael Beah, pressed into service as a boy soldier in Africa, had a more abbreviated and disturbing youth than that, about which he tells in A Long Way Gone. His approach to those harrowing years is understated: “My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.”
Annie Dillard writes about childhood, old age, and everything in between. Whatever her subject, she expresses herself like no one else (we’ve written before about her magical way with words). Not all of her non-fiction is strictly autobiographical—her ostensible focus is sometimes history, landscape, or another external topic—but her thoughts always reach the page through a very personal filter. Her self is present in everything she creates, as this sampling of her oeuvre suggests:
- Holy the Firm: Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time.
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest.
- Teaching a Stone to Talk: It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass.
- An American Childhood: When everything else has gone from my brain—the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family—when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.
All memoir is about the self, but sometimes an book downplays that reality by casting light elsewhere. It always reflects back on the author, though, as it does in James Salter’s Burning the Days: “The true chronicler of my life, a tall, soft-looking man with watery eyes, came up to me at the gathering and said, as if he had been waiting a long time to tell me, that he knew everything.”
Rarely, a writer throws up her hands and admits that self-interest is inherently untrustworthy. Mary Karr does this right at the start of Lit: “Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your heads that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am.”
This is an awful lot of navel gazing for one post, so let’s shift gears slightly before we go. Here’s a first line from a book that’s not about the person who wrote it, but about her grandmother. It’s a true story, but one that’s technically classified as fiction since the details are too far in the past to be verified. Jeannette Walls again, this time from Half Broke Horses: “Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.” The authors we’ve been reading today don’t generally demonstrate that bovine good sense, but their books (and their lives) are much more interesting because of it.