Message in a Bottle
First Line Friday: Memoir Edition

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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.


First Line Friday Returns

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"Now, what I want is, Facts." Well, you’re not going to get them. Not here, not today. Instead we’re offering fiction, and plenty of it. The first lines of it, anyway. Yes, it’s another episode of First Line Friday, in which we share some of the best pick-up lines in literature. The one that opens this paragraph is by Charles Dickens, by the way, spoken by the serious-minded and aptly named character Thomas Gradgrind.

Then there’s this, from Pete Dexter’s novel Spooner:

Spooner was born a few minutes previous to daybreak in the historic, honeysuckled little town of Millidgeville, Georgia, in a makeshift delivery room put together in the waiting area of the medical offices of Dr. Emil Woods, across the street from and approximately in the crosshairs of a cluster of Confederate artillery pieces guarding the dog-spotted front lawn of the Greene Street Sons of the Confederacy Retirement Home.

A sentence full of facts, and yet it has an impudent tone that I don’t think Sir Gradgrind would approve. “Dog-spotted” is one very vivid detail that would undoubtedly elicit the same comment he makes on page two of Hard Times: “We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here.”

Gradgrind might be more amenable to (although confused by) The Space Child’s Mother Goose by Frederick Winsor. It educates kids about the complexities of physics and astronomy in verse, and it starts like this:

Probable-Possible, my black hen,
She lays eggs in the Relative When.
She doesn’t lay eggs in the Positive Now
Because she’s unable to Postulate how.

But let’s stop worrying about Gradgrind’s opinions and just savor some excellent beginnings, Big Bangs that birth a storyteller’s universe.

  • Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”
  • J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”
  • Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
  • Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: “One summer afternoon Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed, executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.”
  • Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.”
  • Gregory Roberts’ Shantaram: “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”
  • John Scalzi’s The Android’s Dream: “Dirk Moeller didn’t know if he could fart his way into a diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.”
  • Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
  • Iain Banks’ The Crow Road: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

That seems a pretty good mix of the silly and the sublime. And speaking of the sublime, I have to mention John Crowley’s Aegypt series. It defies easy summary, but all of the four linked novels it comprises draw connections between antique myth and contemporary life. The first book, The Solitudes, starts with a beautiful image of a Renaissance mage peering into another realm: “There were angels in the glass, two four six many of them, each one shuffling into his place in line like an alderman at the Lord Mayor’s show.” We see this as mere superstition, and presume that we better understand reality now, but the series as a whole posits otherwise.

Crowley suggests that history goes through phases, and that the nature of the universe fundamentally alters with each shift. Science rules our day, but in the 16th Century, alchemy and magic functioned perfectly well. Or more concisely, as he begins a later volume in the series, Love and Sleep: “Once, the world was not as it has since become.” Which means, of course, that it’s liable to change again without notice, an inventive premise that plays out wonderfully throughout Aegypt.

Some novels feature multiple worlds, and some feature multiple first lines. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, was first printed with a prologue that opens as memorably as the story itself. Respectively, those sentences are:

  • "Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living."
  • "The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended."

William Goldman’s The Princess Bride is another such book. Many readers have been fooled by the first chapter, which says that what follows is a remembered abridgement of a story Goldman’s father read to him when he was a child, one that he’s never been able to find again. According to bookseller legend, customers still sometimes ask for the “real” Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern, the one that’s better than Goldman’s version. It’s never happened to me, but I like to believe that it has to someone. The start of the story and the “start” of the story:

  • "This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it."
  • "The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette."

Both great lines.

I’ll conclude with a final opening, this time from Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. It’s an epic of sorts, and she begins with her own poetic creation myth:

Ts’its’tsi’nako, Thought-woman,
is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about

Silko’s describing herself there, obviously. She’s modest, though, and doesn’t mention how much hard work goes along with the thinking. Sentences this arresting require as much effort as they do inspiration.


First Line Friday: Non-Fiction Edition




Previous installments of First Line Friday have been dominated by fiction, which probably shouldn’t be too surprising. Non-fiction writers tend to be concerned with having a sound basis for their arguments rather than worrying about the sound of their sentences. But many in the reality-based community marshal their facts in a stylish and memorable way, so I thought it was time to give some of them their due.

Memoirs generate a fair number of great opening lines, and one of the best is from a real master, Vladimir Nabokov. His Speak, Memory is considered a monument of the form, and its beginning lives up to the billing: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Portentous, isn’t it? He’s going to talk about his own life, but first he has to sum up our timeless existential condition.

Augusten Burroughs might not be so high-minded, but his opener for Running with Scissors is at least as catchy: “My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Naté, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick.” Where Nabokov was universal, Burroughs is specific; the perspective of a child and the era in which he lives are immediately apparent. 

Speaking of specificity, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face starts with a literal bang: “KER-POW! I was knocked into the present, the unmistakable now, by Joni Friedman’s head as it collided with the right side of my jaw.” That’s so on-target it almost hurts. 

There’s some marvelous scene-setting at the beginning of another memoir that was written by a young man who went on to have a pretty significant career outside of literature. It starts off almost like a hard-boiled mystery:

A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news. I was living in New York at the time, on Ninety-Fourth between Second and First, part of that unnamed, shifting border between East Harlem and the rest of Manhattan. It was an uninviting block, treeless and barren, lined with soot-covered walkups that cast a heavy shadow for most of the day. The apartment was small, with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn’t work, so that visitors had to call ahead from a pay phone at the corner gas station, where a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle.

That’s Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama. 

Writing about yourself seems to make arresting introductions easier, but biographers, science writers, historians, and other non-fiction authors have managed the trick:

  • Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man: “By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.”
  •  Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: “It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.”
  • Diane Ackerman’s An Alchemy of Mind: “Imagine the brain, that shiny mound of being, that mouse-gray parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone, that huddle of neurons calling all the plays, that little everywhere, that fickle pleasuredrome, that wrinkled wardrobe of selves stuffed into the skull like too many clothes into a gym bag.”
  • John Hersey’s Hiroshima: “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”
  • Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “We were somewhere outside of Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

Not sure what non-fiction category to put that last one in, or even that it isn’t really fiction underneath, but that’s a good segue. You didn’t think I’d let you go without peppering you with some eyeball-grabbing openers from novels, did you? Let’s kick off this section with a few titans from the middle of the last century.

Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize in 1976, could write circuitous sentences with the best of them, but he could be concise when he wanted to be, as he was when he began Herzog: “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” The Adventures of Augie March is more characteristically prolix and swaggering: “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”

Philip Roth is still with us and may match Bellow’s Nobel yet. His tribute to onanism, Portnoy’s Complaint, was shocking in its time and remains influential today: “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.” Augusten Burroughs may have had that line echoing in his head when he picked up his pen, in fact—see above. Roth hasn’t softened with age, either. His recent Sabbath’s Theater raises eyebrows right away: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” You won’t see lofty vocabulary crash into the gutter any quicker than that. He transitions from elevated diction into earthy Anglo-Saxon without an intervening word.

J.D. Salinger, that shrinking violet, would never dare be so explicit, but he’s quotable nonetheless. Franny and Zooey commences as follows: “Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone hoped it would stay for the big weekend—the weekend of the Yale game.” 

Going back even further, we have Isak Dinesen’s atmospheric Out of Africa: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” The location is doing a lot of work for her there, of course. Probably wouldn’t have achieved the same romance if she’d said, “I had a farm in Iowa.” 

Contemporary author Joshua Ferris challenged himself with an even less romantic setting than that—a cubicle farm in a corporate office. The dehumanizing nature of the work he comedically describes is comprised by the narrative voice he uses. Instead of featuring a single protagonist in his And Then We Came to the End, he gives us the collective experience of the employees: “We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen.”

Science fiction has its share of tasty hors d’oeuvres, too. A sampler plate:

  • Octavia Butler’s Kindred: “I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.”
  • J.G. Ballard’s High Rise: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
  • Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide: “The bureaucrat fell from the sky.”
  • James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah: “The irreducible strangeness of the universe was first made manifest to Anthony Van Horne on his fiftieth birthday, when a despondent angel named Raphael, a being with luminous white wings and a halo that blinked on and off like a neon quoit, appeared and told him of the days to come.”

If that angel is an avid reader, he’ll already know what’s in store, but the rest of you will have to wait until the next time First Line Friday rolls around.


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