Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Kathy Anderson on Beginning with the First Line

In the first in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Kathy Anderson, author of Bull (Autumn Press), discusses how a good first line inspires her.

For me, a story begins when I find the elusive magical first line. I picture the first line of a story like a hanger. You drape a story on that first line like it's a loose shirt, now held in place by its underlying frame. Everything hangs on that first line. It contains the whole universe of the story in it—the distinct voice of a character, what the story is about, the point of view, the tone. My biggest thrill is when a reader says I was hooked from the first line.

A first line cannot be gimmicky. It must not try too hard. Most of all, it should feel utterly confident. You recognize an authentic first line by your feeling toward it, like falling in love at first sight or meeting a person you want to make friends with. You're excited, intrigued, attracted. You put everything else aside and stay with it.

When I'm lucky, which is very rare, the right first line pops into my head, bringing with it all the energy and information I need to write the story. Those first lines feel like a gift, arriving with a big bow and a flourish. The work comes in finding the rest of the story to fulfill the miraculous start. When a first line pops into your head, you don't have to understand it but you do have to start following the trail it lays out.

But the usual way that I find the first line is to coax it out of many notebook pages. Sometimes it hides from me for years behind the word thicket until I go back, open that forgotten notebook, see it, pounce on it, and grab it out of there. When the time is right to write the story, those words you scribbled or typed in a flood of other words will now stand out. The line that starts a story has a definite charge to it, a whipped-up energy. Pay attention to that energy.

I write down first lines from stories I love. They are a mysterious bunch, those sentences. They follow their own rules, make their own path. You can't learn to write a first line by replicating ones you love, that's for sure. They insist on their own universe, don't work in anyone else's.

When I lead short story workshops, we read first lines from great stories out loud. I hope that we can learn how to recognize what works because there's no real way to teach what works. First lines can't be analyzed or deconstructed in any real sense. They can't be summoned by logic or formula. You have to hear them, feel them land, witness the magic.

How can you learn to write a first line that sings, grabs, contains multitudes? You can't. You can only open yourself to them. You can accept that writing short stories is an art based as much on instinct and feeling as it is on technique and skill. You can cultivate your woo-woo side, the wild artist in you. You can listen for the magic.

I don't know a lot of things about first lines. I don't know why they work on us the way they do. I don't know why some land like a depth charge and others sneak up from behind and put their arms around us. I don't know why they wait in our notebooks and computers for years sometimes. Maybe they are waiting for the rest of the story to arrive, piece by piece. Then they raise their arms, take their place on the hanger, and the story begins.