Last time, I wrote an essay about endings—and for this issue I decided to write about beginnings. Topsy-turvy thinking, or all part of my careful plan? Let’s go with the topsy-turvy thinking. But I have a great excuse for going in reverse order: once again, I’ve been given food for thought by some excellent writers.
To begin at the beginning: I read an essay by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd recently—they’re the writer/editor duo who have been working together for forty years. They teamed up to write a book: Good Prose, The Art of Nonfiction. I liked the excerpt (published in the Wall Street Journal in January) from the book so much, I wanted to share and discuss some of the main points with those who may not have seen it. (And yes, I now own another book about writing.) But before I get to the article, I’ll do a quick check-in.
Are you still with me? Good!
As I mentioned in my last piece here in the Hippocampus craft column, I have read approximately a zillion essays geared toward college admission. What do I tell the kids when I look over their personal statements? I tell them they have to hook their readers, grab their attention, and capture their interest. But Kidder and Todd would say “Not so fast there, hot shot.” They feel that these metaphors represent a theme of “violence and compulsion.” To them, this suggests “the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader.”
If we are seeking a kinder, gentler beginning, what do we do instead of using a hook to grab the reader? Do we leave a trail of literary Reece’s Pieces to entice the reader to follow us, ET-like, through the sentences and paragraphs that follow? (In my case, this is the perfect suggestion!) How best to start?
Now, we’ve all seen essays that pack too much into an opening sentence or paragraph. The writer may leap right in with some high-flying stylistic choices, a dazzling display of writerly finesse, or an attempt to front-load the piece with details that could easily be spooled out slowly later on—all part of an effort to avoid boring the reader. As Kidder and Todd tactfully suggest, “It’s one thing for the reader to take pleasure in the writer’s achievements, another when the writer’s own pleasure is apparent.” Further, they say, “skill, talent, inventiveness, all can become overbearing and intrusive.” I agree that this kind of beginning can be overwhelming, confusing and somewhat of a distraction for the reader; it’s a bad way to start a relationship. As the authors point out, “You can’t tell it all at once.” Instead, you can dole out the information as you go, in a logical way: either “literal logic, or with the logic of feeling.” Finding that logical relationship is critical if you want your reader to trust and follow you all the way to the end.
Let’s face it: beginnings are tricky. As writers, we run the risk of losing our readers right off the bat by starting off with a “more is more” opening, full of fireworks and adjectives. While you may not be able to gain the reader’s immediate trust, confidence or affection with your words, you can sure turn someone off in a hurry. Haven’t we all experienced this—reading that first sentence and then turning the page or scrolling down to the next story?
So how do we avoid the instant turn-off? Is there a middle ground between bombardment and boring? Kidder and Todd suggest clarity and simplicity. Clear and simple beginnings engage the reader in a dialogue that will encourage “questioning, criticizing, and sometimes, you hope, assenting.” It may seem like a one-sided dialogue, but it isn’t really.
Clarity doesn’t sound that exciting, but the authors tout it as a “virtue…especially at the beginning of a piece of prose.” This made me curious. What about some of my favorite writers of prose? Do they follow the rules of simplicity and clarity?
I decided to take a look at a few just to see. Here is a small, random sampling of books within an arm’s reach of my desk:
“The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.” Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird.
“This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt. Everything else changes.” Abigail Thomas, A Three Dog Life.
“It’s odd when I think of the arc of my life, from child to young woman to aging adult. First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone and became her. Then I began to like what I’d invented. And finally I was what I was again.” Anna Quindlan, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.
“I feel bad about my neck. Truly I do. If you saw my neck, you might feel bad about it too, but you’d probably be too polite to let on.” Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck.
Simple, clear, and intriguing beginnings, wouldn’t you say? Maybe I need to rethink the whole hook, grab, and capture strategy. But when I started to write this, I wasn’t sure. As Kidder and Todd suggest, “what you know in prose is often what you discover in the course of writing it, as in the best conversations with a friend—as if you and the reader do the discovering together.” Which reminds me of something Joan Didion wrote: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”
While I still think there is value in a little well-crafted sizzle at the beginning of a piece, the notion of simplicity and clarity makes a lot of sense. Is it better to use an attractive lure instead of a hook? As the writer, that’s up to you. But as a reader, I rather like the idea of engaging in a conversation with you. I hope you feel the same way. Let’s begin the dialogue.
Risa Nye is a San Francisco Bay Area native. Her essays, stories, and articles have appeared in a variety of publications. She continues to mine her vast experience for more things to write about. She has an MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College in California. She co-edited the anthology Writin' on Empty.She writes about food, drink and films at EatDrinkFilms.com. Her memoir, There Was a Fire Here, was published by She Writes Press in 2016. Find her writing, including her forays into the world of mixology as Ms.Barstool (published on www.berkeleyside.com), and her blog at www.risanye.com.
On staff since 2011
Risa has also written for our craft column.