If I Am Out of My Mind, It’s All Right with Me: Lines to Someday Write

Harper Memorial Library, University of Chicago (CC BY 2.0 – Rick Seidel)

During my year of graduate studies, I worked part-time in the University of Chicago’s Harper Library. Stack rats, we called ourselves, we tracked down and fetched books for patrons who did not care to venture into the stacks themselves. When business was slow, we were assigned to read the shelves, a chore that drew frowns. Reading the shelves involves tediously checking the call numbers on successive books to ensure that they are in proper order, especially important to do with open stacks. When I was assigned the task, I would pursue it diligently, then, growing weary with long strings of letters and numbers, I’d begin to pull books off the shelves at random and read the first and sometimes final paragraphs. Being an aspiring writer, I was intrigued by openings of novels.

How do you begin a novel? Where do you begin?

I no longer agonize over such matters: Stories that are meant to be will begin themselves, just listen for the line to sail by. But the obsession persists, and I have gone on reading opening paragraphs and collecting lines no matter where they appear in a book. These treasured quotations I dub, The lines to someday write.

Space limitations are going to constrain me from quoting whole paragraphs here, but let’s squeeze one in to start us off, perhaps literature’s most famous curtain raiser, the plight of the Oblonskys (Pevear and Volokhonsky’s superb translation):

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
All was confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess, and had announced to the husband that she could not live in the same house with him. This situation had continued for three days now, and was painfully felt by the couple themselves, as well as by all the members of the family and household. They felt that there was no sense in their living together and that people who meet accidentally at any inn have more connection with each other than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife would not leave her rooms, the husband was away for the third day. The children were running all over the house as if lost; the English governess quarrelled with the housekeeper and wrote a note to a friend, asking her to find her a new place; the cook had already left the premises the day before, at dinner-time; the kitchen-maid and coachman had given notice.

So, what do memorable first lines possess? What’s their special magic? I do not have a prescription to offer, but I am going to suggest a few salient characteristics. Reading Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina above, we can see that first lines often do a couple of foundational things at once: They capture an everyday reality and tone, a readily grasped universality, then nudge the thought as though giving it a shove with a sharp elbow, pushing it off-balance and making it uniquely representative of a single individual or group of linked individuals.

Universal? One could hardly achieve a greater universality than “All happy families are . . . .” Particular? Absolutely. I love “The children were running all over the house as if lost” (Constance Garnett translates the line The children ran wild) and the progressive walkout of the service staff. Tolstoy takes the time to give us these precise quotidian details, even though a creative writing instructor might object that reports of minor characters who will play no role in the protagonist’s story are unnecessary, even distracting, especially at the all-important beginning. But they are necessary. These secondary characters are who bring the Oblonskys to life. Tolstoy presents us with a dynamic snapshot of a complicated couple whose marriage has suddenly fallen into so much disarray that the effects are radiating out in every direction and will irremediably impact Anna Karenina ultimately. In the Oblonsky household the earth has moved, and even the coachman has handed in his notice.

And so, first lines connect us to the novel’s main themes in some manner, they must, but what can make first lines so wonderful is that they do not always necessarily relate to a specific present moment. The lines float above, detached and standing apart, offering a proscenium, as it were, where the action will soon take place. Why is this so important? In a novel or story we create a sandbox that we invite readers to step into and join us in play. We are asking readers to suspend their disbelief, yes, but even more fundamentally we are asking them to participate in the making of this experience. To live the story with us, to weep, to laugh, to feel a rising anxiety in the chest, and to do that, we must first get those readers into the sandbox, tempt them or provoke or challenge them, entice them, draw them in—oh, let’s just say it, to suck them in body and soul.

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin (David Wyllie, tr.).

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me (Ralph Manheim, tr.).

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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . .

Or more pithily, “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.”

Often, the opening is the closest the fiction writer dare approach the free-swinging gratuitousness of poetry. Whether those first lines are a startling assertion (Saul Bellow, “If I am out of my mind”), an as-yet unexplained action (Hilary Mantel, “‘So now get up.’ Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard”), a peculiar introduction (Herman Melville, “Call me Ishmael”) or an idiosyncratic voice (Gunter Grass, “Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital”), an amusing apothegm (Jane Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged”), a humble scene (Tillie Olson, “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron”), a striking image (Franz Kafka “a horrible vermin”), a light and unforced portrait (James Joyce, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air”), whether the lines cast their spell through some rhetorical effect, like anaphora (Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was . . .”), whether they flow from the prosaic everyday world into a lyrical aposiopesis (Virginia Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge!”)—whatever they may be, these opening lines are delivered with aplomb, with panache, Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita, love of my life, fire of my loins.”

Am I creating categories here? I like taxonomies, so perhaps I am, but leaky ones, to be sure. Sometimes first lines deliver a shock, a very uncomfortable elbow in the ribs, Colleen Hoover, “As I sit here with one foot on either side of the ledge, looking down from twelve stories above the streets of Boston, I can’t help but think about suicide.” Or Albert Camus, “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe. I don’t know, I got a telegram from home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday” (Matthew Ward, tr.).

Sometimes, first lines isolate a character quirk, Alison Fairbrother, “My father, a minor poet, celebrated holidays out of season.” Or a character’s particular quandary, Peter Taylor, “The courtship and remarriage of an old widower is always made more difficult when middle-aged children are involved—especially when there are unmarried daughters.”

Sometimes a placid scene raises our suspicion, Joseph Conrad, “The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.” Note that Conrad’s lines scan beautifully, perfectly balanced sentences to render a perfectly balanced scene. Or this, from one of literature’s most chilling stories, Shirley Jackson, “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Sometimes, first lines paint a heavily atmospheric scene, Delia Owens, “The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog.” Or Carson McCullers, “The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the tenants from the nearby farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world.” Isn’t “peach trees” and “two colored windows” wonderful?

Sometimes, against all precepts of fiction manuals, first lines present us with a complex scene, Cormac McCarthy, “They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truckbed teetering and tuning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinning and gesturing to others in a car behind and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddlepeg and listened with a wrinkled face.”

Sometimes an author’s first lines are pure whimsy, Laurence Sterne, “I wish either my father or mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing.”

A more dangerous route are first lines that are obscure, either moving too fast or too elliptically to pin down. Toni Morrison:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old—as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard).

Sometimes first lines are subtly tied to later lines. From my Harper Library days, here are the first and last lines from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (pay attention to the pine needles):

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.

He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.

Seldom, because it is a technique infrequently employed by fiction writers, you find addresses to the reader in the second person, but, when you do, it’s always arresting, and refreshing. Italo Calvino:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

Let’s conclude with the opening lines of possibly the most moving novel in English, the prologue of A Death in the Family: “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.” For more than forty years now I have been writing and rewriting James Agee’s lines in my mind, all these years so successfully disguised to myself as a writer.

What then can the daisy-chain of first lines we’ve strung here tell us? What message do first lines bear? First lines can be direct or indirect, businesslike or even puzzlingly indolent and vagrant, but afterward, recalled in light of our having read the entire work, they are revealed to be charged with significance, fire-tipped and fraught, calculated and lovely—or should I say, deadly?—invitations to step in the sandbox, to come and play. First lines are indispensable: The work cannot be imagined without them. There is no Anna Karenina without Prince Oblonsky’s infidelity.

And so here we find ourselves, morning in the writer’s studio: The blank monitor wakens from its slumber, the computer hums impatiently, the hard disk chutters, and the story that woke you unfolding in your mind yearns to step out on that proscenium and share its life with the waiting audience—where do I begin? “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” You might write and rewrite your opening lines a dozen times, but I counsel you to compose your story first and not fret over your opening lines. Trust the fair winds, when it’s time, those memorable lines will sail by.

Just grab them.