I had an epiphany the other day about the way I tell stories and about the stories I like to read.
Strike that: It was an epiphany about my craft and about the stories Iâ€™m likely to finish reading.
(The second sentence of this essay, which is another epiphany, came as I wrote that first sentence.)
Iâ€™m most committed to stories that hook me within the first paragraph. The writer usually grabs my attention with action or language, but itâ€™s always something about the plot that makes me finish the books I read for fun, and sometimes the books Iâ€™m assigned. I read The Mothers, a novel by Brit Bennett, earlier this year. There was a point within the bookâ€”I canâ€™t remember the momentâ€”when I became less invested in the characters. But I finished the book because I had to find out how The Mothers came to know what they knew and why the things referenced in the first chapter happened. I had stopped caring about some of the characters, but not about what I didnâ€™t know.
I thought When Abortion Was a Crime and The Myth of Seneca Falls, two books I was assigned for class, would be books I skimmed. They turned out to be books I didnâ€™t want to return to the library. Like The Mothers, they introduced (in the introduction, as is the custom for academic publications) stories I wanted the details on.
Swing Time is another example from fiction. I had waited for the book for months only to realize how challenging it would be to finish a 464-page book while writing a thesis, reading an academic book a week for my history class, and keeping up with the rest of my life. But Zadie Smith grabbed me by the jugular in her first sentence, and I couldnâ€™t abandon the story.
Another interesting thing happened when I read Swing Time: I was well into the book before I noticed how the narrator swings back and forth between recollections of her childhood and those of her adult life. The telling is not quite chronological, but itâ€™s fluid, and essentially knowingÂ the end at the beginning didnâ€™t bother me.
I wonder if I was unbothered because thatâ€™s the way my mind works. I realized recently that I resist constructing narrative. I had taken a writing notebook to the laundromat with me the other day, and I sat down to write while I waited for my clothes to dry. I knew the story, the narrative arc, I wanted to commit to paper, but I was stuck. I kept thinking, What is the best way to begin this story? It wasnâ€™t just that life events often donâ€™t have a beginning thatâ€™s easy to pinpoint. It wasnâ€™t just that, when I analyzed my feelings about the subject and considered the roots of those feelings, I found manyÂ different threads, any of which could be a beginning. It was also that I wondered, â€œWhat could I start with that would make a reader continue?â€
I work under the assumption that no one outside of my small but dedicated following will be interested in what I have to say unless I hook them within the first paragraph. Donâ€™t bury the lede. Itâ€™s a journalism rule. If it bleeds it leads is another. Watch your evening newscast; death and destruction come first, human interest stories last. Teasers open the broadcast and reappear before each commercial break. â€œDonâ€™t go away.â€ â€œAfter this.â€ The network wants your attention through to the end.
My literary writing has taken its cue from these journalistic positions, and the result is a narrative timeline that my writing peers tell me is difficult to follow. But itâ€™s also difficult to break the habit. The other day in the laundromat, I couldnâ€™t write anything because I was so busy thinking about how to begin the story.
I want that to change, for the sake of productivity if nothing else. But I also wonder if, beyond productivity, I need to change, if my habit is just my voice, my unique way as a writer, developing. If Iâ€™m honest with myself, I usually like my writing to stay as convoluted as the experience. I think I feel truer to the telling of the story if I express how jumbled it was. But I also want readers to finish reading.
So, Iâ€™m going to do an experiment. Before I fully return to the memoir/memoir in essays/memoirs, Iâ€™m committed to writing three short essays as straight narrative. This happened, then this happened, then this happened, and this is how I felt about it. And hopefully this will prove something to me about my storytelling.
In the comments, share with me please. What makes you finish a book or an essay? What makes you put one down and never return? If youâ€™re a writer, how do you figure out what the beginning of the story is? Do you write for people you know, or try to get the attention of people you don’t know?