That Opening Paragraph

Ever wonder why you can find your way to a distant location in town, even if you only know a few, if any, of the names of the streets on the way? Erik Jonsson, in his book Inner Navigation: Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, claims that we all create “cognitive maps.”

“Navigation is knowing where you are and how to get to where you want to go. In an unfamiliar area this means that you have to use a map and compass to find your way. But if you know the area you need no such help. You know where you are, and you know how to get to where you want to be next. It is all in your head: you have a ‘map in the head,’ a cognitive map to go by.”


Once we come to know a place, we develop an “inner compass,” that turns with us, so that no matter where we’re facing we don’t get disoriented; we can find our way.

I remember how hard it was, at first, to memorize the grid of New York City when I worked nights as a cab driver in the summer of 1972. Street by street I learned to orient myself, memorize the names and numbers of streets and avenues, the direction of one-way streets, the entrances and exits through Central Park. Soon enough, though, when a rider slipped into the backseat and named an address, I could see in my mind’s eye alternate routes, could quickly pick the one I thought might get us there faster. Yet I couldn’t say exactly how I had come to know this. Practice, yes, but something else was at work.

photo of grid

Jonsson claims that this is “another neural system that operates at a level below awareness, the one that keeps us in balance as we stand and move around. It is automatic: we rely on it unthinkingly, taking it for granted, but when something goes wrong with it, we get in big trouble.”

And it can indeed go wrong. When the Vermont College of Fine Arts administrative offices were moved to the top floor of College Hall, I first visited the new digs by walking up the stairs on the west side of the building.

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Once there, the floor’s space imprinted itself on me, without my knowing it. Entering by the west stairs, however, was an unfortunate mistake, since the more convenient entry is from the stairs on the east side, an entry that I’ve usually taken ever since.

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And when I climb the eastern stairs, once at the top I feel disoriented for a moment, everything seems in the wrong place, because my initial mapping of the floor came from a western approach. I have to turn the floor around in my head before continuing.

First impressions, spatially, indeed count. And this reminds me of that crucial moment in any short story or novel: the opening paragraph.

Those first words serve as a crucial orientation, of the physical and emotional landscape of what is to follow. A reader begins a story as if opening a door to a new room: is that initial view inviting, intriguing, does it promise a path to perhaps more interesting rooms, does it encourage a step forward?

Here is the opening paragraph to Debra Eisenberg’s story “Transactions in a Foreign Currency” (from her story collection of the same name), which deftly defines the physical terrain and intrigues with unanswered questions:

I had lit a fire in my fireplace, and I’d poured out two coffees and two brandies, and I was settled down on the sofa next to a man who had taken me out to dinner, when Ivan called after more than six months. I turned with the receiver to the wall as I absorbed the fact of Ivan’s voice, and when I glanced back at the man on the sofa, he seemed a scrap of paper, or the handle from a broken cup, or a single rubber band–a thing that has become dislodged from its rightful place and intrudes on one’s consciousness two or three times before one understands it is just a thing best thrown away.

rubber band

We see the fireplace and sofa, we can imagine the type of cozy living room that contains them, the brandies, even the poor hapless man who has been so trumped by the unexpected call from Ivan that his value has plummeted to a near worthless bit of nearly nothing. We see the narrator, her back to him, phone by her ear. And yet much remains unanswered: who is this Ivan, why has he been silent for six months? And is the narrator reliable, is Ivan worthy of her so easily recharged devotion, or is she clinging to the promise of a man who hasn’t treated her well in the past and won’t in the future?

Eisenberg gives us details that allow us to create a cognitive map of the living room, and the likely social class of the narrator those details hint at. Yet we’re no sooner settled in this room than Ivan calls, and we realize that we won’t be hanging around here for long, the wider world outside beckons, as well as stretches of the narrator’s as yet unrevealed past, and some explanation for Ivan’s sudden reappearance. In one short paragraph Eisenberg has guided us beautifully into her story, blending concrete detail with emotional mystery.

Here’s another opening paragraph, one that orients us in a different way. It’s from “The End of the World,” by the Italian writer Dino Buzzati, from his Restless Nights: Selected Stories:

One morning about ten o’clock an immense fist appeared in the sky above the city. Then it slowly unclenched and remained this way, immobile, like an enormous canopy of ruin. It looked like a rock, but it was not rock; it looked like flesh but it wasn’t; it even seemed made of cloud, but cloud it was not. It was God, and the end of the world. A murmuring, which here became a moan, there a shout, spread through the districts of the city, until it grew into a single voice, united and terrible, rising shrilly like a trumpet.


This rather frightening image catches a reader’s attention: if the end of the world does come, it might look something like this, and those voices in the city below convey humanity’s understandable terror. So, who wouldn’t read on to the second paragraph?

Buzzati doesn’t continue in this monumental vein, though. The setting established, he then floats down to the city’s street level, showing the reactions and fears of first crowds and then individual people, finally focusing, until the end of the story, on the plight of a single priest who must decide, in the short time remaining, whom to absolve among the supplicants crowding around him. Yet even though the perspective has long shifted from the hand of God to a single individual below, that threatening fist still hovers in the mind, its clenching like some terrible ticking clock. Buzzati can depart from that arresting initial image because it never really leaves the imagination of the reader.

Writers take great care with the opening paragraph, because the reader, however unconsciously, is looking for clues of what will follow. A false move—either an excess of detail, or not enough; contradictory metaphorical language; or a passive narrative voice—can jar a reader’s “inner compass,” and delay the entry into the fictional world. When writers begin the construction of those first crucial steps, we would do well to remember the words of the novelist Allan Gurganus, who says of the writing process, “You have to maintain your critical sensibility and not just assume, because it was an extraordinary dream for you, that it will be a dream for other people. Because people need maps to your dreams.”

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May 13th, 2013 by admin

Nanobots, Water Walls and Dying Flies

Whenever a student comes to my office worried about whether he or she could write a “non-realistic” story for one of my classes, I always approvingly quote this passage from Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Writing Short Stories” (included in her classic collection of literary essays, Mystery and Manners):

“Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real—whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy. I mean that we always begin with what is or with what has an eminent possibility of truth about it. Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantastic because it is so real, so real that it is fantastic . . . I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein—because the greater the story’s strain on credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be.”

This usually reassures my nervous student, and me, too: yes, I approve of stories written outside the genre of realism, but I’ve also made it clear that writing a story dipped in fantastic waters comes with the powerful craft challenge of earning a reader’s acceptance through attention to detail. Problem solved, and I feel as if I’ve earned my keep.

Though recently I’ve begun to wonder if I completely agree with O’Connor’s fantasy/realism equation. Certainly “a thing is fantastic because it is so real” holds for SciFi and Speculative Fiction writers, as this brief example from Neil Stephenson’s novel of a nanotechnological future, The Diamond Age, illustrates:

“Microscopic invaders were more of a threat nowadays. Just to name one example, there was Red Death, a.k.a. the Seven Minute Special, a tiny aerodynamic capsule that burst open after impact and released a thousand or so corpuscle-size bodies, known colloquially as cookie-cutters, into the victim’s bloodstream. It took about seven minutes for all the blood in a typical person’s body to recirculate, so after this interval the cookie-cutters would be randomly distributed throughout the victim’s organs and limbs . . .

“Detonation dissolved the bonds holding the centrifuges together, so that each of a thousand or so ballisticules suddenly flew outward . . . The victim then made a loud noise like the crack of a whip, as a few fragments exited his or her flesh and dropped through the sound barrier in air. Startled witnesses would turn just in time to see the victim flushing bright pink.”

I agree, a bit gruesome. Let’s look at a different, more calming example, from one of my favorite novels of recent years, the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age. The novel begins as a Gulliver-like account of the unusual culture of a people who live on a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, and then transmutes into an exhilarating, break-neck narrative. This section, from the early pages of the novel, describes the homes of the islanders:

“The houses of the upper town are built on islands of rock among the branching currents. At their rear the houses are attached to the rock. The river splits into two above the roof of a house, and these two arms flow around it before dividing themselves up further . . . the occupiers of many of the houses directed the water across the roof so that as it tumbled over the edge it became a lustrous curtain of water made up of several columns, in which threads of sunlight created the perfect illusion of sparkling beads of coral or a solid wall of water . . .

“When at night I was unable to sleep, I would watch the wall shining magically in the moonlight and listen to the trickling of the water until sleep reclaimed me. Or I would watch the wall from the room as the sun was setting, when it seemed that the wall was composed of a liquid crimson glow . . .

“Some inhabitants of the upper town distributed the water around their house by a system of narrow gutters that trailed across the ceilings; the water would flow over the sides of the gutters, thus creating walls of water inside the house, too. The rooms in such houses would be separated from one another by nothing but these cool, translucent walls. The water would be drained from the house by channels in the floor. These half-transparent walls breathed out an exhilarating coolness even on the hottest nights, but they long made me feel uncomfortable as naturally they granted those who lived within them no privacy; behind the wall to a neighboring room, objects and bodies appeared as deformed and imprecise shapes.”

So, when it comes to the fantastic, I’m on board with O’Connor’s observation that a fantastical world must be fully imagined and realized. Where I part with her is the assertion that “the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein.”

Recently I taught at The Vermont College of Fine Arts summer residency, and one of the stories discussed in a workshop I co-taught with Abby Frucht was a perfectly realistic story, by the student Mattieu Cailler, about a teen-age boy who enters an old woman’s home in order to perform a few simple errands while she’s away. He doesn’t really know this woman, has never been inside her home, and his curious attention to the interior details of the rooms, what they say about her, gives us a complex sense of the personality of a character who remains offstage. Yet the boy’s observations at the same time expose a good swath of his inner life—what he chooses to observe reveals his own character, and his attention to any particular significant detail makes it more than its simple self. Here’s a story where concrete detail is of paramount importance, as a tactic of characterization.

I’d say every fiction writer has to maintain utter attention to concrete detail in order to maintain a believable world, realistic or not. But what is “realistic,” anyway? Human beings contain within them multiple versions of what constitutes the world, and different cultures offer competing versions of realism. Every recorded angle of our eyes, every observation, is above all an interpretation.

Here, I think, is where the ‘creative” comes in triumphantly to what some of us like to call Creative Nonfiction. When attention to detail is at the same time wedded to the writer’s interpretation, then the ordinary world we think we know transforms, and becomes, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, ”so real that it is fantastic.” Creative Nonfiction is above all about interpreting what truth we reveal. I can think of few better examples than this following eerie, intense short essay (only three paragraphs long), “Flypaper,” by Robert Musil (a writer better known as the author of the monumental novel The Man Without Qualities):

“Tangle-foot flypaper is approximately fourteen inches long and eight inches wide; it is coated with a yellow poison paste and comes from Canada. When a fly lands on it—not so eagerly, more out of convention, because so many others are already there—it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles, nothing more than a soft, warm, unavoidable obstruction, and yet something into which little by little the awesome human essence flows, recognized as a hand that just happens to be lying there, and with five ever more decipherable fingers, holds us tight.

“Here they stand all stiffly erect, like cripples pretending to be normal, or like decrepit old soldiers (and a little bowlegged, the way you stand on a sharp edge). They hold themselves upright, gathering strength and pondering their position. After a few seconds they’ve come to a tactical decision and they begin to do what they can, to buzz and try to lift themselves. They continue this frantic effort until exhaustion makes them stop. Then they take a breather and try again. But the intervals grow even longer. They stand there and I feel how helpless they are. Bewildering vapors rise from below. Their tongue gropes about like a tiny hammer. Their head is brown and hairy, as though made of a coconut, as manlike as an African idol. They twist forward and backward on their firmly fastened little legs, bend at the knees and lean forward like men trying to move a too-heavy load: more tragic than the working man, truer as an athletic expression of the greatest exertion than Lacoön. And then comes the extraordinary moment when the imminent need of a second’s relief wins out over the almighty instincts of self-preservation. It is the moment when the mountain climber because of the pain in his fingers willfully loosens his grip, when the man lost in the snow lays himself down like a child, when the hunted man stops dead with aching lungs. They no longer hold themselves up with all their might, but sink a little, and at that moment appear totally human. Immediately they get stuck somewhere else, higher up on the leg, or behind, or at the tip of a wing.

“When after a little while they’ve overcome the spiritual exhaustion and resume the fight for survival, they’re trapped in an unfavorable position and their movements become unnatural. Then they lie down with outstretched hindlegs, propped up on their elbows, and try to lift themselves. Or else seated on the ground they rear up with outstretched arms like women who attempt in vain to wrest their hands free of a man’s fists. Or they lie on their belly, with head and arms in front of them as though fallen while running, and they only still hold up their face. But the enemy is always passive and wins at just such desperate, muddled moments. A nothing, an it draws them in: so slowly that one can hardly follow, and usually with an abrupt acceleration at the very end, when the last inner breakdown overcomes them. Then, all of a sudden, they let themselves fall, forward on their face, head over heels; or sideways with all legs collapsed; frequently also rolled on their side with their legs rowing to the rear. This is how they lie there. Like crashed planes with one wing reaching out into the air. Or like dead horses. Or with endless gesticulations of despair. Or like sleepers. Sometimes even the next day, one of them wakes up, gropes a while with one leg or flutters a wing. Sometimes such a movement sweeps over the lot, then all of them sink a little deeper into death. And only on the side, near their legsockets, is there some tiny wriggling organ that still lives a long time. It opens and closes, you can’t describe it without a magnifying glass, it looks like a miniscule human eye that ceaselessly opens and shuts.”

What could be more ordinary than meting out death to a household pest? And yet this is also extraordinary, if examined closely. Musil’s careful attention, combined with his analogies to human suffering—cripples pretending to be normal, men trying to carry a too-heavy load, a dangling mountain climber releasing his grip in despair—makes it difficult to observe the dying flies from an emotional distance. Even I, a hater of all flies—that carrion-swilling beast, bane of my existence in Africa, an annoyance everywhere else—can find compassion for these otherwise unrecorded deaths, see their ends as a mirror of fate. The realities writers strive to honor, whether invented, or observed, or remembered, are transformed by the intricacies of interpretation, and so transform the reader.

“Flypaper” reprinted from Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, translated by Peter Wortsman.

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July 19th, 2011 by admin

Two Way Street

Last week I was reading through an early draft of the critical thesis of Mayumi Shimose-Poe, one of my students at the low-res MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and one of her sentences popped off the page:

“There is a tightrope between the poles of “insider” and “outsider,” and as a fiction writer one is writing as an outsider, trying to sound like an insider.”

Now that’s an elegant way of describing the fiction writer’s task, I thought, the empathetic imagining we need to employ in order to enter the inner world of someone quite different from us. I read the sentence a few more times, proud of my student, when the thought struck me–perhaps because I’m currently finishing a non-fiction book and a novel at the same time–that something like the opposite might be said about non-fiction writers. In non-fiction, particularly memoir, one is writing as an insider, while trying to gain the emotional perspective of an outsider.

It’s a two way street, isn’t it? (Cue the obligatory image!) The fiction writer

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moves from outside to inside, while the non-fiction writer moves from inside to outside.

And this movement isn’t so very different from our own daily engagement with ourselves and others throughout the day. In order to understand a friend or family member during, say, a heated conversation, it helps to imagine what he or she is thinking. Sure, this is a fictional leap, since it’s impossible to know what another human being is thinking, but entering into the possible landscape of another’s thoughts, imagining that person’s perspective, is how we make our way through life.

On the other hand, if a person becomes tidally locked in his or her inner landscape, always buying one’s self-justifications and nurturing personal wounds, an effective corrective is simply to imagine oneself from the outside, to gain some necessary and potentially revelatory emotional distance.

As in our lives, so in our writing. We seek out what is unknown to us about our characters, try to imagine complexities we then mimic on the page. And when dredging up the stuff of one’s life in a memoir, it helps to hover outside oneself, like a ghost bent on the haunting possibility of insight.

So thank you, Mayumi, for that marvelous sentence!

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October 23rd, 2009 by admin