The ninth instalment in our series where authors revisit the opening sentences of their stories or poems. Here, Ann Beattie about the beginning lines of her story ‘The Indian Uprising’.
‘There’s no copyright on titles,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t be a good idea, probably, to call something “Death of a Salesman”, but you could do it.’
First lines, like first dates, or the first bite of dessert, can be deceptive. As a writer, I distrust them (well: I no longer ‘date’ since I’ve been married 25 years; there are many ways to surprise your husband in print, but this won’t be one of them), and I particularly dislike often-quoted first lines (that shall here go unmentioned) because I’ve been told everyone loves them. Who among us instantly adores a person we’ve been told we’re sure to love? I’m restrained in my judgment of people on first meeting and averse to trying a bite of chocolate macadamia mousse with sage flavored crème fraiche topped with sugared lavender. Really – get that stuff outa here.
But first sentences can’t be banished, because a writer has to begin somewhere. I’ve often transcribed a sentence that’s popped up in my head for no good reason, just to see where it will go. In one of my early stories, ‘Dwarf House’, the sentence I heard in my head was: “ ‘Are you happy?’ MacDonald says, ‘because if you’re happy I’ll leave you alone.’ ” The story got written. Only later did I realize that that night I’d eaten at MacDonalds.
I often throw out the first paragraph, even the first page, once it’s written. I like to begin not with words, but at the point where the words simultaneously start to make organic sense in the story, yet – in terms of the larger story – remain a bit elliptical. It’s why I often begin with dialogue: of course it’s casual (not really, but it will at first appear that way); it involves our senses, because we have to hear or, more fun yet, overhear; spoken words are not often the real starting place of what we want to say, but a polite or even conflicted beginning – because we may not even know what sentences we are about to form ourselves.
At this point – since it’s not the beginning – I’ll talk about the first words of ‘The Indian Uprising’. The story had no title when I started writing. I found that I did, however, have a character in mind who was speaking at the beginning, yet at the same time I thought of another character (both were people I knew well) who might intrude and offer a more skewed, more original (to me) character who was ultimately based on neither person, because, after all, I was also writing fiction. That meant the character exceeded my grasp and was full of thoughts and mannerisms that came as a surprise to me, as the writer.
Several times I’ve wanted to title something one thing, but have realized or been persuaded it isn’t a good idea. I’ve known for a long time that there isn’t a copyright on titles, but still . . . do I want to get into the confusion that causes? (Also, I’m rarely good at it. For years, Roger Angell, my editor at The New Yorker, titled most of my stories.) I mention this because while I don’t begin a story with a title in mind 95% of the time, I have anxiety about coming up with one, and when I do, it will often have been taken. So there it is: inherent title anxiety. It floats like a dark cloud over the story that does not yet exist. The other thing that must be found is the tone, and there I’m looking for something convincing but also not harmonious. Close harmony is sometimes nice in music (Ah, for the days of the now disbanded Girlyman), but I never want to be doing synchronized singing with my narrator. I want to be out there on the sidelines, cracking the occasional joke, or up there on that cloud, happily blocking the light. If people see too clearly, they do not see at all.
But back to my beginning: dialogue that I hope establishes tone; an allusion to Death of a Salesman that might take on more thematic meaning as the story proceeds. When I invoked that play, I didn’t consciously know that. If it hadn’t become necessary to the story, I would have taken it out. Following my instincts, I wrote the important word ‘death’. By then, I guess the story had me. It had me at ‘death’. The two men I’d conflated and fictionalized were, in fact, dead. I certainly could have elaborated, or even written what really happened (I didn’t faint; the story didn’t take place in Philadelphia, though for me that city will always be Bruce Springsteen’s song, and the fact that I once went to a party in the loft where the movie was filmed). All those echoes, all those memories nipping at my heels. I guess that like a lot of writers, I write for myself, hoping I’ll believe the fiction, that the stand-in will make what happened (or what I thought happened) less painful, or at least more remote. All those imagined understudies, those almost-as-talented, or as talented, or much more talented actors waiting in the wings for me to truly break a leg so they can go on. . . I’d like to appropriate them to narrate the story for me – that would be the way to really get distance – but there’s no script: that doesn’t exist until I write every word, and then it will forever be in my voice. As a story gains momentum, other stories circle, no different than the junk orbiting in space: the alternate stories; the stories that might refute the story told; the ironically overlapping stories – so at the very beginning, as much as I can acknowledge these possibilities without entirely sabotaging myself and whatever story I come up with, they’re what I try to allow in.