Commencement

sunrise

Image from personal collection

Morning, a thin textured blanket on my feet as winter air enters through the window screen to my neck, down between my shoulder blades and I press the back of my head into this old blue sweatshirt hood and bring my knees close together.  The quiet that’s outside, though there isn’t snow yet, is a quiet that waits for the snow, which will happen today.  The air is already veiled with wet.  I listen to the steady blow from the vents, different from the modulation of breeze through leafless branches outside.  I sit in this quiet and wait.  This day, this is my beginning.  This is one start.

*

This day, this is my beginning: I boil water for tea over a mostly blue flame, orange creeping up the kettle sides like old, desperate fingers seeking a grip on a mirror, sliding away, sinking back to blue, then to try again.  I look at the fire and consider its genesis: I can start it with the flick of a match, a thumb and spark from flint, add gas, fuel, and the fire burns.  Our days are occupied with variant beginnings, offered as they are offered most days, with indifference, like shelves of thick book spines, rows of vacant parking spaces and we can grasp at whichever we choose; if we choose, we can enter this corn maze through a number of the spaces between the stalks to find paths.

This is the life as a writer.  We anoint ourselves with sovereignty, rightfully so, and introduce our story to the world with a well-directed dart, call me Ishmael; Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  We own space and are as much a part of our stories as our characters; we are part of our stories because we are their tellers.

*

We’re in beginnings and potential beginnings, always.  Even more, we’re consistently in middles, like we’re in air.  The beginnings are as we ascribe them from where we make our first cut, where we choose to access them.  We watch, look back and relive and wait and then strike.  This will be our beginning, discovered right there in so much middle. The thing about our good stories is that they are always middles.  This is important, because we want what we’re telling to have stretch, extension.  We offer our readers a section of road and want them to recognize that that road came from far off and that it goes far off.  Our stories are glimpses into the expansive. They are snapshots.  When you are reading and realize this truth, you are humbled to know that the story isn’t page 1 to page 254 but is a life.  And lives are much longer than stories.  Thinking of this as we approach our work will naturally inject fullness into our characters and their beingness.  We are more interested as writers.  There is dimension, seemingly endless dimension, and that stimulates our writerly exploration.

When you start your story, independent from it being a shorter piece or a lengthy one, think about the life that you’re plucking your story from.  Think of what your characters were before the first page, what shaped them, what they were before the day started.  Try this: write about your morning; pick any point of that morning to start your story.  After that, write it again but move your start point an hour earlier.  Do it again if you have another hour more than that to go back to.  Then do the same thing with a fictional character.  What changes by moving your start point?  How does this shape your character?  Does the direction of your story differ?  Because it’s still the same life, the same maze.  You’ve just chosen where you want to enter it.

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9 thoughts on “Commencement

  1. Excellent point. Just thinking how effective a well-picked starting point can be in making us root for the character, e.g. in the first Die Hard film.

    • I think Die Hard can be used as a positive association with most anything in life, sort of the way you can answer any science question with “inertia” and be at least a little bit correct.

  2. Wow you can paint a picture. Lovely. Is this the opening of the book? If so, do you eschew that old saw–never open a book with weather? Although it has famously been done (who was that? And the book is now a classic.)

    • I wrote a story once where I opened and closed with the weather. At the time it was one of my favorite works. The opening seemed to be just wasted prose, useless and unimportant. But then, when it came back around with almost identical text at the end, it made sense. And I loved as people read it and got to the end, smiled/laughed and said “wow, I see what you did there…”

      Though to be honest, when I read the “don’t do this” stuff with how to write, I tend to want to experiment with actually doing that stuff. I’m an anti-establishment man in that way. Wild and crazy, that’s me…

    • Thank you, Jacqui. It isn’t an opening for a book. It lives solely in this post. Though maybe…

      I love that old saying, which is a saying I’m not familiar with. Like Rob stated, much of the “never do this” and “always do this” advice makes me immediately think of opposite examples that have worked in the past. There are, of course, a number of rules that exist for good reason, and rules that we, individually, subscribe to, but it’s dangerous to state them aloud as gospel for the whole artistic world to follow. (Even though I’m sure I’ve read heaps of things and whispered “ugh, never, never do that” to my own ears–sometimes hard to be a student of oneself.)

  3. Your writing is rich and evocative. It proves that even if every story has already been told, there is still another facet to polish. I’m going to read your post again this evening. Great inspiration.

    • Thank you, Sharon. Who said that there are only seven archetypal stories in the world? I don’t really buy that but I guess it is interesting to think of the thousands of different stories we’ve read and, if they all do root from one of seven sources, that means we, as writers, have been privileged with some pretty exciting wiggle room.

  4. I do have to agree that the style and form of this post is rich and robust. It felt like as I was reading it I could feel the morning starting up and the birds and the squirrels outside were chittering away as I began to start my day’s writing.

    When we read a book or story which captivates us, we dive in and experience the lives of the characters. So too should we dive in with the characters we are creating as we write. Good reminder!

    • I love, when writing, we feel like reporters more than creators. We sort of start bringing the news – I don’t remember from whom I heard it described that way – and we get to let the story happen to us just as it is happening to our characters. It’s a special time when that goes.

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