Where Do You Start?

by | Feb 27, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Literature, The Great American Desert

A distinct sameness has been pervading the stories the kids in my writing class are working on.  A sameness almost unrelieved, despite all our talk about visual writing, and looking at examples in books, by description of any sort.  Our mice live in featureless worlds.  They display only the most rudimentary hints of personality.  I’d been banging my head against this long enough, and so admitted, provisionally, defeat.  They’re stuck on action?  Fine; we’ll have action, but at least it’ll be interestingly arranged.  Yesterday I reshuffled the deck.  We made a list of the main events of ‘Cinderella’ and then chopped up the list.  Then we each chose a different place from which to tell the story, rearranging the remaining elements until we’d found a different, interesting, workable way to tell the same story.  For tomorrow they are to have found a new place from which to begin their story, and to have written that section as scene one.

Beginnings are awfully important.  Over the course of writing The Great American Desert I auditioned lots of lots of scenes for that crucial role.  I would cut the MS into scenes, and parts of scenes, and lay them out on the living room floor, wait for the cat to stir them up.  The solution I eventually adopted came out of a meditation on various novels whose action, though the narrative may flash back and even forward, is confined within the space of a day.  Ulysses falls into this category, as do several novels by Virginia Woolf, but the one whose structure really appealed to me was Ansichten eines Clowns (Opinions of a Clown), by Heinrich Böll.

The book opens with Hans Schnier, the clown, arriving at the train station in Bonn, his hometown, and, with an effort of will, not allowing himself to fall into the automatic routine he has followed almost daily for the past five years:

Down the train station steps, up the steps, set the suitcase down, take the ticket from my coat pocket, pick up the suitcase, hand over the ticket, go to the newspaper kiosk, buy an evening paper, go outside and hail a taxi.

The routine of arriving in a new city is not the only thing that is broken.  Over the course of the novel, which in real time spans only a few hours (it is already dark when he arrives, and on the last page he is back on the train station steps that same evening, in face paint, strumming his guitar and singing a song he has just written about the Pope) we learn how and why he became a clown in the first place, and how it is that he finds himself back in Bonn with a banged-up knee, without taxi fare, abandoned by his common-law wife, and with his career in shambles.

My character Antony Munchner likewise finds that the decisions and circumstances of his life have conspired to place him back in his hometown but in a new role, and that on this crucial day, the day of his grandfather’s funeral, he stands at a crossroads.

I keep meaning to compile a list of my favorite openings:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

            Sie haben mir eine Strafarbeit gegeben.

            El coronel destapó el tarro del café y comprobó que no había más de una cucharadita.

            He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.