August is here, and children have descended for beach and board games. I’d forgotten the fun of making (and consuming) giant family meals. In that wedge of time between the residency and now, I managed to write like heck, and to read two books, both of which made me think of first pages.
I tell my students that they have to grab the reader by the lapels and yank them in on the first page, the first paragraph even. It’s one of those phrases I get very tired of hearing myself say (and there’s that male connotation lapel thing). Still, I haven’t found a better way to say it. It’s a practical matter and I do miss the days when a book could warm in slowly, but I also miss the hours I used to have before “time saving” e-mail came along; not much I can do about either.
I have a pretty unscientific method of choosing what I’m going to read. Occasionally, I read a review or some such, or look at the list of suggested books that Amazon kindly and disturbingly provides. Most of the time, I stand in the book store or library and walk among the shelves waiting for a genie to rise from a binding and say, “Pick me.” Then, just like the editors and agents out there with their towers of slush, I read the first page, which in most books, is actually half a page. If I love the writing, I take the book. So, as in my writing: randomness plays a certain role.
Two books came to me recently about writers and writing: one from my husband Michael, the other calling from the shelves: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, and The Anthologist, by Nicholas Baker. I had resisted Cunningham’s book when it first came out, because I love Mrs. Dalloway, and resisted it being used as a sort of diving board. But Cunningham does a remarkable job, and writes so beautifully. I remember one line about a kiss being like a postage stamp on a forehead.
Baker’s book is a humorous take on writer’s block (and A.D.D). Anyone who has experienced either will have a laugh. Furthermore, it’s an homage to poetry. Woven through are lessons in writing poetry, stories of poets’ lives, and the worlds of the poems themselves.
So…back to first pages. On the first page of The Anthologist, we meet Paul Chowder and are given two explicit promises. His voice is comical and ironic, so we are promised a chuckle, and Chowder promises to tell us everything he knows about poetry: “truth opening its petals…”; truth that “smells like Chinese food and sweat.” He also mentions several vital poets, all in half a page.
On the first page of The Hours, Virginia Woolf is hurrying toward the river of her suicide while bombers drone in the sky (It is 1941). Her senses heightened, she observes “a scattering of sheep, incandescent, tinged with a faint hint of sulfur…” and passes a man wearing “a potato-colored vest…”
So…two first pages; half a page each.