Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Birthdays and Beginnings

I always say that birthdays are my favorite holiday. I love celebrating the people I love, making a day (or weekend) all about them. I know some people think birthdays are depressing or silly because their only purpose is to mark another year “survived,” but I don’t get it. Why not say “Yay! You made it!” after another trip around the sun? Why not bask unashamed in the warmth of friends and family?

In this unabashed spirit, I wanted to do something a little different to celebrate my 23rd orbit. (I don’t believe that I’m 23 at all. I still read like I’m 13 half of the time!) When I compose posts for this blog, I’m usually wearing my reading hat. I take apart plots and examine beautiful turns of phrase and gush about characters (oh my gosh, I cannot wait to write about Girl Parts), but I also have another hat I like to wear. A secret hat. A hat I can barely talk about above a whisper, one that I don’t even like to admit I own. You see, I’m also a…writer.

I love building plots and turning my own phrases, but it’s kind of embarrassing to say so. I mean, everyone’s a “writer” nowadays. (Please note use of ironic/self-conscious quotes.) But hey, it’s my birthday! I’m celebrating the birth of me, so why not celebrate the birth of some of my stories? 

Let’s talk about opening lines for a minute. My best ones, I’ve found, can’t be forced. I don’t labor endlessly over them. They spring forth unbidden, like Athena. The French have a term for love at first sight that j’adore: “un coup de foudre,” a shock of lightening. That is the creative process for me. A first line comes and strikes me with its electricity. Then, I have to write it to its end.

I want to take a look at two of my favorite first lines that I’ve written. Both of them served my stories in different ways, but they have the same essence to me, that “first love” feeling.  They introduced me to my characters, drawing the story out of them. They told me how to begin.

There was a dog outside the diner.

This sentence doesn’t seem like much at first glance. It’s simple, declarative. I kind of liked that about it when we first “met.” It was so unassuming. Little did I know that in this sentence was my ending. (I love when the beginnings of short stories contain the seeds of the end.) 

A little history: I wrote “OPEN, CLOSED” for a creative writing class. My professor, the insightful Michael Downing, gave us a prompt meant to create a character and a place: A nineteen-year-old girl with a five-year-old daughter works in a place that serves food. The back wall is mirrored, the front wall is windowed. There must be a dog. At the end of the story, she discovers the door of her house is open. 

For this exercise, my classmates had the girl’s lover come back, threatened her child, and even transported her to Tuscany. I wanted something quieter, a story where her old life intrudes on her new one. I set mine in the Texas panhandle, creating a diner during the heyday of Route 66. I had an older graduate from my protagonist’s high school stop into the diner, running from her own problems. The two strike up a tentative truce when Sandy offers her a place to stay.

I found my story, but I didn’t know how to end it. I thought Sandy would take this dog home, this abandoned pregnant thing that mirrored how she was left years ago, but it didn’t fit when I wrote it. The other option did: Sandy tries to take the dog home, but it won’t budge. The dog stays at the diner, at least for another day.

Something blue was the bride, puffed up in a new white dress, wearing old pearls handed down from her mother. In an attempt to distract herself from her mood, she pulled words out of her name. Margaret. It was a game she had played many times, but today only certain combinations of letters jumped out at her. Age, err, mar, mate, rage, tame, regr…No. She was missing an “e.”

“Something Borrowed” was a writer’s block story, something like “take an old adage and work your way around it.” My reluctant bride Margaret appeared with her cousin Theodore. I was pretty affected by the scene in Evening where a woman’s gay best friend proposes to her, and I used this idea to power my story. In a time when it wasn’t OK to openly love men or be an independent woman, it seemed like a perfect out for both of them. Ultimately, Margaret refuses Teddy’s proposal and goes through with her marriage, knowing their “arrangement” won’t fix things. Here’s the end:

From across the white expanse, Teddy offered Margaret his arm. She took one step, then another until she was close enough to thread her hand through the loop of his elbow. Mindful of those waiting, they processed out.

I have a whole Word document filled with opening lines, sentences filled with characters and possibilities. (One that always nudges me is “The color of hunger is purple,” but I’m not sure who it belongs to yet. I like the “bruise” connotations.) Right now, I’m stuck on one and it’s getting long, maybe book-length. I can’t know how it will end, but I do know that births, of stories and of people, are meant to be celebrated.


  1. Really? You're celebrating your birthday? Awesome! I love birthday! ^_^ When is it? Or was it? In any case, hope your 23rd orbit is even better than the one that came before. ^_~

    I didn't know you could write! From those opening lines, you sound pretty talented. If I asked you nicely, would you let me read your stories? I love being a beta-reader, and I'd let you read my writing in return, if you so requested. (Plus I promise I won't steal your material and make it mine.)

  2. It's today actually. CUPCAKES! :)

    Aww, shucks. Thanks for your compliments/offer to beta! These stories are old news, and I'm kind of embarrassed about the middles, but if I write anything new that needs a hand, I'll let you know. (The newest "new thing" is so new that I'm not ready for anyone to see it yet.)

    Also, I'll return your beta offer with one of my own. I really LOVE editing.

  3. Happy belated birthday! I'm less than a week behind you :-)

  4. Thanks, Laurel! Yay for February babies! :)