Where to begin?

By Catherine Keefe
January is a new romance, a second date with someone you will fall in love with. It’s you on your best behavior as the very most outstanding human being possible. It’s Brahms’ Op. 22, Num. 8 before the wedding; the predawn temple ball’s call to prayer; the first line of the first page of the first book you ever wrote or read.


                                                                                          Photo Credit: James Keefe

“Then there was the bad weather.”

Ernest Hemingway’s first line from A Moveable Feast cuts to the quick of great beginnings. He starts in media res, or “in the midst of things,” talking about the weather. His 1921-1926 Paris was so dreary “…the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe.”  But what makes this simple sentence such a classic book beginning is that it creates an immediate intimacy between the reader and writer with that word “then.” We can almost imagine a “before” without knowing what it was.  And even though Hemingway’s collection of “Paris Sketches” is about his experiences as a writer in the European expatriate community, it’s as much about the golden moments before the unraveling of his first marriage to Hadley.  Weather is both literal and metaphor although it isn’t until we finish the book, and reread the first line that we can make the connection.

As you begin this year and set your intentions for it, will your end – to paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets –  be found in your beginning?

For writers, each new project is a January. But unlike the calendar which rolls forward ready or not, a writing project can become balky as a skittish pound puppy facing the first open gate. How do you move forward?  The answer is so simple. Where do you wish to end?


Alhambra, Granada, Spain                                                      Photo Credit: James Keefe

The superlative beginnings – of a novel, memoir, essay, short story, poem, or screenplay – portend a shadow of the end the same way the foyer of a building establishes possibility for its inside architecture or a chef’s amuse bouche introduces first flavors to a restaurant visitor. Surprises can be expected, but organic.

As Richard Goodman clarifies in, “In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful, and Compelling Openings”:

The beginning of your story, essay, or novel carries more weight than any other part of your work.  This is simply beause it is the beginning…Your senses are attuned. Your expectations are high. You are looking intently at what’s there. It’s analogous to seeing a person for the first time.

I often think of writing beginnings much like fishing. Can I catch a reader with one cast? Will the fish follow my bait for a few more feet?  Sometimes when I’m stuck I randomly open some favorite books to remind me what a great beginning can do. Then I write a stumbling forward of dozens or even hundreds of words that do nothing more than become cast-off scaffolding by the final edit. It’s not until I’m amidst the construction that I discover what I most want to say and I feel like the speaker in Samuel Beckett’s Company. “A voice comes to one in the dark.”

Take advantage of the energy of January and its superlative nature as a time to begin something new.

And may all your kisses this year begin a hug,

For more ideas on how to begin your new year check out “Through the open window.”