Writing Is Easy. Starting Is Hard.

 By Mike Feinsilber

The purpose of the first sentence—any first sentence—is to compel the reader to read the second sentence.

Knowing that just makes it harder to write sentence one. Small wonder so many of us have trouble doing that.

Books about writing don’t help much: “The way to start writing is to start writing,” they say. Or: “Write down anything, just to get started. You can always get rid of it in revising.”

Maybe we can learn something about getting started writing by reading some first sentences. If nothing else, that might call attention to some books whose second and subsequent sentences we might want to read. (I’ve put an asterisk by some I hope you do read.)

I’ve pulled the first sentences from books in my home library. This is not a collection of famous first sentences or first sentences from famous writers.  Just an attempt to see how some writers started.

Maybe they didn’t. I can imagine an editor sending a note to the writer: “Hey, Ernest. I think you ought to ditch your first five chapters and start with Chapter 6, where the book starts getting interesting.”

Now I’ll get out of the way. The first sentences, please:

“Then there was the bad weather.” —A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.

“James Hurt says that Lincoln used ‘the ordinary coin of funeral oratory’ at Gettysburg.” —Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills.

“They had been on the road for six days, a clan of five bouncing along in a tired wagon, when Bam White woke to some bad news.” —The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan.*

“I wish Giovanni would kiss me.” —Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

“About ten years ago a school in Connecticut held ‘a day devoted to the arts,’ and I was asked if I would come and talk about writing as a vocation.” —On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

“There is a strange ambivalence to the season.” —Second Cutting: Letters from the Country by Richard M. Ketchum.

“On May 18, 1860, the day when the Republican Party would nominate its candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln was up early.” —Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

“In the official annals of the government of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Rudolph Zukal was Enemy of the People number 265.” —The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism by Tina Rosenberg.*

“Now that it’s fashionable to reveal intimate details of married life, I can state publicly that my wife, Alice, has a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day.” —Alice, Let’s Eat by Calvin Trillin.*

“The last government in the Western world to possess all of the attributes of aristocracy in working condition took office in England in June of 1895.” —The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890-1914 by Barbara W. Tuchman.

“The past is forever with me and I remember it all.” —Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng.

“In the mid-1990s, the city of Baltimore was attacked by an epidemic of syphilis.” —The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

“For a time after the first pieces of Route 495 were laid down across central Massachusetts, in the middle 1960s, the main hazard to drivers was deer.” —The Soul of a Good Machine by Tracy Kidder.

“‘We all ended up going into the service about the same time—the whole crowd.” —Working Class War: American Combat Soldier and Vietnam by Christian G. Appy.

“Whenever I’m in New York and I have a little time on my hands, I grab a backpack and some maps and a compass and maybe some lunch and I hike through Times Square and up the stairs of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where I catch a bus to the Meadowlands.” —The Meadowlands by Robert Sullivan.

“Mercado’s Federal army, after its dramatic and terrible retreat four hundred miles across the desert when Chihuahua was abandoned, late three months at Ojinagao on the Rio Grande.” —The Collected Works of John Reed by John Reed.

“My parents’ paths first crossed in a museum on 23rd Street in New York.” —Personal History by Katharine Graham.

“It was a funeral to which they all came.” —A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan.

“His wife wasn’t drinking milk with her cocktails in the hope her stomach might hurt a little less—not then.” —The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War by Paul Hendrickson.*

“The acrobatic city editor of fiction always has the adjective ‘hard-boiled’ before his title; it seems as inevitable as ‘waiting’ automobile, ‘nearby’ drugstore and ‘hurrying’ pedestrian.” —City Editor by Stanley Walker.

“The American left, like all modern political movements, began with printed words.” —American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation by Michael Kazin.

Every one of these sentences invites you in. What conclusions can be drawn? The way to start writing is to start writing. Write down anything, just to get started. You can always get rid of it in revising. I guess those writers about writing know what they’re talking about.


  1. Jack Limpert says

    One of my favorite first sentences—it’s from the opening monologue in the play, I Never Sang for My Father, by Robert Anderson.The play opened on Broadway in 1968, starring Hal Holbrook, Alan Webb, and Lillian Gish, and then in 1970 was made into a wonderful movie, starring Gene Hackman, Melvyn Douglas, and Estelle Parsons. The first sentence:

    “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some final resolution, some clear meaning, which it perhaps never finds.”

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