Scholars might argue with me, but I would be willing to bet that an awful lot of William Shakespeare’s writing began when he had a sudden realization of a great first line.
We poets know how it is: You’re mowing your yard, taking out the trash, or doing some other mundane chore when suddenly WHAM-O — a great first line just sort of strikes like lightning. You write it down in your pocket notebook, and when you come back to it later, that first line serves as a catalyst for some much bigger piece.
Sometimes these first lines survive in the final draft, sometimes they don’t. No matter why those primary words strike us as they do, they almost always reap great rewards. Even if those initial ideas get culled, the work they produce tends to be refreshing, inspired, and original.
Sometimes the first lines occur because of weird word combinations; things like “nuclear neurology” or “concrete coffee” tickle our fancy. Other times, it may be a random statement from a stranger that rings with a certain poetic something.
One time, a student of mine informed me that “The ice cream trucks in our neighborhood only play Christmas carols.” While the exact iteration of his words didn’t survive in my later poem’s final draft, the concept of a summertime ice cream truck tooling about playing “Jingle Bells” was too irresistible to refuse. It became “Merry Summer,” a sonnet-like piece written from the perspective of a boy waiting to hear the warbled yuletide tunes of the dirty, somewhat questionable ice cream truck.
First line epiphanies are some of my favorites. There’s always such a bright hope and a brilliant promise that comes with an entire line coming into consciousness. When we have a start, we’re obliged to build toward an end. Think I’ll go mow the lawn and see what strikes…
All of us have them: Those ingenious revelations that visit us in a state of reverie, near-sleep, or near-awake. The problem comes for many of us when we decide to leverage our big revolutionary ideas in an approachable way for others. Epiphanies, elusive and sometimes seemingly divine, can be a source of pleasure or torture, depending on how we use them.
For the next several blog posts, I plan to highlight different types of epiphanies, and then present one way of leveraging them into applicable plans or products, especially from a writing standpoint. To begin, let’s look at one type of epiphany that regularly strikes the poetic mind: the analogy epiphany.
In this revelation, the poet or thinker is suddenly and shockingly aware of a similarity or relationship between two previously alien things. Usually, the two items in question are comprised of one concrete, tangible thing and one abstraction. For instance, when Robert Burns realized his love was a red, red rose, his writing documented that epiphany. Many may say that this thought lacked originality, as poets had been symbolizing love with roses for centuries. Often though, our own epiphanies are far from original as well. When we begin speaking in similes and metaphors about two previously disparate ideas, you can bet that an analogy epiphany is hard at work forming itself. Our “aha” moments need not escape us, however.
When the analogy epiphany strikes me, my first choice is to dissect the relationship between the two things using a plain, ordinary T-chart. You know the kind: Two columns created by one vertical line intersecting a shorter horizontal line toward the top. One topic goes on the left at the top, one topic goes on the right. From there, I’m able to list qualities, characteristics, and descriptors of the two things and see their similarities and differences with parallel acuity. Sure, this may seem elementary — a Venn Diagram or another instrument may work just as well for visual organization. But by having the two ideas side by side, I’m able to begin a larger process. About five or ten minutes into listing qualities, first lines begin to form inside my mind. I write these down. Maybe I’ll use them, maybe not. More often than not, refined versions of these first lines work their way into my poetry somehow.The two items often create a central metaphor around which the larger piece is built.
By examining relationships between tangentially connected things, the wheels and cogs of the mind begin to naturally create points of commonality that were previously unexplored. These connections are the creators of poetry, as well as products and plans in the business world. The more receptive we become to our analogy epiphanies, the better our world will be. Creators and connectors, keep your minds wide open. More epiphanies to follow.
One of the best things about being a poet around the holidays is the reflection that generates so many great memories. Ideas spurred on by recollections of past Christmases or realizations that take place here in the present are equally powerful motivations to write.
The one cautionary admonition I would issue to my fellow writers, however, falls into that dreadful category of avoiding bathos — that ripe sentimentality (see prior posts) which lessens the power of our words. Holidays become great cliche fodder; all the old pieces of language from carols and cards come flooding back to our brains, and if we aren’t careful, they’ll seep their way into our writing and stink it up like expired egg nog.
With that word of sufficient warning, allow me to make one slight allowance — writing work that alludes to Christmas carols or other seasonal cultural icons is entirely different. Starting a poem with “Silent Night, Holy Night” and then altering it to convey a completely different message than the old hymn is okay. Moreover, it’s a world apart from describing one’s past family celebrations as “holly jolly” or simply “merry.” Yuck!
The challenge for writers of all genres is finding new ways to express the oldest of great notions. When Dickens penned A Christmas Carol so long ago, you can bet that he knew his message was not novel — “greed bad, generosity good” had been a maxim for generations before Ebenezer Scrooge existed. But through memorable characterization, engaging dialogue (who doesn’t know “Bah! Humbug!”) and other tools of the trade, Dickens was able to render a masterpiece that has been adapted and enjoyed for more than a century.
As writers, the greatest gift we can give ourselves this season is new perspective. Let’s leave the old wrapping paper of holiday hackney in the dark recesses of our mental attics, and erect the fresh green boughs of our modern perceptions and expressions. As our memories and our current situations blend warmly in the glow of the holidays, let us task ourselves with the duty of renewal and re-purpose. The ghost of Christmas yet to come will thank us for it.
After the recent success of my post about Arthur Flowers’s advice to writers, I felt obliged to write another quicker but equally applicable piece about something else that emerged during my last MFA residency: “The Not Knowing.”
It seemed this phrase was everywhere over the 10 June days I spent at University of Tampa. Fiction writers, especially, swore by it. They recounted tales of how their stories simply “took on lives of their own” after a truly boffo first line or a vague inkling concept drove pen to page. As a poet, I failed to see the relevance. After all, poets like me are in the business of crafting lines one by one, giving explicit attention to the sound, the sense, the structure, and even the symbolism of each individual word. “The Not Knowing” seemed to be something that prose writers did, and even then, with sketchy success at best.
Usually, I have a pretty good idea about where a piece is headed when I sit down to REALLY begin writing. My brainstorming methods are sort of standard: If there’s a central metaphor at work (as there usually is), I start with a two-column note chart. This is a T chart, for those in business. Using this visual organizer, I’m able to see similarities, differences, and relationships between two things, be they objects, ideas, or something else entirely. Then, as the prewriting begins to hum, I usually have a few real zinging lines come into my mind. I write these down. I’ll use them later. Once I have a pretty good collection of these musical lines, then I’m ready to begin really putting pen to paper in the poetic endeavor. So, as you can see, I’m fairly methodical.
There are always a few surprises that creep into poems: pleasant wordplay or unforeseen ironies. But usually, the act of creating poetry goes pretty much according to plan. I know that sounds terribly boring, but it’s true. I have an idea, I explore the idea, I create a product from the idea. Then there’s the refining and the rewriting. I go through A LOT of drafts on legal pads, and usually 4 or 5 on the computer screen. In all this process, there isn’t much room for “not knowing,” as my prose-writing friends described it.
So when the great “not knowing” happened to me, I was pleasantly surprised, both with its advent and its outcome. I had a pretty decent first line written down on an index card: It was comprised of a single striking image that had a few different elements working within it. This line had occurred to me during one of those between-class lapses when the tardy bell has not yet rung, and students are idling about, yakking and poking at one another.
When I pulled the index card from my pocket later at home, I just started freewriting (something I virtually NEVER do) based solely upon that single first line that really sang to me. I’d like to tell you the piece that came from this inspiration won me a Pushcart and a Pulitzer simultaneously, and that Natasha Trethewey has written me envious hate-mail because of it. That didn’t happen. However, what did happen was this: I was now able to look at a “spontaneous” piece, one that was driven completely by the great “not knowing” I’d heard about, and I could relate. All I had to begin with was one line — one line that had beauty, had potential, and had heart. And that was enough.
I know, I know. You probably want to see the poem now, right? Here’s the letdown, reader: I’ve sent that poem out to several potential publishers with packets of other works I’ve generated, so, sorry about that. It’s going to have to remain “in the dark” for now. However, when it does find a home, please rest assured that you’ll see it here first. And in the meantime, please feel free to explore your own “not knowing”-driven work. I’d love to hear how that works out for people outside the literary realm. Who knows where the uncertain might lead us?