Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

An Opening at Odds With Itself

Within the eight lines of its first paragraph, this opening scene presents readers with a melange of no less than ten metaphors for the narrator’s frustrated desire to belong fully to something, to “fit in.” The writing is passionate, poetic, full of spit and vinegar—but what is it for?

“If I could see myself plainly,” the narrator laments at the inception of this hyperextended metaphor, then proceeds to describe her spiritual condition in terms of a nut in a bolt, a knife blade, a cliff’s edge (overlooking flames), an empty skull, and something that “circles.” Having thereby exhausted nearly every available metaphor, she throws her hands in the air, declares the whole affair Kafkaesque, tosses two more metaphors our way (one reptilian, one insectine), and then abandons the whole metaphoric charade in favor of “normal, everyday” thoughts. Some readers may wish that she'd done so sooner. Whatever else it achieves, this opening paragraph convinces us, if we needed convincing, that, indeed, the narrator cannot see herself clearly.

But the real purpose served by this opening and others like it that I encounter often in novice works may be even more basic. Stated by means of another serial metaphor, it’s to get the author’s pen rolling, to blow some warmth onto the icy blank page, to get the narrative blood flowing. Others less charitably inclined may call it “throat clearing.” In any case, it should probably be cut: all of it. It's there for the author, not for the reader.

The real beginning starts with Matti inspecting a piece of restaurant china at an event, a birthday lunch. Perhaps she’s an event planner of some kind. We don’t know, but she has a vested professional interest in the affair at hand and its dinnerware. To be sure she is dressed to the hilt in her Allendi suit that “glow[s] in [its] shadows as if her body was lit by a lamp inside it”—making me wonder how much it glows in its shadowless regions.

Here the writing is comprehensible and much more effective. Still, we don’t quite know what’s going on; we can only guess. And some information provided seems misplaced. Do we really need to know that, before she married, Matti worked as a buyer for a restaurant supply wholesaler? Maybe, but within the context of so much more that remains unknown, that bit of information seems more coy than generous, more tease than enlightenment. Most readers would prefer to know who Matti is and what she’s doing, rather than who she was and what she did.

In the final paragraph again the author seems to throw his hands in the air (“Oh, God, her life is full of fucking clichés)—a comment that doesn’t seem to attach itself to anything, unless birthday lunches are a cliché, or Allendi suits, or certain types of restaurant china. But my guess is that the charge of “cliché” is a preemptive strike by the author against her own material, as if by the end of this first page she’s grown disenchanted, and declares defeat even before the first battle lines have been drawn. In each of the two sections that pattern is more or less repeated, with the author undertaking a bold initiative, then questioning it, then renouncing her kingdom before the reader has even had time to engage in hostilities. The author is her own worst critic.

All this may result from jumping into the writing prematurely, without proper preparation (like knowing, for instance, what the story is about), thus ending up like the actor in his nightmare, naked on the stage with no script.

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