Wednesday Writing Exercise: First Sentences

I spend a fair amount of time each day trolling the web for articles about writing that are helpful or insightful or inspirational. (To see the fruits of my labors, log on to my Twitter timeline.) Of all the posts I’ve read (and, admittedly, scanned) one from five or six weeks ago has stuck with me. On her blog Catching Days, Cynthia Newberry Martin alluded to the concept of first sentences:

In The Story Behind the Story, Stephen Dobyns writes that he asked Raymond Carver how he wrote a particular story. “He [Carver] said the first sentence had come into his mind and he just followed it.” Dobyns explains that he usually outlines his novels and knows generally what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. So Dobyns was intrigued by Carver’s method of letting the writing itself be “a process of discovery.”

Shortly thereafter, Dobyns, in one sitting, wrote “sixty potential first sentences.”
“[I] went through them again, forcing each into a paragraph. Some went nowhere. Still, after two more hours I had forty paragraphs.”

He extended each paragraph to one page, ending up with about 35 one-page beginnings.

“After about a month, I had twenty stories….I worked on the stories for six or seven years … and ended with fifteen, which appeared in my book Eating Naked.”

Although it served as a jumping-off point for Martin’s post, the concept lingered. I’ve been having a hard time getting back to work since handing in my master’s thesis (almost nine months ago!), but the idea that I could write one sentence—just one—is less intimidating than editing my entire manuscript or starting a new book or even a short story. I can write a sentence. And then maybe I can produce a paragraph. A page.

So that’s what I’ve been doing: writing sentences. Admittedly, some are longer than one sentence. Some are clearly not first sentences at all but rather concepts. But the ideas are flowing, and the confidence is creeping back. I can do this.


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