Sunday, September 24, 2017

More First Lines

“All children, except one, grow up.”

Do you recognize that sentence? It’s the first line of J. M. Barrie’s story, Peter Pan.

The last time I wrote, I told you how, in order to progress in my writing, I was headed for the library to collect the first lines in novels and to see if they worked – that is, to see if they grabbed my attention right from the start. Certainly, Barrie’s line does as it leads us willingly towards a land of enchantment.  

Here’s another one that works for me: “Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead – familiar faces and others, half-forgotten, fleetingly.” It’s the first sentence from Colm Toibin’s The Master, the powerful story about the writer Henry James.

“Excuse me sir, may I be of assistance?” are the benign and friendly first works in Hamid Mohsin’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which are especially benign considering the chilling words at the end of the book.

Although most of the lines I found were from books I’d already read, this one wasn’t: “Matanni, my grandmother, said it began deep inside my mama’s womb when she was pregnant with me.” These are the first words in Icy Sparks, a novel by Gwyn Hyman Rubio, which according to its back cover is “a story about a girl growing up in rural Kentucky with an undiagnosed affliction that manifests as violent tics and uncontrollable cursing.” I found this interesting and eerily similar to my description for Rude Awakening, my memoir about growing up in 1950s Philadelphia with an undiagnosed disorder that affected all my relationships, even into adulthood.

What about you? Do you have a favorite first line, your own or someone else’s? If you have, I’d love to see it in the comments below.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

First Lines

Since finishing my second book I have been stymied, trying to decide what to write about next. Finally, I decided to go back to the basics, relearning some of the things I learned while writing my first book. In that endeavor, I picked up a copy of Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories. In it he encourages me to take a look at first lines, which he says probably didn’t become first lines until after a lot of revision.

This was certainly true for my own first line in Rude Awakening which begins “My mother kept secrets.” That sentence, and the entire paragraph that followed, didn’t come along until I was well into my final draft. But for my second book, Dear Elvis, a book written as a series of letters to Elvis and as a diatribe against death and dying, the first sentence was the first line I wrote.  

In order to start writing again, Roorbach’s book has advised me to go to the library to start collecting first lines and to decide whether or not they work. I’ll do that tomorrow. In the meantime, I don’t need a library to recall my favorite first line from my favorite book, A Tale of Two Cities, which begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, …”  

According to my kindle, that book “has sold more copies than any other individual book in history.” More than two hundred million copies.” And, of course, that first sentence works, echoing the themes in the book like the contrast between London and Paris during the French Revolution and the contrast between the two main characters, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton; as well as the war going on in Carton’s heart.

Remembering it, I can’t help wondering how long it took Dickens to come up with that first line. How I would love to go back in time to ask him!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Dear Elvis

My new book, Dear Elvis, is a story about a woman who, after learing about the death of a beloved friend, turns to her childhood idol for guidance. In a series of letters to Elvis, she describes her overwhelming sense of loss and disbelief. Along the way she meets a complete stranger, a priest named Father Chris, who encourages her to continue her search for answers and sends her on an unforgettable journey to Graceland and Tupelo. The following are exerpts from the first two letters.
Dear Elvis,

I’m sorry that you’re dead. Forty-two was much too young to die and you have been dead for such a long time. But then dead is dead, or at least that’s what a writing instructor told me once. He said there are no comparative or superlative forms for dead. There is no dead, deader, deadest. There is only just dead. But then I’ll bet you already knew that.  
 So listen Elvis, where are you? Are you in heaven? And if you are, where is heaven? To tell you the truth, I kind of believe in heaven. So there must be one. I just don’t know where it is and I kind of figured you would know...

Dear Elvis,

I miss my buddy. I miss my friend. I miss the man who once called me the love of his life and who was the love of mine. Once, we were so close that when asked about the relationship between us, I jokingly told someone he and I were Siamese twins separated at birth. Never once did I think what it would be like to be separated by death.

When he died I felt so deeply and intensely lost that for weeks no other thoughts entered my mind. Two days after he died I dreamt I was standing inside his house and, even though I was aware that he was gone, I felt great peace even in the moments just after awakening.  

Afterward however, I began again to struggle with his death as though it were some kind of ancient dragon I had to fight and defeat before I could even begin to feel better. And even as I struggled with his death, I tried to deny it, unable to form a simple sentence that would contain both his name and the word ‘died’ in it....

I miss him, Elvis. Sometimes I miss him so much I feel as though I have lost my twin. Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot. I forgot about you and your twin. I forgot about how much you missed him. People probably didn’t believe that. They probably didn’t believe you could miss someone you’d never even met, but I believed it. I still believe it.

I felt like that when I met Don. I felt as though I’d always known him. Even before we met. But not in the womb, sometime before that. Is there a time before that? 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

In An Instant

I don’t know if you saw it, but I did. And somehow it changed me.

I was sitting in front of my television watching America’s Got Talent. It was close to the end of the show. A young man came out on stage and introduced himself. He said he was a doctor. He said he practiced family medicine. When asked, he said his name was Brandon Rogers, that he was 29 years old, and that he wanted to sing. And then he started singing a classic, Stevie Wonder’s “A Ribbon in the Sky.” 

The audience loved it. The judges, including Simon Cowell, loved it. I loved it. His voice was beautiful. And then it was silenced and so was the television as the screen went black and an announcement was made saying that on June 11 he was tragically killed in an automobile accident.

The show ended and I got into bed, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him. How lucky he was, I thought, that he got to fulfill his dream. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Not until I realized how he’d changed me, not until I realized how lucky I was that I got to see him and to hear him sing - and that I was with him when he realized his dream. 

My condolences go to his family, his friends and his patients. And to his parents, thank you for letting AGT share his performance.

Here is a link to his auditon:

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


I woke up this morning, opened my eyes, and looked at the clock. When I saw that it was only 6:30, I smiled. Because it is summertime and because I work for a school district, I am off every day. I have no place to go and am in no hurry to get there, which included not going to the see the fireworks on the Fourth of July. I’ve been there. I’ve done that, I kept telling myself until late last Tuesday night when I heard the pop, pop, popping sounds outside. I ran to my window and saw only one. It was red, white, blue and beautiful. Still, that was enough. I was ready to go back to what I had been doing earlier.

By then, and because I will turn seventy-six this summer, I had decided it was time “to practice retirement,” which for me will mean doing only a lot of reading, writing, walking and meditating.

Since the school year ended I have already read six books, including the very powerful An American Requiem by James Carroll and the beautifully worded Let me be Frank with You by Richard Ford. Currently I am reading a World War II story called Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. It is good and I am enjoying a leisurely read, although it is sometimes so good I cannot put it down.

As for writing, I have to confess I haven’t done much lately, primarily because I have recently finished my second book (more about that later). So instead of writing, I am editing – and editing – and editing. I have edited this new book too many times already, although I suspect there is no such thing as too much editing. All I have left to do now is to read the manuscript one more time - out loud and to myself.

I moved recently, a forty-five minute drive away from my previous residence, and forty minutes away from the park with the one-mile track where I used to walk. While out for breakfast one morning, the waitress told me about a park that is close to my house. But alas, she said it is a track that is only three-quarters of a mile. Perfect! That leaves plenty of time for meditation, which I usually do in the evening, but sometimes outdoors, on the back porch, while listening to the birds or to wind chimes.

So yes, summertime and “practicing retirement” can be exhausting-  see Au Revoir Paris at - it can also be exhilarating. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Au Revoir #Paris!

Soon we will be closing the window in our hotel room in order to begin our journey out of France and back to Germany. Through this window the sounds of Paris rushed toward us - the relentless shrill of traffic which began anew each time the light below turned green, the intermittent ringing of church bells, the hammerings of men working in the church across the street, and the voices of humans calling out to one another.

For me, Paris has been brutish. In two days we climbed the heights of the Basillica of the Sacred Heart; witnessed the graceful lines of Arc de Triomphe, the splendor of Versailles, the incomparable grandeur of the Lourve and the beauty of Notre Dame. We ate somewhere along the Champ Elysees. We sailed along the river Seine and walked across its bridges. We rode buses and subways and trains. But most of all we walked.

For miles we walked until my feet felt both swollen and deformed. We walked until my side and my chest hurt so much it became too difficult to breathe, and I thought I would die here in this beautiful, ancient city which seemed at times to be angry with its residents and with its hordes of invading tourists who take so much and leave so little.

But now it is time for us to leave. Au revoir Paris. I salute you, if for nothing else, for your ability to endure and to keep moving forward - through time and war, passed the capriciousness and greed of humans and through the sometimes illogical and seemingly inconsistent love of the God or gods who conceived of you.
It is time for us to leave. Au revoir Pari, until we will meet again.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

In Celle

I am in Germany. This is probably my fifth or sixth trip to Germany and I am happy to say that for me it has lost all of its “foreignness.” I love it here. I am, after all, both visiting my son (who lives here) and on vacation.
Today we are in Celle, a tiny town north of Hanover. At this moment I am sitting on a park bench outside the castle where King George I of England (from the House of Hanover) exiled his beautiful wife, Sophie Dorothea, because she was having an affair with (a really good looking) count named von Konigsmarck. In reality however, Sophie Dorothea did not initiate her affair until after her husband abandoned her.

Celle is such a beautiful old town. Much of its history and many of its half-timbered architectural style buildings date back more than 700 years. PS. That's me standing in the middle of the picture.