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 learning 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 beyond. The first of the forty-two letters written to Elvis begins this way:  
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 since, well, you know, you’ve been there for forever. And you must know everybody. Like, do you meet everyone after they arrive? Everyone who knew you? Or knew of you? 

Let me get to the point. Is Don there? Have you seen him? Have you talked to him?... 

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 - the dream "of being able to combine being a doctor and medicine with music and singing" because for me Brandon, your voice, and your performance were truly healing. 

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 that performance:

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 called Dear Elvis . 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, away from my work, and 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 the new 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, while summertime and “practicing retirement” can be as exhausting as it was last year (see Au Revoir Paris at - it can also be exhilarating.