Kill the First Line

Y’all don’t write enough blog posts. Around the start of the pandemic, my attention span shortened. A causal relationship? Probably. I felt compelled to check the Johns Hopkins covid map every twenty minutes. And then the news, looking for the next appalling thing President Trump said or did. He rarely disappointed. The covid numbers crept higher and higher, and daily, Trump insulted a war hero or recommended drinking bleach or something. Every time I clicked onto the internet, I got sucked into a new story.

Habits formed are hard to break. Now, when I try to read a book, I still feel compelled to pick up my laptop every twenty minutes, just to check in. Nothing happens. Since Biden took over, things are boring. Yes, we have just as many problems as we used to, but now they unfold predicably over a few days without any inflammatory commentary from our commander-in-chief. Instead of news sites, I check WordPress—stats of course, but also the reader. Any new posts?

No new posts. I’ve seen huge attrition in my blogging circle. It’s gone six or eight months since Rachel posted. Anne writes once a week, sometimes less. Michael’s become intermittent. Jane went kind of nuts so I unfollowed her. Angela and Ben quit WordPress altogether. I’ve since latched onto some new blogs, but most of these lack the long multi-comment conversations I had with my old crew. I’m dangling alone from the flagpole, flapping in the wind.

To get my blog fix, I browse my tags. “Writing” is a good one, new posts every few minutes. People who post with this tag consider themselves good writers. “Creative Nonfiction” too, but that only gets a couple of posts a day. “Autism” is one of my favorites. I usually skip over the parenting focused posts, but I’ve found that many autistic adults write well, and they harbor a unique perspective of the world—one that somewhat mirrors my own.

“Sounds exhausting,” you say, “how can you read so many posts.” I don’t read the posts, just the first sentence. When I browse for books in the library, assessing dozens of choices, I’ve developed a foolproof weed-out method: good cover, good title? I pull it off the shelf. I randomly read a paragraph on the third or fourth page. If I like the writing style, I check out the book. I rarely miss. I almost always like the books I bring home. With blog posts, it’s the same thing. If the opening sentence is strong, I read the rest of the post.

Here’s my thinking: When faced with a blank page, most writers will pause and consider. Afraid to mar the page, if you will, much like an artist with a paintbrush and a white canvas. That first sentence is likely to be the best one in the story. If the blogpost starts out weak or dull, I don’t expect it to get any better. I’m not sure this is fair, but it works.

Last week, I joined Spotify. While half of America is bailing on the platform, I’m just getting started. Suddenly, all my favorite music sits at my fingertips waiting for me to listen (except Neil Young, of course, but I’ve already written about that). Much of this music I haven’t heard in years. One of the first songs I downloaded was The Medicine Show by the Dream Syndicate. I don’t expect you to know it. I think it would have been classified as fringe when it came out thirty-eight years ago. Now there might be six people on earth who still listen to it.

But The Medicine Show kicks off with the most powerful opening line in any story, song or poem I know. It makes Call me Ishmael seem ill conceived.

I’ve got a page one story buried in my yard; I’ve got a troubled mind.

I know I have a tendency to string out on weird tangents related to song lyrics, but c’mon, doesn’t this grab you? The first time I heard it all those years ago, it hooked me. I wanted to know, needed to know what happens next. It’s been a top ten song for me ever since.

When I took my first writing class back in the nineties, two pieces of advice stuck with me. Look for your shimmering images and kill the first line.

Writing like The Medicine Show sets an aspirational goal for me. I want to snag my readers from the start, and keep them captive. I won’t fool myself; I know my writing can use plenty of improvement. But I’ve always tried to come out of the gate hard. Make a strong declaration, I can explain what I’m talking about later.

Three years ago, I became a ‘syndicated contributor’ for the Good Men Project website. Fancier than it sounds, they recycle one of my existing blogposts every Tuesday morning. When I applied, my editor sent me the most encouraging note I’ve ever received as a writer: “Our CEO is the one who chooses posts when we syndicate, and her quote regarding you was: ‘I just love people who are such good writers they can write about anything and they grab you from the first sentence.’”

All of the credit goes to that writing instructor. I wish I could remember his name. Take a minute to read through the lyrics of The Medicine Show—poetry, dark, but darn good. I encourage you to listen to the song as well, but I have no idea if you will like it. I sure do.

The Medicine Show by the Dream Syndicate

I’ve got a page one story buried in my yard
I’ve got a troubled mind
I’m going down to the medicine show

If I’ve got to choose between doing penance
And doing time
I’m going down to the medicine show

I’ve got a one-way ticket on the 8:06
To the outskirts of town
I’m going down to the medicine show

And I’ll say, “hey conductor
Now don’tcha stop until you hear that gypsy sound
I’m going down to the medicine show

But I know that it’s hard to be a reasonable man
When you stop finding reasons for everything
But tonight I’ll get some answers
Down at the medicine show

I’m gonna find me that gypsy girl
That likes to dance and cry
When I go down to the medicine show

And we’re gonna lay our burden down
Beneath that lonesome gypsy sky
When I go down to the medicine show

30 thoughts on “Kill the First Line

  1. Social media used to be my screen magnet but then realising what a waste of my time it was – I gave it away. Now I check in with WordPress far more often and I find I have far more readers as well – perhaps my attention span has improved the quality of my blog posts, not sure but I do tend to write more, so I’m putting in the practice time. I enjoy your blog posts not for the first line so much as the conversational style with which you write. It feels approachable and interesting, like we just bumped into each other for a moment in real life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, the stuff you write is always good, so quality over quantity. There was a guy in college who through the most obnoxious pickup lines he could think of at women on a nightly basis (wanna get lucky?). With the ladies, he did as well as anyone else, but no better. He went for quantity. Successful, but it was pretty ugly.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Way cool song Jeff!! 🎶🥳💃🏼
    I’m not trying to be a writer. I’m more of a “journaler” I guess🤷🏼‍♀️ I tend to write like I’m talking to a friend. I’m sometimes surprised when I read old post and think “that’s not bad” 😂 I don’t remember half of what I write. I just start tapping away.

    Yeah, I’m not a “writer”. I’m probably a good example of what NOT to do😂

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you! I feel like the Sally Field mis-quote “You like me. You really like me.”😂
        I don’t think you take yourself too seriously. I’ve actually been chided for not owning the “writer” moniker for the same reason you’ve given. A writer is someone who writes.🤷🏼‍♀️ I never really put any thought into what I’m writing, I just sorta wing it.
        You are able to take a thought, walk it around to visit other thoughts and bring it all back together. That takes effort and style. Both of which you have. Your sense of humor is fantastic too!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Grab ’em from the start: that’s a good strategy. I’m sure there are lots of reasons your blogging friends are waning. Sometimes life gets in the way, and I know it takes time and energy to crank these suckers out.

    Like

  4. Agreeing with others that you’re a fantastic writer!

    Started blogging 15 years ago, wanna know how many of the people I followed still post? Zero. It went in and out of fashion I suppose. Only those who really love or need to write (in my case more like journal) keep it up.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dang, pressure’s on now for the next opening line! Tbh, I’ve been feeling a little like this too… Maybe it just means I need to follow more blogs. I find I’m more compelled to write when I’ve been reading good writing, but there’s been this weird dearth of time now that the pandemic is no longer allowing us all this time off, so the fun reading gets cut first unfortunately. 😒

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoy the honesty of your writing, the directness and the personal reflections. I seem to have developed a pattern of hair writing whatever is happening.

    I miss Neil on Spotify too. I do however have an archives membership because I wanted to buy concert tickets and got hooked. I am also too lazy to de-Spotify. All the streaming services are just as unethical so pick your poison.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, I’ve already decided I’m sticking with Spotify. My kids want to be on it–they don’t care much about a bunch of geriatric folk rockers. My last streaming service didn’t have Neil either but they had a bunch of really cool covers of many of his songs. I’ll probably start searching for some of those.

      Like

    • See? Every now and then I’ll read a book with a lousy opening line, or over use of a passive voice. And then I think “Hey, why does this author get a book deal, and I don’t.”

      Like

  7. I’ve never heard of that band or the song, but it was pretty good.

    I remember when we went to see a talk by James Patterson, he noted it was all about capturing the reader’s attention with that first line. So you are in good company…

    Like

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