How to Begin
My Creative Nonfiction students are getting ready to turn in their “big, true story” and so, even though they should have done so already, we spent time this week thinking about How to Begin. Among other activities, we watched the first 15 minutes of Wall-E, the 2008 Pixar movie directed by Andrew Stanton. It was fun to talk about how this movie works–without dialogue, without a human character to identify with, without really anything much happening for several minutes–and manages to beautifully engage our attention.
Wall-E begins many years after the last human beings have left earth behind. It begins with the main character, the robot Wall-E, compacting garbage and stacking it into skyscraper like piles. He’s been doing this, we’re given to understand, for 700 years. But there’s a bit more going on–and that’s change. A new character is just about to appear and start the clock ticking on a new thread of interest. Sometimes a story begins when we wake up and become aware of a change. But stories are always about change.
“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who–when he has been seriously noted at all–has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?” -Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (p. 1)
My rule of thumb for beginnings is to hook the reader. Whether I’m writing a blog post, story, or poem, I begin with a word, phrase, or sentence that attracts my reader’s attention. As I’m sure you know, that’s what the experts say you should do. Sometimes, though, I don’t know how to end. Logically, that would be covered at the end of the semester, wouldn’t it?