One of the first things I learned in an undergraduate creative writing workshop seems applicable to most of life: Get off to a good start. Grab the reader or your boss or your new friend and dazzle. The first line of any story acts like a hot engine at the front of heavy freight. Beginnings are important. You say a prayer at the beginning. You sit around someday after all the shit is over and you talk about the beginning, which, tough as it can be to remember, you shine it up good for display. The beginnings of legendary figures get showered with miracles. Athena sprang straight from the head of Zeus. Jesus Christ and Darth Vader were born to virgin mothers. George Washington, a politician even if somewhat unwilling, told the truth.
Stories are usually more fun in the beginning, before suffering sets in, or at least the kind of suffering not cushioned by hope. Being jaded lacks joy. The Beatles biographies I devoured as a kid thrilled me most when John and George and Paul sat with guitars and girlfriends in apartments, rather than toxing or detoxing in mansions and private estates. The Devil does not come for his ransom in the beginning.
Beginnings humble us, too. Starting from zero sucks. I remember walking into a bar, the best local music venue in town and a future haven, and miserably wishing someone would know me and save me from my empty glass. You’re not at home when the bartender calls you “guy.”
You’ve got to prove yourself in the beginning. At some point in many relationships, we like to say, “The honeymoon is over,” forgetting the struggles it took just to get there.
When I began my current job in a public library as the assistant director and youth librarian, there was a little party. People smiled. They said congratulations. And after that couple of hours, it was just me, my director, and a handful of long-tenured librarians who did not mind showing their skepticism. You Are Loud, they said. That Is Not Your Tape Dispenser. Those Are There For A Reason. For a while, I was afraid to answer the phone.
Full as they can be of golden optimism, beginnings lack the dignity of experience, of heartbreak. Beginnings are shallow. Beginners don’t know shit from Shinola, and nobody likes a recent convert. That’s why youth can be so hard to take—all open-mouthed and glossy and breathless and assured and full of unwarranted ownership. We want our fucking tape dispensers back.
I feel a long way from the beginning. I’ve started anticipating endings, to see things as having turned out, for better or worse, like this. I know I need to keep my “Beginner’s Mind,” a Zen concept based on staying open to possibility. Things are always turning out. There was no horribly wrong turn to point to or undo. I want to connect with my young, confident beginner-self, to feel his sparkle and shine and be warmed by it within the deeper understanding of adulthood. I want to tell him I love him and miss him. I want to write him a note, an encouragement, to which he might somehow respond. I begin,
“Our Biggest Problem,” Dan Townsend’s short story, begins with the line, “I was twelve when I kissed my mom open-mouth.” As a reader (and as an editor), you simply cannot stop there. And you shouldn’t—Townsend crafts a funny, sharp, and tenderly authentic portrait of a seventh-grade boy, John, whose grief for his father and struggle with an eye disorder complicate otherwise normal adolescent confusion. John’s voice is at once genuine and lyrical, a reflection of the piece itself.
The way our beginnings can govern our lives informs “Miles Til Empty,” flash fiction by Ben Hoffman. Hoffman pulls off an enviable blend of humor and eloquence here, not to mention amazing economy. The piece’s almost offhand placement one or two generations into the future functions to broaden its import.
Aaron Burch’s poem, “Milwaukee’s Best and the Quadracci Pavillion,” tells a kind of winged creation myth of a marriage. In the poem’s surreal and compelling logic the speaker begins by denying having ever been married. Between marital poles, Burch’s tercets fly exuberantly all over town.
This unintentionally male issue—sometimes that’s just how the pieces fall together—rounds out with “Dressing after Sex,” Roy Bentley’s beautifully cadenced poem. Bentley spins long musical lines with no sacrifice to image or thought. He writes, “Maybe this is how the habit of love begins./Maybe it starts with handing over a shoe.”
Photo By: Mahmoudreza Shirinsokhan