In my high school creative writing class, I learned the power of a first line.
The teacher, Mrs. Wilson, assigned us numerous short stories to read and told us to pay attention to the first line. The lesson was simple to learn but difficult to execute. The first line makes you care about what happens next. The first line plants curiosity. The first line is the entrance to a house that you want to explore. Every good story starts with a good first line.
The year I was thirteen—1957—my father had a nervous breakdown, my brother had a wreck, and I started speaking in tongues.*
Lee Smith's "Tongues of Fire," from Me & My Baby View the Eclipse, made me want to write a great story before I read her whole story. The narrator, Karen, opened wide the door to her life in a confident statement of her past. I wanted to enter her time zone and discover more about an ailing mother, the injured brother, and Karen's apparent visit from the Holy Spirit.
"Tongues of Fire" was every bit as good as the first line and became a standard for my own writing. When I sit down to write an entry on this blog and ponder what the first line will be, I go back to such stories. I ask myself, "What will spur people to read the second sentence?"
I rolled out of town
On the unpaved road
I was 57 dollars
From being broke
Kissed my momma and my sisters
And told them goodbye
With my suitcase packed
I wiped the tears from my eyes....**
While Lee Smith writes short stories, country artist Margo Price expresses her creativity on her debut album, Midwest Farmer's Daughter. The first track, "Hands of Time," begins with these words. A girl leaves a rural home with only $57 in her pocket. She tenderly says goodbye to her family. She cries. Why is she leaving? Why that amount of money? What happens next?
Times they were tough
Growing up at home
Daddy lost the farm
When I was two years old
Took a job at the prison
Working second shift
That's the last time I'll let them take
What should be his.**
More of the story emerges. What has happened since she was two years old? Is she angry? Does her dad still work at the prison? Price states the facts of her life in a way that is not informational but rather inviting. The first impression of her first album is that she has a story worth reading--and hearing.
It's easy for us to think of a "first impression" as an opportunity to show strangers what we've accomplished. We exhibit good behavior. We're polite. We make eye contact. We are politically correct. We don't air our dirty laundry or sweep secrets out from under the family rug.
In the arts, especially writing and music, the opposite is true. Margo Price introduces herself to us by singing the sadnesses of her past. She cusses. She questions God. She shares with us strangers the heartaches often reserved for conversations with close friends. And that's only in the first song!
We spend a lot of our lives in facades, hiding what the hands of time have brought our way. We "fake it till we make it." In all fairness, we do often benefit from finding the silver lining in difficult times or forming "gratitude lists" when we're struggling. Optimism can be the best medicine in certain circumstances.
So can vulnerability.
While Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, Mark is likely the oldest. The "opening line" of Mark's gospel is a prophecy, followed by the story of a prophet. Nowhere will we find more honesty in Scripture than in the words of the prophets. John the Baptist tells people that they need to repent. He wears camel's hair and states his purpose: to baptize with water and prepare for the one who will baptize with fire. John intrigues people by being who he is and saying what he thinks.
What if we were as honest and confident as John the Baptist?
What if we were willing to sing what the "hands of time" had taught us as Margo Price did?
What if we were less concerned with impressing each other and more concerned with telling God's story in our lives?
Friends, let's get real and be real with one another. Sing without fear. Write without abandon. Let the first line of your life draw people closer to the God who entered our time zone in the vulnerability of a human being.
all good things to each of you,