• Great Beginnings: A Childhood

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Great Beginnings     Comments 12 comments

    Opening lines: So important, so difficult to get ’em just right. Doesn’t it sometimes feel like you spend more time on your first few sentences than you do on all other lines combined?

    But when it works, opening lines can grab a reader by the hair and drag him/her into the story in a ferocious way.

    That happened to me last week with Harry Crews‘ memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.

    Down below I’ve typed out the book’s first paragraph. Read it once or twice, or more, and then let’s discuss in the comments below. I’ll talk with you about this paragraph all day, if you want.

    Write whatever sort of response comes to you. But if nothing does, here are some ideas:

    Does this grab you by the hair? Why or why not? What’s effective and what isn’t? What changes would you have suggested to Crews?

    What’s your guess as to “what was wrong”? If you guess correctly, I… I don’t know. It would be an impressive guess. But perhaps there’s something of a hint in some of the language?

    Does this remind you of anything you’ve written? Feel free to share it.

    And now, the opening paragraph of A Childhood:


    My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew. It was the middle of the night in the Everglades swamp in 1925, when my daddy woke his best friend Cecil out of a deep sleep in the bunkhouse just south of the floating dredge that was slowly chewing its way across the Florida Peninsula from Miami on the Atlantic to Naples on the Gulf of Mexico, opening a route and piling dirt for the highway that would come to be known as the Tamiami Trail. The night was dark as only a swamp can be dark and they could not see each other there in the bunkhouse. The rhythmic stroke of the dredge’s engine came counterpoint to my daddy’s shaky voice as he told Cecil what was wrong.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Jerry Schwartz

    I won’t even try to guess, but that surely is one hell of an opening paragraph.

    David Duhr

    I was sidetracked after a couple dozen pages, but it continued to be excellent. I’ll have time soon to return, so if you want to read and discuss, let’s do it.


    It sounds to me like Harry Crews was reincarnated with memories of his past life, and his dad was confronted by some deadly threat, human or animal.

    David Duhr

    Hey Judy. It’s definitely a deadly threat, though he lives through it… only to die a few years later, when Harry is a toddler.

    John Liebling

    The following is the first page. First two paragraphs of my three and a half Prologue… ABJECT FAILURE! Good knows the final outcome. WE lose! Born int he 20th or 21st century, I’ve forgotten which. Nine million years, I’ve lived on this deranged planetoid. Not one meta human savior was ever strong enough to get the job done. IT and ITS devilish minions desiccated and consumed so many righteous souls. ITS putrefied stench brings forth extreme delirium. ITS shiny metallic skin, impervious to any spiritual energy or humanoid technology. IT predates ALL life. Other than GOD. Only the following super… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Thanks for sharing this, pal.

    Eleanor Gamarsh

    Spontaneous comment after half reading the newsletter; I have some memories of my family’s years before I was born because I heard the stories when I was growing up.

    David Duhr

    Hey Eleanor. Yeah, the family stories, lore… legends. It’s not always easy to know what’s true and what isn’t, what really happened versus the exaggerated or falsified versions, or how faulty memory has affected the tale.

    Barbara A Mealer

    An interesting beginning. I get what he was saying as it was from the stories he heard frequently while growing up. I can relate to that book already as I’ve traveled the Tamiami trail more than once. It’s a great way to get your attention. I can almost hear the dredge going in that opener. Having been in the swamp, I can relate to the darkness, but there would have been the mosquitoes they would have been slapping at as they are talking. I need to look for that book. This opener is from a series I’m working on. This… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I can’t even imagine the mosquitoes, and other wildlife, they had to contend with. And it strikes me suddenly that Their Eyes Were Watching God is set in the same general area at the same general time; these might be interesting companion reads. Fiction and non, far different themes, but lots of similarities too.

    Emily K. Martin

    From the opening sentence, there is a lot of intrigue. I think the adjective “chewing” is a morbid clue.

    David Duhr

    Isn’t that such a great word choice? Kind of gross, but also entirely accurate.

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