first lines, dogs and magic

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I am continuing to learn about my characters as I dig through scraps and notes. Tonight I found a really small section that I named ‘chapter 6.’ I think I was trying to break the earlier draft into definite sections, perhaps in hope of expanding them, or perhaps to better delineate each scene. I’m not sure. I do remember writing something about Joe walking into the motel room and finding Mattie, but I can’t find that piece now .I thought it went on for pages. Maybe it is handwritten somewhere. Maybe it only exists in my head. What I do know is that I was trying to move the story, to send Joe on his path, to leave Mattie behind.

I can’t remember what I was going to do with this bit:

“Goin’ far?” The man who asks this is five feet tall and no more, Joe is certain.  He’s never trusted small men.  Never had a reason not to, just has never felt safe around them.  Small men can get away with more, can sneak around you, can steal everything you’ve got in the middle of the night and never be seen.  Joe sizes the guy up.  He’s older, seventy maybe.  He rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet and the frayed edges of his jeans rub little grooves into the earth.

I think I meant for this to be part of a scene that occurs after Joe leaves Mattie. Chances are this happens on his first stop after he leaves that little town. I wish I had more accurate records of when I wrote each bit. I also wish I had a better memory of what the trajectory of the book once looked like to me. If I had a better sense of the trajectory, I would have a better sense of where the beginning lies.

I am listening deeply, hoping for that first sentence to come soon. I think of The Hours, and how Cunningham emphasized the importance of the first line of Mrs. Dalloway. I think of how Virginia Woolf labored over it and I wonder what she was writing before that line came to her. I wonder what I should write until my first line comes to me.


A week or so ago, M (who is now 12) asked about my writing. I told her about Unplanted and she was intrigued. I was caught off guard, didn’t really know what to say to her or how to explain how I see the story and its characters. I think I told her it was about migrant farm workers, and from there the conversation moved in several different directions (as it often does with M). She might have asked me about migrant workers. I don’t remember talking to her about transience, and I am certain I didn’t tell her what my protagonist’s fate will be. I think I told her there were two kids in the book.

The thing I remember for sure is that M asked me if there would be a dog.

I told her I didn’t know. There isn’t one right now.

But there should be, I think. And I am looking at the moments that come after Joe leaving Mattie and I am looking at that tiny scene I sketched of Joe and the man and I am wondering if a dog will find its way into the story. If I am to write about childhood, or from a child’s pov, and that is certainly where this is going, then it seems natural for me to write a dog into the story. I often equate dogs with childhood.

But it seems like the dogs I read about, or rather the books I read in which dogs are characters, are about the dogs. I think of all the books I read when I was 11 or 12, that summer I read Sounder, and Old Yeller, and Big Red and Where the Red Fern Grows. The most recent dog book I read was Timbuktu, by Paul Auster. In each of these books the story revolves around the dog. I try to think of a book where a dog is a character but not a central character and I cannot come up with anything. If I take M’s advice and give Amy and Dustin a dog, then I will be juggling yet another character.

I find myself thinking more and more about things like this, things that should come out as I am writing. I am wondering if I will write about a dog and I am excited about the possibility (I’ve never written a dog into any of my stories, which is odd considering how many dogs have been a part of my life).

But I need to refocus. I need to get back to the story itself and allow it to unfold as it wants to. I need to let the characters do the story telling. I need to limit outside influence as much as I can, even if it is a 12 year old girl telling me that I should write about a dog.

At the same time, I need to find particular influences. I am still reading Auster, but my reading has slowed considerably. I have been lingering over the same book for two weeks now and am losing interest more and more. Auster just doesn’t bring any inspiration to my work right now, at least, not to this project.

So I am finding that I need to gather a set of books that will influence this project. I have a few in mind. I can think of a few authors whose voices will sit well with my thoughts.  But I am also thinking that I should pursue more than just the familiar. I should seek things that are not on my shelves right now. I know that I need to read a lot of narratives written by migrants and transients, and I have found a couple good collections. But I am also seeking something that will really set off some sparks, something that will make me not only want to write, but know where to begin.

I am reaching too far, searching too hard. I can see that I am seeking out catalysts instead of jumping in and doing the work that needs to be done. There is fear in this place. There is fear of taking apart something old and familiar and constructing something new and foreign. There is fear in recognizing that what I was working on, what I have seen for so long as the first chapter or set of chapters is actually the middle of the book. There is fear in not knowing where the story begins.

I am writing from within. That is what keeps coming to mind.

I continue to think of grad school. In spite of my many complaints about OSU and the program and my cohort and the one before and the one after mine, I can think of a great deal of things that I learned, and even more things that I wish I had access to right now. I wish I could sit in Allen Bros and drink bad coffee and talk with my friends about writing. I wish I could sit with people who know this story and know what I bring to it, and I wish I could ask them questions.

I am writing from within. In this space there is the writer, and there is her work, the work that she has done before this day, in all the days and years that have gone by. I look at this work and I can see the story that holds the story together. I can see the backbone. I can see what shouldn’t be seen but instead should be known to my reader.

It’s like this: I think again of my advisor, and the times we sat down to talk about my stories. We were focusing once on a June story and he kept asking me what the piece was about. What was it really about. Then he stopped and broke it down for me very simply. A story is like this, he told me. The writer is like a magician. You have a hand out in front of you and the reader sees what you are doing there. But meanwhile there is that other thing that is going on, that thing the reader can’t see. It’s not there on the page, but it is there, and it’s what makes the story work.

As soon as he said that, I got it.

I can see that I am doing the opposite of what I did when I wrote that June story. I know what the hand that is out of view is doing. It is what is going on in front of the audience that I do not yet know.


Author: Kim Sharp

more later

One thought on “first lines, dogs and magic

  1. You’re right at the edge of the light. You need to jump; but it’s jumping into the darkness of a new beginning. Everyone I know hesitates at that border. Start swingin’. You’ll land on your feet.

    (I’m finally here! Please send me a password so’s I can dig into the secret goodness!)


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