The choice of the first line could be freely made, unbounded, improvisational. For you could always erase and remake; the eraser was the best friend a would-be artist had. And the erased line, still barely visible beneath, had an eloquence of its own, since it smudged the space in a way that suggested pentimenti, second thoughts, a hazy penumbra of light and shadow. Light leaks in to the world, and an erased line with a line above suggests that leakage. Nothing in a graduate degree in art history prepares you for the eloquence of the eraser.
Nicely said, as readers of the magazine have come to expect of articles that carry Gopnik's byline.
I took life drawing classes myself once upon a time, shortly after college. I found it's harder than it looks ... but that, as Gopnik describes, even a clumsy beginner can make a bit of headway.
In matters of erasure and remaking, it's no different for writers -- except that nowadays we have the backspace key & cut-and-paste. In my on-line writers' critique group a number of us are working our way into new projects, myself included. At an early stage of our novels, some of us are all about erasing and remaking. Others prefer to blurt it all out, saving the erasing and remaking for later.
There's also accenting. Sometimes the addition of a few words -- not even a sentence -- snaps a passage into the relief and shadow one seeks.
One of my techniques as I edge into a new work of fiction is to write short stories that are "prequels" to the time and action of the novel itself. I develop some of these to a sufficiently polished point that I consider them finished; I treat others as quick exercises, just throwaway sketches. For the most part, I don't plan to splice these prequels into the novel itself. They're backstory.
The protagonist of my new novel project is in his early thirties, but he was fourteen in the first short story I wrote about him. In the one I'm working on now he's twenty. I posted the first part of that first short story for feedback from my writers' critique group a couple of months ago. Adam Gopnik's observation about erasing and remaking reminded me of some of their critique and my subsequent revision.
The opening paragraph of the submission to my group, was this:
I squeezed under the quarry's chain-link fence where we always did, where high school kids pried it up every summer. Brad loped ahead, a tie-dyed wifebeater hanging loose on his skinny frame, unnaturally neon in the moonlight. Jocks at school called him "hippie," even though he listened to edgier tunes than the kids who taunted him. Market Conditions, Disease, Dip Stix -- all fast, messy, distorted guitar and crazy-quick drums. I was the one who listened to Phish, I just didn't advertise it.
First person, obviously. But what wasn't obvious, and what confused this first group of readers most, is that the story is told by an adult looking back on his own boyhood. There were plenty of clues to this sprinkled throughout the story, but the backward-looking point of view wasn't firmly established at the start. For this reason, many in my group found certain passages 'too adult' in language, syntax, or perspective.
One writer observed, for example, "Dan's a 14 yr old, some of the vocabulary is still older sounding to me, as an older man is remembering v. a kid living it."
Yes! I thought when I read her critique. Just what I intended!
But, no. Not how she read it. I may have achieved the right effect in the voice, but if my readers had tuned their expectations for something different the effect was worse than lost: it was counterproductive, it pulled readers out of the story.
Gotta fix that.
Another thing the group questioned was that list of band names in the penultimate sentence quoted above. Were they real bands? Why use music that's so obscure, why not something your readers will have heard of? (Interestingly, the same writer whose feedback I cited a few paragraphs back got a related response a few weeks later, about mention of Gordon Lightfoot in a chapter she posted for feedback. One of our number had never heard of Gordon Lightfoot, which erupted into something of a culture war in our virtual-discussion thread.)
Aaaaanyway, as it happened, in my story's opening the band names were made up. I love to make up band names. In fact, I love to take snatches of things I hear people say, or say myself, and file them away as names for bands I might write into a novel someday. I have this "seat-of-pants theory," as I explained to the group as exchange about my short story unfolded, that "any good idea for a band name has already been used by someone." Still, I find the exercise amusing.
Here's the story's opening paragraph, edited in light of my group's critique:
We squeezed under the quarry's chain-link fence where we always did, where high school kids pried it up every summer, and probably still do. Brad loped ahead, a tie-dyed wifebeater hanging loose on his skinny frame, unnaturally neon in the moonlight. Jocks at school used to call him "hippie," even though he listened to edgier tunes than the kids who taunted him. Market Conditions, Disease, Dip Stix -- bands nobody ever heard of, all fast, messy, distorted guitar and crazy-quick drums. I was the one who listened to Phish back then, I just didn't advertise it.
Three short additions, of four, five, and two words each.
The first sets the voice as a character looking to an earlier time in his life right in the initial sentance. The second relieves the reader of any obligation to recognize the band names. The third cements the distance from the narrator's present time to that of the story as a considerable span. Back then, that would have been a while ago.
Sometimes a few strategic accents are just the right thing. Other times you've got to bring that eraser to bear.
Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Aleksandar Hemon on Narrative, Biography, Language
Does a writer need a writers' group?
Drafting vs. editing