Why the First Line Matters
Too often, we do not think about the first thing that comes out of our mouths in a conversation. After many years of paying very close attention to the first lines of books and magazine articles, Salvation South editor Chuck Reece has a few ideas about why we should give our first words a little more thought in this week’s commentary.
I am fortunate to have spent many years of my life editing the work of gifted writers. Over those years, I have come to believe that this is true:
You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can judge it by its first line.
Anyone who’s been in a conversation about books with me knows I say this entirely too often. More people than my wife hear me say it and think, “Aww, not that again.”
But now, I’m saying it to you. It is important to understand the power of language to move us, to draw us toward empathy. Because empathy is something we all need more of.
Y’all might have heard me in this space extolling the virtues of the intriguing, inventive — and ridiculously long — first line of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
Now, old Bill was a groundbreaking writer, but I think it’s a lot harder to write an intriguing and inventive first line in only a few words. Five years ago, I read a book whose first line — just 13 words long — stuck itself in my head and has never left it.
The line came from an Appalachian writer you might have heard me talk about before named David Joy. And this is the line that began his second novel, The Weight of This World. Here it is:
“Aiden McCall was twelve years old the one time he heard ‘I love you.’”
The one time. Imagine that. A boy growing up in poverty, in the mountains, who makes it all the way to age 12 before anyone ever looks him in the eyes and tells him they love him.
I don’t tell you about this just because I want to give you a tip about a book you should read, although The Weight of This World is very much worth your time. And I don’t tell you about it just because I want to draw your attention to the dark circumstances of young lives in poverty.
I’m telling you about it because you are a writer too. These days, every one of us is a writer. Every day, we type text messages and emails — often using just our thumbs — to people we care about and who care about us. The next time you do that, I want you to think about what it might mean if the next thing to come out of your fingers was something more than “I’ll see you at six o’clock.” What if you tried to write a first line that speaks love to whoever will receive it? Could that change someone’s day for the better? Probably could.
We’ve got quite a few stories full of love at SalvationSouth.com. Y’all come visit us.
Salvation South editor Chuck Reece comments on Southern culture and values in a weekly segment that airs Fridays at 7:45 a.m. during Morning Edition and 4:44 p.m. during All Things Considered on GPB Radio. You can also find them here at GPB.org/Salvation-South and please download and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform as well.