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Channel the Peanuts Gang

by Kathy Coogan

“It was a dark and stormy night,” Snoopy types as the beginning sentence of his great American novel. Writers everywhere groan or chuckle at the cliché and the inauspicious beginning using the prosaic it-word. Some writers, gentle souls like Charlie Brown, hope “it” will get better. Others, as anxious as Lucy to snatch away the football, wad up the page and stomp away. The best, like Schroeder, practice, practice, practice, or like Linus, keep the ole blanket handy for comfort when things go bad.

There must be a little of each of the Peanuts gang in all of us writers. If you are a writer, you come equipped with an imagination. But it’s like a bicep or faith, more developed in some than in others. You have to work it. Writing, for most, is not a spontaneous task. A task yes, but rarely spontaneous. Writing takes the confidence of Snoopy, the hope of Charlie Brown, the selfishness of Lucy and the determination of Linus.

Getting started with that first important sentence stops some of us cold, hands poised above the keys, brain frozen. The echoes of genius-first-sentences stymie us: “Call me Ishmael,” or “It was the best of times,” or “I dreamed I returned to Manderly.”

But you have to start somewhere. It doesn’t have to be THE FIRST. It can simply be the first. Sneak up on it. Write something down and then write something else down after it. Soon, there will be sentences on the page. Perhaps none of those sentence will be THE FIRST. Perhaps THE FIRST will evolve from them. Or perhaps that imagination, now pumped up by use, will crank out a doozy.

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, a writing memoir, praises “shitty first drafts.” The positive inference is that after the first draft, there will be at least a second, which will be far less shitty. Ultimately the final draft will be cleansed of all shittiness. Or at least most.

The same goes for first sentences. Ask any writer. Odds are, even Melville, Dickens and du Maurier would agree. And so would Charles Schulz.

Something to Get you Going

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