Not to get too personal and therapeutic on you all, but my psychiatrist and I have been exploring the possible long-term effects of the prescription of bronchodilatory inhalants for young asthma sufferers in the 1960s. After years of waiting for ingested medicine to take effect, or enduring the terror of an adrenaline shot at the doctors, an entire generation of asthmatic children learned the relieving pleasures of . . . instant gratification. Yay!
While asthma is long behind me, I ponder what the enthusiastic use of what I called "my spray" has done to the way I read. Case in point: The Book Thief. After the first twenty pages of Death's meditations stymied me three times, Martha suggested I try the audiobook instead, allowing me to get through Death's opening remarks less painfully--no pages to force myself to turn. And she was right: once the story itself gets going, it's pretty unstoppable. But those first twenty pages made me so resentful I wanted to give up. Where's my spray?!
I'm of several minds here (perhaps as a result of other abuses of the instant-gratification reflex). One, maybe it's just me--impatience is a subjective experience. And two: as Natalie Babbitt told me (after fielding many letters from children who struggle with the opening chapters of Tuck Everlasting), a writer needs to write the book the author needs to write. And three: sometimes (as Natalie said children also told her) the patience required in the beginning is amply rewarded in the end.
But I'm also reminded of what former NY Times "women's news editor" Charlotte Curtis was told by her first boss, at the Columbus Citizen: "Curtis, you didn't get your clothes off fast enough!," meaning her stories took too long to get to the point (quoted in The Girls in the Balcony by Nan Robertson). In our recent "What Makes a Good Book" special issue, Richard Peck offers plenty of advice for writers on how to begin a book:
It's far too tempting to warm up on your reader's time. I regularly find my first line somewhere on the sixth page, after five pages of starting too early and walking in circles and pleading with the reader. I've learned to pitch those first five out.
(I would add that writers should NOT start as if they took a writing manual's advice "to immediately engage the reader's five senses" far too much to heart, as in opening with "James could still taste the breakfast marmalade on his tongue as he piled grimy handfuls of dirt on the fresh corpse while the scent of magnolia from Grandmother's farm drifted across the sky along with the sound of the circling vultures screeching overhead.")
But (a) what advice do we give to readers? and (b) does it make a difference if the reader is a child or an adult? Martha suggested this morning that what readers need from a beginning is "to know that they are in good hands," that perceived confidence on the part of the writer can inspire the same feeling in the reader. I like that. I remember Hazel Rochman blithely telling her high-schoolers to skip the first chapter of Wuthering Heights. Right on (remember The Rules). And I know I just have to become more patient--but I do love a book that from the first page makes me feel like I've finally gotten some air.