Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.
“When the helicopter comes, we will carry you. You will want to help, but you should do nothing. You must not try to move yourself. We will do everything.”
It was Angel Lady again, her face a few inches from mine. I stared into her strange eyes—big, shiny and metallic blue. In each eye I saw my mirrored reflection. There was two of me. Both of me have a white beanie on. Both of me have an oxygen mask on my face. She began to stroke my forehead, slowly, back and forth, back and forth. Her finger was soft and fuzzy.
“Just relax, think calm thoughts. Think of a place that is warm and peaceful, where you are calm and happy. Relax.” Her voice was soothing but sounded a bit different. Angel Lady was German maybe, or Swiss?
Why am I lying on the ground? Where am I?
“Are you feeling any pain?” she asked. I moved my head slightly, enough to answer “no.”
“Are you warm enough?” I nodded my head “yes.” The slight effort it took to answer was tiring. Trying to think was tiring. The physically conditioned body I had trained so hard for was now motionless—my limp arms and legs too weak to move. My sleeping bag, bundled around me, felt soft and warm. I just wanted to drift into sleep and closed my eyes.
No, NO! Open your eyes, open your eyes—you can’t go to sleep, you have to keep your eyes open or you’ll go to the black place where you can’t breathe! Matt said you have to breathe—he’ll start yelling at you again if you don’t breathe.
I jolted awake, more conscious than I had been for, well, I had no idea how long. I looked at rocky ground all around me. I saw snow-covered giant mountains in the distance.
I know where I am. Renjo La . . . Himalaya mountains.
I remember what happened.
I began to shake, hit by that rare kind of terror that comes with realizing you are probably going to die.
The effectiveness of an opening comes down to questions. The questions are always the same: who, what, when, where, how, and why? What varies is which questions are raised and answered and to what extent. Answer too many questions, and you burden readers with irrelevant information and risk undermining suspense; answer too few, and you create false suspense; confusion.
Even when an opening achieves a good balance between questions raised and answers given, those questions and answers may not be the best ones with which to equip readers for the journey through a story or a novel—or, in this case, a memoir.
The answers provided by the sensational opening of this memoir are as follows:
- Where: Renjo La Pass in the Everest region of the Himalayas
- When: Contemporary, certainly within the last half-century
- What: An expedition, probably for the purpose of mountain climbing, during which the narrator has been incapacitated and is delirious
- How: Probably she took a bad fall and broke one or more limbs, or succumbed to altitude sickness, or both
As for questions, the main one it raises is: Will the helicopter arrive? Will the narrator be rescued? The question calls attention mainly to an anecdotal experience. Anecdote: “a short amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person.” While mountain climbing in the Himalayas, I succumbed to altitude sickness, broke my leg, and had to be airlifted to a hospital. That’s terrific fodder for a tale told to friends over cocktails. But is it enough to draw me into a book-length memoir? Assuming it draws me in, does it point the way to the memoir’s main theme? (The subtitle of this memoir, “A Woman’s Journey to Save Her Wild Child,” leaves me with some doubt.)
But putting that aside, let’s consider two questions not raised by this first page, namely Who? and Why? Who is this narrator? What circumstances and motives brought her to this treacherous mountain pass? If readers wonder at all, they will do so vaguely, their curiosity about such things overshadowed by the sensational drama at hand. Which points to a potential problem with sensationally dramatic openings: they leave very little room for character evocation. Apart from the fact that she’s incapacitated, the one thing we learn about the narrator from this first page is that she’s afraid to die, but then aren’t most of us? Under the same circumstances, who wouldn’t respond more or less as she does? Toward revealing character, the opening doesn’t take us very far.
But supposing, for argument’s sake, that this first page told us something more about the narrator, something to make us as curious about who she is as to whether or not she’ll be rescued? Supposing there were some hint of a tragedy in her recent past, something left behind on this expedition? Supposing we learned that she is eighty-six years old, or that she’s been through a bad break-up, or quit her job as a lawyer for a corrupt pharmaceutical company, or done several tours as a soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq, or survived the collapse of one of the towers at the World Trade Center? Or that before undertaking this voyage she spent the entirety of her life in a small midwestern town. If only we knew any one such thing, how differently this first page would read.
In Black Wave, a memoir about a family sailing trip turned disastrous by a freak storm, within two paragraphs authors Jean and John Silverman do more than just put us into a disastrous situation; they engage character:
Below deck in our catamaran sailboat, my husband, John, stood in the doorway of our tiny stateroom. I can picture him there in that instant before everything changed. Our four children—we had pried them away from their suburban world for a thousand reasons—were busy elsewhere on the boat, settling in for the night. John had just told me how long it would probably take us to get to Fiji, our next destination by way of Tonga. After Fiji and Australia, the plan was for the kids and me to head home to the States while John stayed behind long enough to clean up the Emerald Jane and sell her.
I was propped up in bed with a laptop as John chatted from the doorway. He hadn’t had a drink since his big meltdown in the Caribbean, and I was pretty much in love with him again. We had done what we set out to do two years earlier when we first set sail. Along the way, our children’s eyes had opened to the beauty of the world. The kids were very strong characters now, very different from when we began. We loved them in new ways—maybe deeper ways, because we had taken the time to finally get to know them.
Like the one under discussion, this memoir opens in medias res, “in the middle of things.” It, too, is about an adventure that turns disastrous. But though the opening telegraphs that disastrous event (“before everything went wrong”), the emphasis is on who rather than on what. In two paragraphs we learn:
- that the narrator and husband’s marriage has been troubled;
- that the husband, John, may be an alcoholic;
- that there has been at least one recent “meltdown”;
- that the children are growing, changing, forming “strong characters.”
Most telling is that last sentence: “We loved them in new ways—maybe deeper—because we had taken the time to finally get to know them.” Though about the children, from that sentence we infer that something of the kind applies to the narrator and her husband as well, that in confronting disaster they’ll learn things about themselves and each other. Understanding, revelation, and growth: that’s what most good memoirs are, ultimately, about. Not anecdote; awakening.
An anecdotal experience can play a crucial or central role in a memoir and even serve as its main action. But however sensational, unless we know the people to whom they happen, dramatic incidents in and of themselves are fairly meaningless. Ideally, the opening of a memoir should make us as curious about the characters as about what has happened, or will happen, to them. If the author can add that dimension to this opening, it will be very strong indeed. As it stands, it is merely sensational.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008). He has published a novel, Life Goes To the Movies (Dzanc, 2009), three books on the craft of fiction writing (Writer’s Digest, Serving House Books, Broadview Press), and a children’s picture book, S.S. Gigantic Across the Atlantic (Simon & Schuster). His first essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man (University of Iowa, 2012), was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. A novel-in-manuscript, “The Water Master,” won the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Best Novel. His memoir, The Inventors (Hawthorne Books), which won the Housatonic Book Award, was among Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2016. He is Associate Professor of English at Georgia College & State University. Find out more at his website.