Finding that first sentence of the day can be as bracing to the writer as that first up of coffee, but it’s sometimes as hard to find as the strike zone for the aging fast-ball pitcher or as elusive as wild asparagus for the natural foods forager.
Sitting down to the soft, menacing whine of his machine, the career-scribe stares at the blank screen and sees nothing but his own bewildered eyes staring back at him. Two lone eyes in a vast sea of white.
Gradually, the eyes get wider.
They are suddenly no longer the wordsmith’s own eyes but the eyes of the moron he suddenly fears he’s become. “Eee-gads!” he cries, fists clamped to his temples. “My career is over and I have only a few chapters left on this oater I’m writing! No delivery check for me, and they’re probably going to force me to return the advance money I’ve already frittered away, as well!”
The scribbler’s heart pounds like musket fire in a Civil War reenactment battle as he wonders if they’re hiring down at Target.
Where are those slippery devils, those glistening little hand-cut and polished jewels, those sentences, hiding?
Sometimes, at this point, the writer must become the Euell Gibbons of his trade, don his metaphorical hiking boots and walking stick, and light out for parts known. Yes, into the wild he’s explored before. Into the woods where he’s found those toothy little word-lions roaming free in the past and managed to throw a loop around them and haul them home to the cheers of his relieved family and the yips of his happy curs.
My version of this primeval forest is usually as close as my own office bookshelves or sometimes even my bedside night table.
At either place I can usually find all the books I’m in the half-conscious habit of returning to on those frustrating mornings I find that I need my pump primed. Sometimes, all I have to do is flip through one or two of these tomes, reading a few of the sentences in each–usually by writers who have struck major chords with something deep inside my writer’s ear before, firing the spark of creativity inside my desperate soul–and suddenly I become a cat pouncing on a mouse.
I’m Hemingway in Africa.
Paris Hilton on Rodeo Drive.
It’s weird, the books I find myself returning to. These are the books I’ve read and reread so many times I know them almost by heart, but they’re not at all what anyone who knows I’m a fast-action, blood-‘n’-guts western writer would expect. Most days, there’s not a single oater among them.
Today I found three books at the top of the stash I return to most often and thumb through repeatedly, searching for the sounds that are going to ring my own bell. And one or all of these almost always rings it.
Here are the titles:
Red Smith on Baseball.
Lights on a Ground of Darkness by Ted Kooser.
One Man’s Garden by Henry Mitchell.
Yeah, that last one’s a freakin’ gardening book. And aside from throwing a few shrubs in the dirt now and then, I don’t even garden! The thing is, I’m not reading for content but for the sound of the writer’s words arranged with such seeming effortlessness into graceful sentences.
I’m needing to hear the writer’s voice and see the images that that voice paints in my head. For some reason and almost all the time, hearing and seeing those sentences written by folks I consider masters of the trade helps me use my own voice and my own images to write this essay, for instance, as well as the scenes in my own western novels.
Here are two sentences by sportswriter Red Smith from his essay, “A Man Who Knew the Crowds,” that got me going yesterday:
When the iceman cometh, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference which route he takes, for the ultimate result is the same in any case. Nevertheless, there was something especially tragic in the way death came to Tony Lazzeri, finding him and leaving him all alone in a dark and silent house–a house which must, in that last moment, have seemed frighteningly silent to a man whose ears remembered the roar of the crowd, as Tony’s did.
Thanks, Red. And Henry and Ted.
You’ve helped me more times that you could ever know turn that moon-like desert of the white page into a flowing field green with wild asparagus!