Memoir First Lines–A Contest for Readers of this Blog

Rooted in the land. Tree near Bellingham, WA.

Recently I had an inquiry from a writer who asked if I had a list of excellent first lines from memoirs. That sounded like something I should have. First words contain the vital “hook” that overcomes the reader’s resistance and skepticism. Think about how you challenge a book to speak to you when you gaze at its cover or open its first pages.

A really great memoir does more than hook the reader in the beginning. The first sentence takes you right to the heart of the matter, announcing one of the themes of the book. Often, the first paragraph in a work of art is like a haiku. It says in one breath what the whole book will say more fully as we follow the red thread of meaning.

Most of the lists of best and most famous opening lines come from novels. I shared some, and readers offered others, here. But what about memoir-specific opening lines?

Here are the first lines of some of the memoirs I selected as favorites in my personal top ten list.

1.”What are you looking at me for

     I didn’t come to stay . . .”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

2. “When everything else has gone from my brain–the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family–when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.”

An American Childhood, Annie Dillard

3. “Suppose your daughter is engaged to be married and she asks whether you think she ought to have children, given the sorry state of the world.”

Hunting for Hope, Scott Russell Sanders

4.”This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again.”

Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl

5. “In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the eldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.”

One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty

 6. “My childhood came to a virtual halt when I was around five years old.”

Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish

7. “The western plains of New South Wales are grasslands.”

The Road from Coorain, Jill Kerr Conway

8. “THE HIGH PLAINS, the beginning of the desert West, often act as a crucible for those who inhabit them.”

Dakota, Kathleen Norris

9. Prologue. “If you look at an atlas of the United States, one published around, say, 1940, there is, in the state of Indian, north of New Castle and east of the Epileptic Village, a small town called Mooreland.”

First Chapter. Baby Book. “The following was recorded by my mother in my baby book, under the heading MILESTONES:

FIRST STEPS: Nine months! Precocious!”

Zippy, Haven Kimmel

10. “Having just died, I shouldn’t be starting my afterlife with a chicken sandwich, no matter what, especially one served up by nuns.”

Learning to Die in Miami, Carlos Eire

11. “Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am.”

Lit, by Mary Karr (preface is an open letter to her son)

What do you notice about this list? One thing that pops out at me is that many of the women’s memoirs I love most are about the land under the life. The land represents the “beyond,” the spiritual dimension that words can evoke but cannot create or destroy.

What about your favorite memoirs? Go to your shelf and pull them down. Please contribute at least one first sentence to this list. I will give away a copy of Ari L. Goldman’s The Search for God at Harvard to the person who contributes the longest list of opening lines from their favorite memoirs. Extra credit if you tell us what you learn about yourself or your favorite books from doing the exercise! Deadline for submissions is Friday night, midnight, July 1, 2011. 

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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20 Responses to Memoir First Lines–A Contest for Readers of this Blog

  1. Some of the following are from my favorite memoirs, but others are really good first lines of memoirs I haven’t read. I judge first lines by how much they make me want to read on. I find all the following compelling.

    Mother spooned the poisoned corn and beans into her mouth, ravenously, eyes closed, hands shaking.
    “Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter,”by Barbara Robinette Moss

    The first time Daddy found out about me, it was from behind glass during a routine visit to prison, when Ma lifted her shirt, teary-eyed, exposing her belly for emphasis.
    “Breaking Night” by Liz Murray

    My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.
    “The Liar’s Club” by Mary Karr

    At the age of three my grand aunt proclaimed her independence by categorically refusing to having her feet bound, resolutely tearing off the bandages as fast as they were applied.
    “Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Child” by Adeline Yen Mah

    My mother’s hand was open like a bisque cup, all porcelain, and Christ Jesus’ fingers were tentacles entangled around her palm.
    “Daughter of the Queen of Sheba” by Jacki Lyden

    The phone shouldn’t ring this early.
    “Her Last Death” by Susanna Sonnenberg

    I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through the dumpster.
    “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls

    Our mother died three times. (Introduction)
    “The Kids Are All Right” by Diana, Liz, Amanda, and Dan Welch

    Early childhood memories don’t always remain in the right order or come back the moment they’re called, preferring to remain stubbornly locked in secret compartments deep in the filing cabinets of my mind.
    “The Little Prisoner” by Jane Elliott, Andrew Crofts

    Family should be the source of your strength, courage, and pride…not the thing that holds you down.
    “Climbing the Broken Stairs” by Frieda Annette Adkins

    In looking at the lines I chose, I notice that they are by women (Except for possibly the two that have male co-authors). I do tend to be drawn more to memoirs written by women authors. However, in looking at these first lines, I find them compelling when they do one of three things: a moment that is frozen in time in the author’s memory that grips the reader by the intensity of the moment as in the first seven; an overall statement (“Our mother died three times.”) that makes me want to know the specifics, or some kind of philosophical beginning (the last two). The fact that a moment frozen in time outnumbers the other two does not mean I like that one more — it really means that that is the most popular way for a memoir to begin. I actually prefer the philosophical beginning, which are just harder to come by.

    This is a great exercise. Thanks!

    Saloma

  2. shirleyhs says:

    Saloma, so good to see your words here again. And what a great list you created. I appreciate even more your observations. Isn’t this a great way to think about our own work? I know others who are avid readers and writers will appreciate your list also!

  3. Kathy says:

    As a boy, I never knew where my mother was from–where she was born, who her parents were.
    The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

    On the day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.– Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

    The blood is still rolling off my flak jacket from the hole in my shoulder and there are bullets cracking into the sand all around me.– Born on the Fourth of July, Ron Kovic

    By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by calling a homeless rover of the lowest status in life.– The Way of the Pilgrim (a spiritual classic by unknown author)

  4. Wonderful way to rattle my brain, Shirley. Early morning therapy.

    My introduction to memoir occurred in tenth grade English class. Prior to that I doubt I’d ever finished a book. Maybe I read Babe Ruth’s autobiography; maybe I read it six times, which pretty much explains away my youth. Was there anything other than sportswriting when I was a kid? If so, no one told me about it until Mr. Leonard introduced me to Moss Hart:
    “That afternoon I went to work at the music store as usual.”
    Act One: Moss Hart

    Pete Hamill, the quintessential New Yorker. Heard him the other night at the New York Tenement Museum. I can listen and speak with Pete all night. Wonderful storyteller:
    “At the beginning of my remembering, I am four years old and we are living on the top floor of a brick building on a leafy street in Brooklyn, a half block from Prospect Park. Before that place and that age, there is nothing.”
    A Drinking Life: Pete Hamill

    My favorite writer is James Salter. Lyrical and spare. Can do so much with a sentence. Most erotic book I ever read is his Sport and a Pastime:
    “The true chronicler of my life, a tall, soft-looking man with watery eyes, came up to me at the gathering and said, as if he had been waiting a long time to tell me, that he knew everything . I had never seen him before.”
    Burning the Days: James Salter

    By far, Tender Bar, is the funniest memoir I have ever read. I’ve spent time in the bar itself. I feet connected:
    We went there for everything we needed. We went their when thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there when happy, to celebrate, and when sad, to sulk.
    The Tender Bar: J. R. Moehringer

    And one from my friend, the delightful and hilarious Malachy McCourt:
    There was always the story in any gathering in Limerick. Be it boys, girls the men, the women, bald facts were considered cold and inhuman; therefore all storied events had to be wrapped in words. Warm words, serried words, glittering, poetic, harsh, and even blasphemous words.
    A Monk Swimming: Malachy McCourt

    I wrote a story about a family painting called “Pentimento,” a title I borrowed from Lillian Hellman. Here is my favorite memoir opening:
    “Old paint on canvas as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. The is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps ti would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again
    Pentimento: Lillian Hellman

  5. shirleyhs says:

    So great to see you here after meeting you on Twitter, Charles. Thank you so much for this great list–a real window into other worlds and into many ways of beginning. I go off to visit your blog also. Eager to see how these and other reading/writing experiences have influenced you.

    • Thanks, Shirley. No doubt I have been influenced by the a few of the writers I mentioned. Nice meeting you, as well.

      By they way, Frankl’s book had on an enormous impact on me.

      And you didn’t ask but the moment I hear hear the question, “What is your favorite opening..” I immediately think of Marquez’s opening from Love in the Time of Cholera: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

      • shirleyhs says:

        Thanks, Charles. I just enjoyed my first tour of your blog, and I loved it. Readers, I encourage you to scroll over Charles’ gravatar and click on it.

        I especially enjoyed your lyrical love song for New York. I will be writing about my husband and me going to live in Brooklyn soon–as a “grannynanny” for our first grandson.

        The Billy Joel Youtube was perfect for this morning. My country girl spirit is preparing itself to join the millions of other spirits and stories in the Big Apple. Should be an amazing year.

        BTW, I am Warwick High School Class of 1966.

  6. Nancy Halder says:

    I’m cheating. This is actually from the first paragraph of a privately published memoir by Bob Hanson of Williamsburg, Iowa, born in 1913 and now deceased. The sentences I quote should have been the lead sentences: “On my fourth birthday, my career really began when my dad brought home a tricycle for me. With it I could really get around. It was my first set of wheels and I’ve hardly been home since.”
    Nancy

  7. shirleyhs says:

    This isn’t cheating, Nancy, this is adding to our available resources. Thanks much! This sentence reminds me of the tricycle I got from my Grandma when my baby brother was born. It had big wooden blocks on it so that I could reach the pedals. I loved it. Never occurred to me that those wheels were part of starting my love of travel and adventure. But of course, yes!

  8. “I stepped off the train at the Winnipeg Canadian National Railway station and looked around anxiously – or was it eagerly?”
    You Never Gave Me a Name by Katie Funk Wiebe

    “The year I turned forty-three was the year I realized I should have never taken my Mennonite genes for granted.”
    Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

    “I used to stare at the Indian in the mirror.”
    Days of Obligation : An Argument with My Mexican Father by Richard Rodriguez

    “Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.”
    Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
    (Strictly speaking, Half Broke Horses isn’t a real memoir, but I like it anyway.)

    • shirleyhs says:

      Clif, so good to see you again! Anyone who reads as much as you do has so much to offer other readers. Thanks for this list. I love it. I consider you one of my best memoir scouts. 🙂

  9. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks for playing, everyone. The book is going to Saloma Furlong, who is invited to email her contact info to me. You made a very eclectic list. I appreciate your help. All readers who find this post will have a lot of different options to consider in thinking about what makes a great opening sentence!

  10. Fun post, Shirley. Thanks.

  11. shirleyhs says:

    Just wanted to add this lovely story about a writer whose first paragraph created her initial publishing opportunity. She adds the idea that a good, mysterious first paragraph is as important to the WRITER as it is to the reader.We write to discover the answers to our own mysterious questions: http://www.writingclasses.com/FacultyBios/facultyArticleByInstructor.php/ArticleID/12?utm_campaign=b8feb4f66a-Web_July11GG_ThisWk_Stine-7_11_2011?utm_source=Gotham%20Writers'%20Workshop%20List?utm_medium=email

  12. Hi, Shirley:

    I hate that I missed this contest. What a wonderful idea! What incredible first lines!

    • shirleyhs says:

      Isn’t it inspiring to see how many ways a writer can capture our imaginations?! Feel free to offer the same challenge to your own readers. I’d love to read more.

  13. Linda Gartz says:

    Shows the power of first lines to get readers to keep reading.

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