A Writer’s Notebook: First line

For the exercise, see below.

Henrietta stood nervously on the railway platform watching the passengers disembark. She could smell the grime down between tracks, the grease built up in the undercarriage, the stale odor of the passengers as their sweat and breath mingled with their alcohol, their cheese sandwiches, their dry newsprint, all of it recycled through the train’s air system and exhaled into the station as soon as the doors opened, the gasp of a railway car desperate for new–if not fresh–air.  There had been a time when Henrietta wanted to gasp herself, to expunge the odors and then never breathe again, but she’d grown used to it now, had accepted her role in things:  to sense, to feel and smell and taste the world around her as no one else could.

And then the passengers touched her.

She had sipped a drink that morning, just an ounce but it was enough to deaden things, yet here it came just the same, the electric jolt through her nerves, the synapses overheating, a fog of unprocessable sensation in her brain, all these human beings, all these lives and emotions and energy washing over her, slipping into her, filling the subatomic gaps between each cell in her body, swelling her beyond herself.  She always thought of her childhood in these moments, of the toys she would buy for a quarter from the machines in the grocery store, the little plastic capsules rattling with tiny dinosaurs, lizards, trolls, which she would take home and drop in a bowl of water and watch expand, soak up the water and triple, quintuple in size.  Once, she had tied a string in coils around a tiny alligator then dropped it in the bathroom sink.  When it expanded it did so in grotesque rings, swollen bulges through the string until it looked segmented, more a worm than an alligator.  One leg had popped free but the rest were tied tight against its body and it looked tortured with that one free limb growing out from its rippled bands of green foam flesh.  Then something skittered loose in the water, slipped away and swelled on its own–the string had cut through one clawed foot.  The tip of the tail followed, shooting away like a life raft, and then the nose.  It happened like that, segment after segment cutting loose and drifting in the sink, a disembodied nightmare of an alligator.

When Henrietta had discovered her gift, her curse, in adolescence, she swore never to wear tight clothing again, not snug jeans or bracelets or strappy shoes, never even wore a bra.  Filled with the sensations of others and the memory of that alligator in the sink, she was terrified.

When the announcer blasted over the speakers to call the train’s departure, she flinched, and she whimpered, but she was getting used to this by now.  She opened her eyes and scanned the bright windows of the train.  It was full, as before.  She could not risk the enclosure, the long-term proximity to all those people, and so she waited, again, for the next train, and the next, until at last she could find a car with only a few people, where she could ride without the urge to scream.

And then the passengers touched her.

She had drank that morning, just an ounce but it was enough to deaden things, yet here it came just the same, the electric jolt through her nerves, the synapses overheating, a fog of unprocessable sensation in her brain, all these human beings, all these lives and emotions and energy washing over her, slipping into her, filling the subatomic gaps between each cell in her body, swelling her beyond herself.  She always thought of her childhood in these moments, of the toys she would buy for a quarter from the machines in the grocery store, the little plastic capsules rattling with tiny dinosaurs, lizards, trolls, which she would take home and drop in a bowl of water and watch expand, soak up the water and triple, quintuple in size.  Once, she had tied a string in coils around a tiny alligator then dropped it in the bathroom sink.  When it expanded it did so in grotesque rings, swollen bulges through the string until it looked segmented, more a worm than an alligator.  One leg had popped free but the rest were tied tight against its body and it looked tortured with that one free limb growing out from its rippled bands of green foam flesh.  Then something skittered loose in the water, slipped away and swelled on its own–the string had cut through one clawed foot.  The tip of the tail followed, shooting away like a life raft, and then the nose.  It happened like that, segment after segment cutting loose and drifting in the sink, a disembodied nightmare of an alligator.

When Henrietta had discovered her gift, her curse, in adolecense, she swore never to wear tight clothing again, not snug jeans or or bracelets or stappy shoes, never even wore a bra.  Filled with the sensations of others and the memory of that alligator in the sink, she was terrified.

When the announcer blasted over the speakers to call the train’s departure, she flinched, and she whimpered, but she was getting used to this by now.  She opened her eyes and scanned the bright windows of the train.  It was full, as before.  She could not risk the enclosure, the long-term proximity to all those people, and so she waited, again, for the next train, and the next, until at last she could find a car with only a few people, where she could ride without the urge to scream.

This is a first-line exercise, in which you take a sentence–usually at random–and use it as the beginning of a piece of writing.  Usually, you should freewrite from the first line, scribbling down whatever comes to mind, a kind of free-association game.  It can be timed, or you can simply write until you’ve exhausted your ideas (at which point, in some exercises, you can reach for a new sentence and keep working).  For the record, I wrote until I’d run out of ideas, and except for the usual spell-check at the end of things, I did indeed freewrite–this is unrevised.  I know the rules.

This first line comes from Lori Ann Bloomfield’s blog, First Line, since it was my conversation with her that prompted these weekly exercises in the first place.

And if anyone’s curious about the utility of this particular piece of writing: I might adapt this as a scene in a vampire novel I’ve had ideas about for years now.  But it doesn’t have to have wind up in a story to be useful.  I enjoyed the description, especially the challenge of starting with a train–I’ve ridden my share of subways and metros, but I’m not well versed in proper train stations.  So it was nice to give that a shot today.


3 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: First line

  1. I love this!!! I especially loved the line: “And then the passengers touched her.” Wonderful to have it as a paragraph on its own – very effective. And, of course, I love that you chose to use one of my first lines as the starting point for your exercise. You write mush better first drafts than I do, Sam. That’s for sure.

  2. Wow, I was impressed. I think writing exercises are not only helpful, but a lot of fun. Saying that, I haven’t done much writing of any form in a few years. I used to keep pretty busy writing, then got away from it. Since retirement I have been trying to get back into it. I have a few story beginnings down and endings in my mind, still waiting for a middle.

    I’m glad you said you ran the spell check on your exercise. People get so lazy about spelling and grammar on the web.

    I like what I have read so far here. Now I’m embarrassed to have you read some of my stuff. LOL.

    1. Embarrassment is good for the soul, believe me: My soul is healthy indeed!

      Thanks for the comments, Roy, and thanks for reading. I was excited to discover that you write and I’m glad you’re getting back to it these days. By all means, keep it coming–I’d love to read more. I’m also curious who you’re reading. Have you read Bill Bryson? You seem to have a similar style.

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