A Writer’s Notebook: first lines for essays

My creative nonfiction class is working on an exercise this weekend. I’ve got them doing the map-making exercise from Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories, but I’ve done that one here on the blog before. It’s worth doing again (and again, and again), but I promised them I’d share my writing from the exercise we did in class, which is what appears below.

It was so embarrassing, me prancing up and down the rubber court whooping and waving my arms over my head. The pleats of someone else’s kilt flying behind me. A group of students and staff had been talking about changing the campus mascot from the cartoonish fur-capped mountaineer to a rugged and fearsome Highland warrior. I’d been enthusiastic, and so somehow I’d been cajoled into donning borrowed Scottish attire and showing the school what such a symbol could look like.

In public.

I was faking it as a mascot, and the real mascot was angry, but what really embarrassed me were all the faces. The crowd — my classmates, my teachers — was full of people chewing on lips or scratching heads. They were embarrassed for me, making this kilted display of myself, and they were taking away the air in the gymnasium, raising the temperature. There should be a mutant villain in the comic books with the power to create and feed on embarrassment.

The face of the basketball coach, too, was mortifying. His head pink under the hot gym lights, his stony face fixed on me through the swarm of his players, his jaw twitching. It was the opening of March Madness, a special basketball exhibition at midnight meant to improve player morale and student interest in the tiny team at my tiny college. The coach had been brought in specifically for this purpose. I was a distraction.

And then the mascot — the real mascot — lifted up my kilt to show the whole school what I wore (or didn’t wear) underneath it.

The exercise is the fifth from Roorbach’s first chapter. It’s all about first lines, which I’ve done a lot with here in the Notebook, but I don’t usually use first lines for essays, so this felt a bit different. Some of that might have to do with the source. Roorbach’s exercise calls for examining other people’s first lines and talking about what makes those first lines work. So my class and I had spent part of a class period talking about what made the first line of Chloe Caldwell‘s recent Salon essay “My Year of Heroin and Acne” so interesting and effective. In that discussion, we also talked about the first two paragraphs of Chloe’s essay, and how she gets from her first line to the meat of the essay so quickly and effectively.

But I wanted to get then writing, too, so I combined this discussion and Bill’s exercise with another first line exercise: using existing lines as a starting place for original work. And for those first lines, I turned to one of my favorite sources, Lori Ann Bloomfield‘s now-closed First Line blog (lines meant for fiction, but as I’ve said in class, a story is a story, and a good first line in fiction could be the impetus for a good personal narrative). I offered them several options, and the few students brave enough to read in the first week wrote impressive beginnings to essays about car wrecks and door-to-door evangelists, but I was the only one to go with the embarrassment line.

Of course, what I wrote is terrible, and I don’t yet know what would get it past the point of mere anecdote to become a legitimate personal essay. But that’s a conversation for another class….

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

4 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: first lines for essays

  1. Ok someone had to say this, and as a Scot it might as well be me. It’s a couple of lines of dialogue by Spike Milligan:

    “Is anything worn under the kilt?”

    “No, it’s all in perfect working order.”

    [I know, sometimes you despair of a serious comment from me]


    1. Yes! No one has yet asked me this question in that phrasing, so I’ve never had the opportunity to use the classic joke, but I do always get some version of the question when I wear my kilt, and I love that joke. 🙂

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