For the First Sentence series, we have asked authors to revisit the opening sentences of their stories or poems. Here, Mona Simpson writes about the beginning lines of ‘Holiday’.
‘Any minute, a carpool car will pull up with my youngest daughter. She is what I dress for now. I brush makeup around my eyes. I never fussed this much for any date.’
For a long time, ‘Holiday’ opened a little differently. In the earliest draft I could find, it started:
For eight days and four hours, she hadn’t called him. She’d controlled this. She’d tried. But it was already almost three o’clock. Chana would come home. She could get through today too and then it would be nine.
A year later, still in third person, I’d taken five days off my character’s long wait. I’d moved to present tense, though, for more immediacy.
For three days she hasn’t called. What is that word the kids say? Props! She makes a fist.
Though I can’t find it now, I know there was an iteration when the story began with the simple word ‘Props!’
I was taken with the word ‘Props’. A version of these original opening lines remains, in the finished story, at the bottom of the first page:
For three days, I haven’t called Ben Clerk. Props! (His word that I impressed my kids by knowing.)
In a way, these sentences carry the movement of the story. The character found something new and fun and hopeful in an extremely unlikely place and carried it back with her to the next part of her life. But, I understood her by then and could follow her internalities.
Many of my readers couldn’t. My agent, who usually responds to stories overnight, took a few days. Finally, after several sympathetic readers told me they had a hard time ‘getting into’ the story at the beginning, I decided I needed to locate the narrator more, to set her in place on the porch, waiting for her daughter. So the reader starts from the outside and moves centrifugally in, instead of the other way around. I left tags of the narrator’s consciousness, even in the plain description, with ‘a carpool car’ and the error in the second line, ‘She is what’ instead of ‘This is what’ or ‘She is whom’.
I don’t have to try very hard to approach things at a slant.
Photograph by freestocks