I wasn’t sure I’d be able to run this morning. A light snow was falling, and the streets already had patches of ice on them from yesterday’s storm. I walked a ways and had just about decided to play it safe. Then I saw a stretch of pavement with no ice on it, and I thought that maybe it wouldn’t hurt to try to run a few steps. An hour later, I stopped running.
Getting a new piece of writing started can be like that for me, as can picking up in the midst of a rough draft on a new writing day. I’m always a little fearful that I won’t be up to the task, that I’ll end up falling on my face, but I’m also stubborn. I like to keep moving forward. So eventually, I begin. Maybe I write a sentence. Maybe I change a word or two in a sentence I’ve already written. The important thing is so make a move that engages me with the draft. I enter the stream of composition; the hours go by, and when I finally stop, I’m surprised by the number of words I’ve put on the page.
I’ve been working on a new short story lately, so, after a good while spent writing the draft of a novel, I’m reacquainting myself with the way a story moves.
Which brings me to the starting out, those first steps the writer of the story makes onto the page, when he or she is trying to give the reader the givens of the premise while also getting the narrative moving forward. Consider, then, the opening of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”:
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-laws’. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle years ago, but she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.
So what do we know about the world of the story? We know that a blind man, a former employer of the narrator’s wife, is coming to spend the night. We know the blind man’s wife has died, and we know how the narrator feels about that. Because of his faulty assumptions about blind people, he doesn’t look forward to the visit. Notice how clearly and gracefully Carver gives us everything we need to know as we enter the world of the story. Things are in motion from the opening line, and a tension between the narrator and the blind man has been established before the guest arrives. Everything that the story needs to dramatize has been articulated.
A good story starts with a first step: This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. Write a line that’s already moving forward, that contains the story’s premise. Then establish the perspective of the main character so we know his or her initial position when it comes to the premise: A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to. Now you’re ready to run. You’re ready to follow the trail. Keep your eye out for those patches of ice, the ones that will cause the main character to slip and his or her initial position to shift. Do that, and you’ll be like the narrator of “Cathedral,” who at the end of the story is trying to drawing a cathedral with the blind man’s hand on top of his, so he can try to understand what such a building looks like. Like the narrator of Carver’s story, you’ll be amazed at where you’ve arrived: It was like nothing else in my life up to now. That’s what a good story can do for us if we aren’t afraid to set out. The journey can take us somewhere we didn’t know we were going.