Thursday, June 17, 2010

Introductory Comments

The individual chosen to introduce a speaker to an audience expecting a speech or a book to an audience expecting story or memoir is chosen for the ability to be witty, knowledgeable, and brief. These three qualities are just as likely to go to the introducer's head to the point where he or she will want to amply demonstrate the first two before paying any heed to the third. 

 Who would be able to resist being thought witty? The prospect of being thought knowledgeable is enough to set the blood racing, a perennial revenge for all the cramming for final exams in classrooms long since vacated, an opportunity to show cognitive skills, impress friends.


An aisle seat in an auditorium or a rear table at a banquet becomes a strategic premium because of the potential for a quick getaway. Readers have less strategy to worry about; they can, if the Introduction begins to linger like the proverbial last guest to leave a party, start skipping pages until they arrive at the text.

Although it is made pretty clear in the usage bible of the American Book Trade, The Chicago Manual of Style or, more informally CMOS, that an author is not the one to introduce his or her book, there is some element of mistrust, possible mischief, and a good potential of ego in the opening paragraphs of a short story, the opening pages of a novel or memoir. 

 Wanting the best possible reception for the work, the writer wants to take every chance to make sure the reader has the proper background with which to begin the story; fearful of the effects of academic literary critical theory, the memoirist or historical novelist will want the reader to have a core sampling of the zeitgeist or spirit of a particular time or understanding of a current local custom or tradition.

What the writer wishes to offer as an inducement is often quite different from what the reader wants or requires in order to commit to the reading of the work all the way through. The reader wants story, which is to say someone of interest in a situation fraught with danger, moral choice, temptation, discovery, intrigue. The reader wishes to know this in the same way a passenger wants some idea of the destination of a bus or train he has boarded, after which idea the passenger can enjoy the scenery.

Wouldn't it be splendid to run a study with a large n-sampling of professional writers in which their first draft opening pages was compared with the arrived at opening of the draft that goes off into submission? The answer is an unequivocal yes, reminding us--all of us--to start with people in motion. One of the more powerful openings of recent years is to be found in the opening paragraphs of a short story by the exquisite American writer, Deborah Eisenberg, "The Flaw in the Design."

"I float back in," is the entire first paragraph.

"The wall brightens, dims, brightens faintly again--a calm pulse, which mine calms to match, of the pale sun's beating heart. Outside, the sky is on the move--windswept and pearly--spring is coming from a distance. In its path, scraps of city sounds waft up and away like pages torn out of a notebook. Feather pillows, deep carpet, the mirror a lake of pure light--no imprints, no traces; the room remembers no one but us. 'Do we have to be careful about the time?' he says.

"The voice is exceptional, rich and graceful. I turn my head to look at him. Intent, reflective, he traces my brows with his finger, and then my mouth, as if I were a photograph he's come across, mysteriously labeled in his own handwriting.

"I reach for my watch from the bedside table and consider the dial--its rectitude, its innocence--then I understand the position of the hands and that, yes, rush-hour traffic will already have begun."

Think first of all of what has been going on in those few paragraphs; picture the participants, guess at their ages, their social ranking and status. Then think what you have been led to assume, and how there was probably a good deal more that had appeared in earlier drafts, tweezed out like stubborn hairs linking the brows.

Introduction is the seamless immersion of Reader into Story, of you into the life of others, of your allegiances toward these persons into whose life you are now able to eavesdrop upon, wherein you will make your own judgements about them, either rooting for them or waiting to see what their mischief has wrought upon them. 

The matter is no longer about you, not if you are successful; in that case you will have set individual inventions in motion, doing things neither you nor the reader dare do in the framework of the lifestyle each of you now lives, yet daring the reader to imagine the parts of these invented individuals that haunt your secret moments.


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