In another life and far away, I studied at the Art Students League in New York and attended the annual lectures of John Howard Sanden—he’s the artist who recently completed the portraits of Laura and George W. Bush. Invariably, his lecture started with a demonstration, usually an alla prima painting of the sitter’s head in three-quarter view. Afterward, he took questions.
One time, someone asked him, how do you begin a portrait? He smiled and said it depended. Sometimes he started in the conventional way by measuring, mapping, massing out a pose and working to ever smaller shapes as did his mentor and much-loved John Singer Sargent. But sometimes he began by painting an eye in just the right spot on a white canvas, then painting his way to the other eye, the nose, the mouth, chin, forehead, you get it. I’m sure before the first sitting, he’d spent hours studying his subject, going round and round the edges, getting all the lines and color into his fingers, making numerous drawings of the person’s facial expression, mixing gobs of paint to capture the subject’s flesh tones, rehearsing various poses and angles until he discovered just the right gesture for the portrait.
So it is with writers and our stories. Sometimes we begin by plotting, other times by fixing on a character, getting the words and color into our fingers. But where does the story begin? The answer varies by genre and by story and by author, I would imagine.
There’s the old saw that a story begins at the point of no return and that’s delicious to chew on, but I’m not really talking about beginning-middle-end. I mean, in the deep down, what moves us to write a particular story or series or body of work? Where’s the eye? Is it contained in the opening scene? Probably not.
My stories begin and end with a few images I carry around in my head. Some of them I’m not even aware of. Sometimes they’re written into a scene, but they’re deeper than that. Like William Faulkner’s image of Caddy in a tree that begins his story of the Snopes family, they begin and end and infuse a body of work. For me, I have two images: one, of a young girl, a tatterdemalion named Tessa, walking the streets of the Lower East Side in the 1900s; a second, of Serafina, a midwife, walking home after managing a birth in nineteenth-century Sicily. She’s waving to the baker and her earrings jingle, catching the sun. What brings them to that point in their lives? Where are they going? What are they doing? Who does what to them?
Where does your story begin?
Photo: Writing in Rome. Credit: gnuckz (Flickr), Creative Commons.