First Line, First Paragraph, First Page

Louisa Leontiades On Writing, Women Writing Memoir to Release Trauma

The secret hope of many memoirists, and especially those writing of their traumatic past, is that their story will be recognised. That they will be recognised. In concrete terms that means that it will be read by a wide audience and be commercially successful. Because the injustices that occurred, occurred in a society which allowed them to happen, or even actively enabled them. Part of the way that happened was by making sure you couldn’t speak up or even if you did, that you weren’t believed. You were silenced and invalidated.

We live in a world of victim blaming and of slut shaming, where women in particular are trained to be ‘good girls’, obedient and docile. One of the ways of making this true is by shutting down a woman whenever she tries to tell the truth about her trauma experience, from the police station to the doctor’s office and society at large. Sometimes it is the worst betrayal of all, that of your parents. This is a form of abuse and often involves gaslighting–when your reality is denied and you are made to feel crazy. Sometimes it works so stupendously that you yourself start to believe in the lies that are being told.

Think about the stockholm syndrome, where the kidnapped believe their kidnapper is a loving person who cares for them. Or a woman who believes that her abuser hits her out of love. There’s no blame here. The mind is geared to survival and the mind must believe it to be true because it is what makes it bearable to survive in such a situation. But the legacy of that terrible belief is that the victims themselves come to believe that abuse is love, that they deserve to be abused, that it is ‘the way of things’. They have been silenced and must deny the awful truth, even to themselves. In the worst cases, that form of ‘love’ is what they go on to inflict on others in a tragic cycle.

All this erasure and silencing means that your story, your life and you, may have a need for greater validation via your memoir than if you wrote other types of literature. What an enormous pressure to put on yourself and your book! It’s no use, no use at all me telling you not to put that kind of pressure on yourself. I did, even though others told me not to. And you will too. But it is my fervent hope that this pressure will also allow you to take a long term view on what you’re doing. You and your story deserves work. Invest in yourself, you are worth it. By investing in yourself by writing and revision, your mind will also eventually understand that you are worth it. Yes, your mind tricks you but you can also trick your mind… (mwah, ha ha!)

Yet even though your work is of immense personal value, your first draft will not be in any shape to be published and that is just as it should be. The risk is that your story will continue to feel unheard even though you’ve made the mammoth achievement of committing it to paper.  But I’ve found that commercial success is not the same thing as being heard or feeling validated. Getting your book to a state where it is publishable–even self-publishable–does wonders I promise, but it is probably more work than you anticipated.

So if you’re waiting to ‘find’ the perfect first line, for it to plop into your lap, then you’ll be waiting for a long time. The way you find your first line is by writing many, many draft ones. You allow your first lines, your first paragraphs and your first pages to be basic building blocks because the golden first line is the brick at the top of the pyramid and you cannot get there, unless you start building from the bottom. Indeed, your golden first line may not be ‘found’ unless you finish writing the first draft. So what will it look like when you do find it? What is a golden first line? Obviously there are many different ones.

If you are writing and hoping for any kind of commercial success, your first line will be the type of line that entices the reader to read the first paragraph. The first paragraph will entice the reader to read the first page and then the first chapter. Some first lines start directly into dialogue, this way is very handy as it plunges the reader into immediate action. Some start with a ‘look back hook’ as in Stephen King’s famous line from IT,

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it did end, began as far as I can tell with a boat made out of a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

A memoir opening by Sloane Crosley in I was told there’d be cake looks like this,

As most New Yorkers have done, I have given serious and generous thought to the state of my apartment should I get killed during the day.

One of the best ‘trauma’ memoirs I’ve read is Sickened by Julie Gregory which examines child abuse in the form of Munchausen by Proxy. i know it’s good because it makes me feel sick. There’s a raw power in it that only truth can produec. It starts off like this,

The part I hated most was shaving. I mean, if you’re a twelve year old girl, how much hair can you have on your chest?

What do these openers have in common? They all subtly deliver information and invite curiosity. That’s because all first lines are designed to encourage you to read more and to involve you in the story. The first gives imparts the tone of the book–terror, the timeline–28 years, and imagery that is identifiable–the paper boat. The second also indicates tone–humour in  Jane Austen ‘universal truth’ irony, place–New York and a clue as to the nature of the protagonist. The last gives the age of the protagonist,  and the idea that something is seriously awry. For that reason your first line is ‘better’ (from a commercial point of view only) if it contains both situational information and interest. If it makes the reader pay attention.

I want to break off here and point out something that I hope is obvious. Your memoir is not you. Your first line is not you. You are whole and worthy without your book. But I know it is difficult when you are making yourself vulnerable to the world to be told your work has to ‘be interesting’ if anyone is to pay attention to you. That’s why decoupling yourself from your work is also a process and only one that can be gone through with practice. It can be crushing if people don’t like your work and therefore the mind assumes by inference, you. Writing memoir to release trauma, is exactly that. It does release your trauma. But the world will not necessarily acknowledge you more. Being validated by commercial success will feel good temporarily but it won’t help your self esteem in the long term and I’m glad it doesn’t, otherwise we’d always be on the attention-seeking hamster wheel. And when, if you reach that place where you are okay with your work being allowed to be out there without validation, when can get off the wheel, you will also know that your self-esteem is in pretty good shape. That first one star review is a killer though, and every author, memoirist or not, will understand and empathize.

The stages of ‘enticement’ are generally considered to be as follows:

  1. First line (which can be extended to the first couple of lines)
  2. First paragaph
  3. First page
  4. First chapter
  5. First three chapters

Examples of First Pages

Often literary agents will ask for the first three chapters in order to get a handle on whether all those stages of ‘enticement’ are there. My own (I quote from them because they are all examples of memoir and beyond a few lines you have to get copyright for others’ work) have got better with each memoir I’ve written, three published so far, three more in editorial. I invite you to do a comparison of each first line, paragaph and page to see how how much they grab you or don’t and more importantly why. Dig deep. Keep asking why because in understanding what you do or don’t like, you will also understand better your voice and the type of reader you are trying to speak to.

  • A World in Us (self-published 2012, then published second revised edition, May 2015)

I was at work, logged on to Gmail, reading yet another round robin email chain between:

Me
My husband
His girlfriend
My boyfriend
And his wife

Like a riddle, five people were able to be four because my boyfriend’s wife and my husband’s girlfriend were one and the same person. In the world of open marriage and polyamory they call it a quad: a four-person relationship.

Our quad was multi-faceted and multilingual. We had Spanish, French, English and Swedish nationalities. We were introvert and extrovert, spiritual and mercenary. It made for a passionate schism and a ferocious fusion; sometimes thrilling and sometimes sickening. Conflict and misunderstanding led to tears and arguments. Several times I had stared into the abyss thinking that all our dreams of a higher “multiple” love were over, only to receive a last-minute reprieve. But the joy that was our reward for all our heartache was exponential.

We were friends, squared.

I was in love with two amazing men. My sisterwife was in love with the same two amazing men. And they were in love with us both. We laughed together, we cried together. If I was happy, both my husband and boyfriend were happy, my sisterwife was happy, and in being happy we all radiated happiness back to one another like shimmering glass, basking in the glow of how unique and incredible our relationship was and had the potential to be. We were the pinnacle of bliss, the very epitome of togetherness.

  • First page of ‘Some Never Awaken’ (2016)

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you might remember before it’s too late.

And I was lucky.

Lucky following the dot-com crash to still have a job when so many of my colleagues had been fired. Lucky to be going to Barbados on an all-inclusive holiday with my best friends. And luckier still to have escaped the curse of my less than virginal single past with a rich, respectable boyfriend like Gus. But as I speeded away from Paris in the comfort of the Eurostar, that day I realised I felt lucky to be leaving without him. That day, with every agonising screech of steel against steel, I felt the sweet sense of release. My body relaxed, my shoulders dropped and the breath usually held so tight… came out of my chest, which, barely perceived, had constricted, millimetre by millimetre, over the course of our relationship. That day, I felt lucky because I remembered how freedom tasted.

  • First page of ‘Necessary to Life’ (2017)

Slut.

One syllable. Four letters.

The most worshipped woman in the world is a virgin: hymen intacta, even after giving birth—so the Catholics say. I’m like the anti-virgin, known best as an open relationship activist, and the world always has its battle-axe at the ready. Usually engraved with my four-letter moniker.

It was the lack of shame that my critics deplored. Not only was I in an open relationship, but I’d written a book about it. I’d committed our philosophy to ink on paper. I’d published it, so that it sullied more worthy tomes on bookstore shelves. Controversial media appearances had followed, and with them: hate. My fellow activists had warned me, “Never read the comments.” But as a prolific blogger, of course I did. And the comments often came back terse and visceral: Slut. Whore. Pig.

Before I became a mother, I learned to take a deep breath and shrug. What did they know? But a few years later came other comments:

What kind of mother are you?
They should take your children away from you.
Do you think of your children?

The think-of-the-children type missives are from those who mean well. They care, and that’s what hurts. Because in so many ways, I’m just like any other mother: never so blasé about my children that I can press delete without wondering, Am I really a bad mother?

Pre-motherhood, even my critics gave me a little leeway to be what they considered selfish, irresponsible and promiscuous. But once I had children, I was almost universally condemned—and their comments opened wounds I didn’t even know existed.

Getting Their Attention

Why does a first line grab anyone? Usually because it awakens curiosity. If the success of your first line depends on the curiosity of the reader, then it goes without saying that it cannot appeal to everyone. I’m not particularly interested in terror, so Stephen King’s line, masterful though it is, would not propel me to read further. But I am interested in relationships in all their permutations, so my first lines grab me. Beyond the subject matter though, I can frankly admit that my writing has got better as I have practised over the course of ten years. Of course it has. I hope my next ones will be better, but my biggest fear is that I can get no better in my craft than what I’ve achieved already. Like many of us, I have a legacy of trauma which means I believe that I am only worthy if I achieve more (and more and more). I’m working on it.

I wrote A World in Us back in 2007 simply because my triggers were clanging like sirens and I felt I would suffocate if I didn’t get it all out. It was unpolished in the beginning (especially as I self published it in 2012 before a publisher picked it up)–a scream of pain, as one friend described it. But the first line is prosaic and fairly mundane. The shock value lies purely in the controversial subject matter which comes at the end of the paragraph. Purely by chance, the media started paying attention to alternative relationships and it became fairly successful. But the first page is simply descriptive, admittedly of a strange and foreign situation, but it’s still descriptive. It’s reprieve I feel, is that it indicates that there is trouble in the wind…

Some Never Awaken I felt was better as it contained an implicit question–Too late for what? Why is she lucky? The readers hold these questions in their mind and reads, if the style allows, until the question is resolved (in psychological terms that’s known as cognitive dissonance). The question is partially resolved by the end of the first paragraph which also delivers a lot of information, but the first paragraph invites a new question: Why doesn’t she feel free in her relationship? If your work can contain implicit questions that need resolving, it is likely to encourage those readers who are interested in that subject matter to read further.

Necessary to Life starts powerfully with an insult, once more it plunges the reader into controversial subject matter, but it also exposes the reader to an ongoing battle with the online world. Anyone who has been involved in a facebook flame war, and that’s most of us these days, can tell you how horrible online hate is even if it comes from an anonymous source. So unlike the first that makes it identifiable even though it describes a similarly unconventional situation. Questions arise both implicitly and explicitly, What kind of mother is she? How do children fare in a situation like that?? And at the bottom of the page–what wounds does she have and why were unknown? It also introduces the main themes of the book (originally the title) ‘Think of the Children’ and motherhood.

The golden first line, first paragraph and first page therefore may contain the following ingredients:

  • Questions to be resolved, ideally both implicit and explicit
  • World information delivered subtly
  • Clues as to the broad theme and tone of the book

That’s a lot to ask from a first page, and note that according to layout some first pages like in Some Never Awaken, are as little as 158 words. 158 words!

Additionally before finishing the draft of the story, you may not even know what the themes are. Themes are curious things in memoirs which only often become apparent after you’ve written them. The mind knows more than it lets on to your conscious self. I’ve often discovered truths in my writing that have startled me. My first (and as yet unpublished manuscript) revealed to me that I hated the corporate world in which I’d been trained, and that I hated the job I thought I loved. That truth propelled me to quit finance permanently and start writing.

Writing memoir reveals you to yourself. It’s both a curse and blessing. But in order for writing to do its job, you must write that first line, first page and first paragraph despite knowing that you will have to revise it many, many times. Luckily none of those times are a waste of time.

Further ‘Trauma’ memoirs to read

  1. Sickened – Julie Gregory
  2. Hidden Lives – Margaret Forster
  3. Some Never Awaken – Louisa Leontiades (my own)

This is the second post in the ‘Women Writing Memoir to Release Trauma’ series. Ask to join the Facebook group.