“Life changes fast.”
— The first sentence of The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion earned her reputation as one of the great American prose stylists partly through the memorable first sentences of her books and articles. She won the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction for a memoir of death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, that opens with three words: “Life changes fast.”
Do opening lines have an importance that goes beyond their ability to make you keep reading? Didion dealt with the question in a Paris Review interview about the early nonfiction pieces that helped to make her famous:
Interviewer: You have said that once you have your first sentence you’ve got your piece. That’s what Hemingway said. All he needed was his first sentence and he had his short story.
Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.
Interviewer: The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.
Didion: Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.
Joan Didion in “The Art of Fiction, No. 71,” an interview with Linda Kuehl in the Fall-Winter 1978 issue of the Paris Review. You can find the full text of that interview and another with Didion that appeared in the spring 2006 issue by searching for “Joan Didion” at www.parisreview.org. Didion’s hardcover publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, has posted an excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking at www.aaknopf.com, where you can read the pages that follow: “Life changes fast.”
Cover art for the the Fall-Winter 1978 Paris Review shown here: Robert Moskowitz
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.