Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Writing on Menus

This is not a restaurant review, although the now defunct VietGrill here in Canton was a lovely spot for soup. Every order came with fresh cilantro and Vietnamese basil and lime and...wait, sorry, I forgot. Writing! I meant to write about writing. Specifically, first sentences.

When I talk to kids about their own writing, I emphasize that they shouldn't concern themselves with crafting a stunning first sentence right at the start. I'm sure some writers work this way, but I prefer to begin somewhere in the middle of a piece, or at least a few sentences on from the eventual opening line. I don't even start on the first page of a new journal or notebook. Instead I flip forward a few pages, and scribble on the early blanks much later. There's too much pressure in writing a perfect first line. And even when you do think you've got one, you'll probably end up changing it later.

Once the story I'm working on has started to take shape, I'll go back and work on or at least think about those first few sentences. Sometimes, though, those opening lines will just pop into my head at random. Normally I have a pen and paper handy for such occasions, but when I don't have my supplies, I grab whatever I can find. Scrap paper, newspapers, the back of a friend's hand...but not napkins. I don't understand the whole napkin sketch phenomenon. Every time I've tried to sketch something out on a napkin - like my invention for the greasy burger glove or the stand-up bathtub - the paper rips before I can scratch out a line. Maybe inventors have a special way of writing or something.

Anyway, back to that menu above. I was waiting to pick up some food, and at the time I was nearing the end of the first draft of my book The Truth About Santa. The first sentence - or "a" first sentence, anyway - popped into my head. Writing on the back of the owner's hand was out of the question, since I didn't know him too well, so I grabbed a spare menu and started writing. The scribbled version on the menu doesn't exactly replicate the final version, but the spirit of the idea is there. And you have to capture that spirit, whether you end up transcribing it onto the pages of a beautiful leather notebook, some cheap scrap paper, or one of your friends.