All You Need is a First Line

Sometimes the hardest thing about a poem/essay/story/novel is writing the beginning. Putting the words down on the page is like standing up in front of a room full of people and saying, “Listen up!” It’s a big moment. What if they don’t listen? What if they do, and they don’t like what they heard? What if your work is boring? Really, there’s no end to the ways you can screw up.

My solution for blank page anxiety is to steal.* Take a line or a phrase from another poem, story, essay, etc., and put it at the top of the page. Then keep going from there. I did this with the last line from an John Ashbery poem: “All along, through the chain of lengthening days.” I wrote my own poem, using that line as the first line. My poem had nothing to do with his poem. You don’t need to write about the same subject as the piece that you stole from. In fact, it’s better if you don’t.

I find certain poets (like John Ashbery and Laura Jensen) have poems that work well for this technique– at least for me. Or you could try Wallace Stevens or Elizabeth Bishop. It’s a good idea to keep a page in your notebook for these lines and phrases. You can consult it when you get stuck. Here are a few to get you started:

“As though “dead” were just another adjective.”
– John Ashbery, “Tapestry” in As We Know, p. 90.

“You take me where we were born.”
– John Ashbery, “Hittite Lullaby” in As We Know, p.105.

“And then his mother wouldn’t recognize him.”
– Elizabeth Bishop, “Crusoe in England” in Geographies III, p. 15.

“An acrobat on the border of the sea”
– Wallace Stevens, “The Woman That Had More Babies Than That”, in Opus Posthumous, p.81.

*So, about this stealing business. Just so we’re clear, you’re not actually stealing because you will give credit to the writer and to the particular work where you found the line.

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