On How to Begin

© Photo copyright Heather Thomson. Sunset on the Ottawa River, August 2022. Sometimes, it’s easier to find the endings of things.


Beginnings are a mystery to me.

I’ve re-written or reorganized the beginning of essays dozens of times, before I get it “right”—or at least passable. Pasting blocks of text with the shortcuts on my keyboard. Wielding scissors for arts-and-crafts style, literally cutting and pasting printed pages together in slapdash fashion. 

Often, it’s still to no avail. I can’t find the beginning—don’t know where to start.

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends” wrote Joan Didion in her essay “Goodbye to All That.”

While I wholeheartedly agree with this when speaking of life experience, knowing how to begin an essay, I find, is often much more difficult than ending one. Though endings, of course, come with their own unique challenges.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” begins one of the most famous beginnings in written word. “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

How simple, it seems. The beginning of the book was creation, and God (in this version of the King James Version of the Bible) simply needed to speak, and it was so. Illumination. Light. 

I have to work much harder for my beginnings, and often in darkness.

I’ve been thinking about beginnings, recently, as I’ve delved into memoir writing. Not a full-length memoir, mind you (I attempted one of those, once, for which I wrote and rewrote the first chapter so many times I’ve lost count. I never could settle on one that seemed satisfactory), but rather shorter, essay-length ones.

I’m struggling to come up with the point of entrance into the essay-memoir, though I have lots of material to draw on for the middle.

So, I decided to take a look at the essays and memoirs I have on my shelf, or ones leant from the library. Here are a selection of first lines: (in alphabetical order, by last name, as they’re generally organized on my shelf)

First Lines

“My father grew up in a house that was blessed with water from an iceberg.” ~Wayne Johnston, Baltimore’s Mansion (1999)

“I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated.” ~Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (2016)

“When we still lived in Budapest, before the Revolution, I once asked Shoshanna how a baby gets inside its mother’s tummy.” ~Elaine Kalman Naves, Shoshanna’s Story (2003)

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” ~C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (1961)

“I am looking through the top drawer of my bedroom dresser this morning—something I almost never do.” ~Phillip Lopate, “My Drawer,” Bachelorhood (1978)

“When I was seventeen years old and still living in the seaside town where I spent my childhood, I would go for a few hours every Sunday morning to the home of a retired teacher of English literature to talk about books.” ~Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (2014)

“In the winter I am writing about, there was much darkness.” ~Mary Oliver, “Winter Hours,” Upstream (2016)

“I call him my ex-husband half the time and my husband the other half, but when I think of him, it is as my husband.” ~Ann Patchett, “The Sacrament of Divorce” (1996), This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

“When my third child, Amy, is nine weeks old I have a dream.” ~Sarah Polley, “Dissolving the Boundaries,” Run Towards the Danger (2022)

“There were hundreds of us, thousands of us, carefully dressing in the gray morning light of Brooklyn, Queens, the Lower East Side, leaving our apartments weighed down by tote bags heavy with manuscripts, which we read as we stood in line at the Polish bakery, the Greek deli, the corner diner, waiting to order our coffee, light and sweet, and our Danish to take on the train, where we would hope for a seat so that we might read more before we arrived at our offices in midtown, Soho, Union Square.” ~Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year (2014)

“That day, the end of May and her twenty-sixth birthday, she came over and we had waffles with white sauce and strawberries, and the meal was delicious and the conversation warm and pleasant, but I’ve forgotten other details that writers seek for their narratives such as the weather and the table setting and bits of dialogue and gestures of if we lit a candle for lunch.” ~Dora Dueck, “Mother and Child”, Body and Soul, edited Susan Scott (2019)

“The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California.” ~Cheryl Strayed, Wild (2012)

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

“I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died.” ~Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds (2012)

“One evening not long ago, my fifteen-year old son, Noah, told me that literature is dead.” ~David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading (2010)

“I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn.” Tara Westover, Educated (2018)

“One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August.” ~E.B. White, “Once More to the Lake” (1941), Essays of E.B. White

“Two days ago—Sunday 16th April 1939 to be precise—Nessa said that if I did not start writing my memoirs I should soon be too old.” ~Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past” (1939), Moments of Being

And so?

A long list, perhaps, but a good one. (And still, these are only a small selection of ones I happened to have on hand. And there are many more beyond my shelves.)

Such brilliant beginnings, which bring us in a single sentence into another person’s world. 

What brings them together, unites them in some unifying idea about how to begin? Each of them immerses us, the readers, immediately into a place, a time, a situation, a scene, or an idea. None of them begin at the very beginning, that is, the start of the essayist’s/memoirist’s life. Instead, we are brought immediately to the place needed to begin writing.

How to begin?

How to determine that precise point in which we can begin conveying to the reader what we have in mind, the start of a conversation in which we must draw interest from that first sentence?

I don’t know if there’s an easy answer, at least not for me. 

For now, I’ll just keep on working away at it, keep on writing, until I find the entry point into whatever story I’m trying to tell, or essay I’m trying to muddle my mind through.

But one thing’s for sure: I can’t find it until I begin writing. 


Question: How do you begin a piece of nonfiction writing? What are some of your favourite beginnings of essays or memoirs?