I came across the following article in the September 24, 2012, issue of The New Yorker.Â Itâ€™s by the legendary sports writer Gay Talese, and itâ€™s called â€œThe Crisis Manager.â€Â Â You can tell immediately from the picture and caption that the article is about Yankee manager Joe Girardi.Â Even at that, Taleseâ€™s masterful, leisurely opening left me agape with admiration.
One summer afternoon in 1974, a nine-year-old boy sat in Busch Stadium, in St. Louis, watching the Cardinals play the Montreal Expos. He sat next to his aunt, in the front row, near the left-field foul pole, and every half inning he rose and pleaded with the players as they exchanged warm-up tosses in the outfield: â€œThrow me a ball!â€ For most of the game, he was ignored. But, just before the bottom of the seventh inning, the Exposâ€™ left fielder, a thirty-one-year-old slugger named Bob Bailey, flipped the boy a ballâ€”and then watched as it bounced off his small, outstretched hands and fell back onto the playing field.
â€œSon,â€ Bailey said, retrieving the ball and reaching up to hand it to the boy, â€œif you want a ball, you gotta learn to catch it.â€ He spoke softly, sensing the embarrassment that the boy must be feeling. Bailey remembered the kindness shown him by a major-league player when he was a kid. His father had been a high school teammate of the Cleveland Indiansâ€™ pitcher Bob Lemon, and, once, Lemon took young Bailey on a tour of the clubhouse and introduced him to many of the Indians.
Bob Bailey never forgot that experience, and it reaffirmed his desire to play among such menâ€”which he started doing in 1961, with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. In a seventeen year career in the majors, he had a hundred and eighty nine homers in 1,931 games, while knocking in seven hundred and seventy-three runs and posting a career batting average of .257. He made his final plate appearance in 1978, with the Boston Red Sox, as a pinch-hitter in the playoff game in which the New York Yankeesâ€™ shortstop Bucky Dent hit a three-run homer in the top of the seventh at Fenway Park, to lead the Yanks to a 5â€“4 victory that propelled them toward a World Series triumph. The Yankeesâ€™ manager at that time was Bob Lemon, the old Bailey family friend. After the game, Bob Bailey walked over to congratulate Lemon. A couple of weeks later, shortly after marking his thirty-sixth birthday, on October 13th, Bailey retired as a player.
On October 14th, in East Peoria, Illinois, the boy who, four years earlier, had fumbled Bob Baileyâ€™s gift ball in St. Louis turned fourteen. The boyâ€™s name was Joe Girardi. He went on to be an outstanding defensive catcher in high school and college and later spent fifteen years in the major leaguesâ€”as a catcher with the Chicago Cubs (1989-92), the Colorado Rockies (1993-95), the New York Yankees (1996-99), the Cubs again (2000- 2002), and, finally, as a backup catcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, playing his last game at Busch Stadium on September 20, 2003, at the age of thirty-eight. Now, at forty-seven, Girardi is in his fifth year as the manager of the New York Yankees.
With perfectly controlled, fluid, straightforward prose, Talese draws us in, weaving a Hansel and Gretel trail of interconnected lives, laced together by Americaâ€™s Pastime.Â We know this is a story about Joe Girardi.Â Where is Talese going with this meandering narrative?Â What does this have to do with Joe Girardi and where does he come in?
And then, in a flash of recognition, we find that Joeâ€™s been here the whole time!Â He was the little boy who dropped the ball! But this isnâ€™t just a parlor trick by a master writer.Â Talese is setting the tone of the story and telling us what the story is about.Â And no, itâ€™s not a story about baseball.Â Itâ€™s a story about fathers and father figures, about personal connections and putting family first.
In journalism and non-fiction, itâ€™s called The Lead.Â In fiction, it may be called the opening or the beginning, but even in fiction, one does well to think of it as The Lead.
A good lead:
- Captures the readerâ€™s attention immediately.
- Is fluid: draws the reader in smoothly and inexorably, like a water slide.
- Does some work.Â It gives the reader something of substance from the opening bell.
- Draws a contract with the reader.Â This, it says, is the sort of richness you will be rewarded with if you continue reading.
- Establishes the tone of the piece, be it humorous, academic, suspenseful, folksy, ominous, or making a human connection.
Iâ€™m talking as though I know what Iâ€™m talking about, but in reality, Iâ€™m learning right along with you.Â William Zinsser, in his On Writing Well, lays out the foundation principles far better and with more authority than I:
The most important sentence in any article is the first one.Â If it doesnâ€™t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.Â And if the second sentence doesnâ€™t induce him to continue to the third sentence, itâ€™s equally dead.Â Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is safely hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit the â€œlead.â€â€¦
Therefore your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading.Â It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea or an interesting fact, or a question.Â Anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve.
Next the lead must do some real work.Â It must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it.Â But donâ€™t dwell on the reason.Â Coax the reader a little more; keep him inquisitive.
Continue to build.Â Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it.Â Give more thought to adding solid detail and less to entertaining the reader.Â But take special care with the last sentence of each paragraphâ€”itâ€™s the crucial springboard to the next paragraphâ€¦
[William Zinsser:Â On Writing Well: An Informal Guide To Writing Nonfiction; NY, NY: HarperCollins, 5th ed. 1994]
Weâ€™re talking about relatively leisurely openings today, not pithy, gimmicky teasers.Â The best such leads display a richness and freshness of perception or detail.Â This one is from Joan Didionâ€™s â€œ7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38â€:
Seven Thousand Romaine Street is in that part of Los Angeles familiar to admirers of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett: the underside of Hollywood, south of Sunset Boulevard, a middle-class slum of â€œmodel studiosâ€ and warehouses and two-family bungalows.Â Because Paramount and Columbia and Desilu and the Samuel Goldwyn studios are nearby, many of the people who live around here have some tenuous connection with the motion-picture industry.Â They once processed fan photographs, say, or knew Jean Harlowâ€™s manicurist.Â 7000 Romaine looks itself like a faded movie exterior, a pastel building with chipped art moderne detailing, the windows now either boarded or paned with chicken-wire glass and, at the entrance, among the dusty oleander, a rubber mat that reads WELCOME.
Actually no one is welcome, for 7000 Romaine belongs to Howard Hughes, and the door is locked.Â That the Hughes â€œcommunications centerâ€ should lie here in the dull sunlight of Hammett-Chandler country is one of those circumstances that satisfy oneâ€™s suspicion that life is indeed a scenarioâ€¦
There are many premises upon which to hang a delayed opening, among them, drawing an apt comparison, as an allegory or metaphor.Â One very important codicil here:Â the subject must follow naturally from the anecdote;Â it falls flat if forced on the subject from out in left field.
In London there are certain shop windows that always attract a crowd.Â The attraction is not in the finished article but in the worn-out garments that are having patches inserted in them.Â The crowd is watching the women at work.Â There they sit in the shop window putting invisible stitches into moth-eaten trousers.Â And this familiar sight may serve as an illustration to the following paper.Â So our poets, playwrights, and novelists sit in the shop window, doing their work under the eyes of reviewers.
Virginia Woolf, â€œReviewingâ€
But lest we out-clever ourselves, Zinsser gives us a suggestion that is simplicity itself:
Another approach is to just tell a story.Â Itâ€™s such a simple solution, so obvious and unsophisticated, that we often forget that itâ€™s available to us.Â But narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someoneâ€™s attention. Everybody wants to be told a story.Â Keep looking for ways to convey your information in narrative form.
[Zinsser: op. cit. emphasis mine.]
And finally, one more note:
Remember, begin with tension and immediacy.Â Make readers feel the story has started.Â They want to be in your world, not be told about it.Â Donâ€™t prefaceâ€”plunge in.
[Jerome Stern:Â Making Shapely Fiction; NY, NY: W.W. Norton & Co. 1991.]
Write a delayed opening to a story or essay.Â Be mindful of the principles discussed above.
- Write a story about your favorite teacher.Â How did destiny or ambition or serendipity lead that teacher ultimately to come into your life?
- Tell a story about why one must act from principle even when the consequences of not doing so are not readily apparent or seem harmless.Â Begin with the actual, unforeseen yet inevitable consequence.
- Begin a piece about a well-known public or historical figure.Â Begin the piece with an anecdote which reveals something important about the personâ€™s character, like George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.Â But donâ€™t make such an obvious choice, donâ€™t beat us over the head with what the anecdote is telling us about the person, and donâ€™t clue us in right away to who the person is.Â Make us say, â€œAhhh,â€ when you finally reveal who youâ€™re talking about.
- PutÂ SunWE in the title and tags.
- Share your post with Gather Writing Essential group.
- Indicate in some way which devices or techniques I should be paying attention to. Â (If responding to todayâ€™s, put Pb in the title field.)
- This prompt does not turn into a pumpkin a week (or even two) from today.Â If your piece isnâ€™t done in the next week or two, get it in when you can.Â This is supposed to be fun.
- I will comment on every submission and include a link to it in the next column.
- If you would like a little more academic critiqueâ€”but still very friendly and positiveâ€”include the word “rigorous” in your post (e.g. “rigorous critique wanted”).
Responses to previous prompts below. Let me know if I missed yours.
byÂ A. F. Stewart
byÂ Stacey Uffelman
byÂ Irina Dimitric
Â© 2012 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Â Please share this on Gather.com, and elsewhere on the web by means of a link back to this page, but please do not copy. Â Doug’s latest book is The Depressed Guy’s Book of Wisdom from Chipmunka Publishing.
Doug’s Gather Group is Depression and Creativity, devoted to creative writing about depression and related illnesses, and creative writing as therapy. Â Please consider joining. Â You can read more of Doug’s posts there, or here.