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Start Off Strong

Your opening sentence sets the tone for your entry—make it strong and true.

You nestle into your favorite chair to record the day''s events in your journal. You write the date, then the first sentence. How many times have you written something like, "I''m tired tonight" or "Today was a great day"? There''s nothing wrong with sentences like these, but they don''t exactly sizzle. Later, when you reread your journal, you''re likely to fall asleep from boredom.

The first line of an entry should be strong and compelling. It should be salient, which means strikingly conspicuous, prominent. It sounds like the word "sail," and I think of the entry''s first line as a tall ship sailing into a sunlit bay, leading a flotilla of sentences. Like a tall ship, it should be colorful and arouse curiosity.

When I began keeping a journal in my 20s, I started each entry with the first thing that popped into my head. After I had completed a few volumes, I began rereading them and was struck by how boring they were. Many entries started with an insipid remark: "The first day of school is over." If I opened with a statement about the weather it was vague: "Today was a gorgeous day." Sometimes I''d begin with trite generalities: "Life is full of coincidences" or "It certainly is a small world." Or—worst of all—I''d open with an excuse: "I can''t believe it''s been two weeks since I''ve written."

Since then, I''ve realized: I don''t have to apologize to myself for not writing—I will write when I feel like it; and my experiences matter—so I''d better give them credence by describing them in more specific language. I began to devote more thought to my opening sentence. Instead of writing the first thing that came to mind, I spent a few seconds trying to think of a more original line.

With these changes, journal-keeping became a more enjoyable pastime, one I''ve kept up for a quarter of a century. Now, when I sit down to write, I make an effort to get off to a good start.

Several Ideas to Try
If I write in the morning, I may have a dream image that wants to be recorded. Or perhaps my mind is a blank slate. I close my eyes and heed the morning sounds and smells, sensing what the day has to offer. Or, with eyes open, I look at a familiar object in a new way. Morning invites plans and goals for the day. It''s also a good time to retrieve memories from the past, or tell what I''m looking forward to in the future.

More often, I write in the late afternoon or evening when the day''s events are jostling for attention. No two days are alike; I might start with one of the details that differentiated today from other days. Or I might start with my predominate mood and mention what caused it. Before I sit down to write I often ask myself: "What do I know now that I didn''t know yesterday?" It''s surprising how many things we "learn" each day: a bit of news about a friend, an observation about life or a new recipe. I also like to review the day''s sensory impressions: "What was the most intense or unusual thing I tasted, heard, felt, smelled or saw?" One of those might be a good way to start my journal.

Instead of penning bland comments, I try to make them assertive. Not "I''m sitting by the swimming pool," but "My mood is as calm and flat as the surface of the pool." Not "I''m camping in Washington," but "I heard a sound for the first time: fir and hemlock needles falling on rhododendron bushes."

If my mind is blank, I follow the advice a young Ernest Hemingway gave to himself in A Moveable Feast: "Do not worry. You have always written before, and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." This technique always gets me started, whether the "one true sentence" is mundane ("The cat is lying in the sun licking herself"), or profound ("Some tragedies don''t ''strike,'' they seep into your life but change it irrevocably all the same").

The first sentence dictates the subject of the first paragraph as I explain or elaborate on it. After that, I switch to another topic and another until I''ve covered what I want to say.

One Rule to Follow
In writing my first sentence, I''m guided by a single rule. I always start with a line I have never written before. Of course with so many volumes of my journal, it''s not practical to check, but if I write something very specific, chances are, it''s new. But the best beginning sentence is one that no one has ever written before. When I write "I''m sprawled naked on a motel bed in Manitowoc, Wisconsin," I can be pretty sure no one else has beaten me to it.

You might be thinking, "My journal is for my eyes only; why should I exert the effort it takes to write a salient first line?" Ask yourself why you are keeping a journal and what insights you hope to gain from rereading it. You might want to remember the past, so that when you reread you''re transported to a previous time and place. Or personal growth might be your motivation, so that when you reread you''re inside the mind of the person you used to be. In any case that first line should grab you by the shirt front and say, "Listen!" before it plunges you into the life you were living on the day you wrote the entry.

At a writers'' club meeting recently, a woman said she had given up her journal because she found herself writing the same things over and over. I wish, instead of abandoning it, she had given more attention to her journal. Sometimes when our writing stagnates, it''s because our thinking has stagnated. We owe it to ourselves (not to mention our family and friends) not to let that happen. We need the stimulation that new experiences bring to our life and that new expressions bring to our writing.

Perhaps the simple step of having to come up with a fresh beginning sentence for your journal entry would be enough motivation to venture forth for new experiences—or, at least, stay at home and observe more carefully. Tune into your world, notice something new in it. Sharpen your senses. Assert yourself by writing what is true for you, right now.

Although my journal tells my life story, it isn''t my life. Life is lived in the space between entries; that blank line after the last entry is where the events of my life are played out. The first line I write in the new entry is the imaginary bridge from real life to the written version.

Another way of thinking about your journal is in operatic terms. Dr. Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music defines "aria" as an extended solo that brings the opera''s action to a temporary halt, and in which the character expresses his or her feelings about the action and events just described. Similarly, when you write in your journal, you have temporarily stopped the forward movement of your life, and you are pausing, with pen poised, in order to reflect and comment on it. In short, your journal is your aria. Sing the first line in a clear, strong voice.

This article appeared in the April 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.

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