Monday, May 4, 2009

Starting right in

I am reading a memoir (My Lobotomy, by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming), and it starts like this:

My name is Howard Dully. I am a bus driver. I am a husband, a father, and a grandfather. I'm into doo-wop music, travel, and photography.
I am also a survivor. In 1960, when I was 12 years old, I was given a transorbital, or ‘ice pick’ lobotomy. My stepmother arranged it. My father agreed to it. Dr. Walter Freeman, the father of the American lobotomy, told me he was going to do some ‘tests.’ It took ten minutes and cost two hundred dollars.

The surgery damaged me in many ways. But it didn't "fix" me or turn me into a robot. So my family put me in an institution.
I spent the next forty years in and out of insane asylums, jails, and halfway houses. I was homeless, alcoholic, and drug-addicted. I was lost.

So... this is a memoir, not fiction, but it's still story. (Can't you imagine this as a first-person novel opening?) So... what do you think about starting right in on it, stating the conflict right up front, and here even the whole story is previewed ("the next forty years").

Now do you like this? Does it make you want to read more? Or do you feel more like you don't need to read more, because the whole story is right there-- there's no suspense?

In what case would you start a story so suddenly? What sort of story or character would elicit that sort of opening?

I think one thing we should all realize is-- there isn't a one-size-fits-all opening. It's often a good idea to "start right before something happens" or "start in the action" (and it's seldom a good idea to start with an unattributed line of dialogue :). But the opening has to fit the story. And so the question is, does the opening fit your story?

And with an opening like this, what sort of story would it be good for? Why would you make the decision to open with a comprehensive summary?

One danger I see is that the reader won't hang on for the first few pre-lobotomy chapters, which are essential (because we need to know why his parents even considered the surgery, what was "wrong" with him). But I notice that he says, "When I was 12," and that actually creates some anticipation/dread as he narrates in the first chapters his childhood. And knowing what is to come, we can hear about his misbehavior and his trauma (his mother dies when he's five, and he's never told anything but that she's gone away and won't return) and feel even greater dread-- that this isn't one of those stories where some wonderful teacher realizes that this is a troubled boy who needs some extra help, that it won't end up happily. We know-- he's going to get a lobotomy, and he's going to spend most of his life in institutions. (But we know there's eventually a happy ending too-- is that what keeps us slogging through the misery?)

That is, the author's decision to tell all in summary makes the details of his childhood more meaningful-- it's not just a bad kid, it's a kid who is going to be grossly mistreated. It's not just another wicked stepmother, it's a stepmother who has him lobotomized. It's not just a misspent youth, it's going to be a wasted life.

An interesting choice, anyway, and so far, it works to draw me in. (And next time I grump about how we treat kids with kid gloves these days, protect them too much, I need to remember this story! This is actually the era I remember-- he's 8 years older than I am-- as free and liberated, with parents benignly letting kids be kids without overprotecting or diagnosing them... yeah, and kids we now would recognize as having ADD or learning disabilities were just considered "bad" then, and expelled or sentenced or... well, I guess lobotomized.)


Steven Levy said...

The choice works for me, too -- largely, I think, because it's nonfiction (we presume). The plainness immediately gives a sense of believability to the narrative.

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, it could be the beginning of a first-person story (which I suppose is a authentically-fake memoir :). But you're right, the immediacy adds to the plausibility. He's plainspoken, not a fancy writer type? And of course, that fits in with the lobotomy, which had to have some cognitive effects.

Jenny said...

I read that book a few years ago.It's a truly horrifying tale. With a memoir you have to establish very early on why your story is worth someone's time. You don't have the luxury of a slow, atmospheric beginning. They've seen the photograph on the cover so they know it's someone's personal story. Memoirs ALWAYS have a photograph on the cover, though never a real one of the actual memoiree.

At the time this memoir came out they were looking for shock stories having already done the misery stories to death.

I have to say, though, I don't remember very much of the story beyond what was in the beginning and the bio about the Dr. Happy knife whose life mission was to lobotomize as many people as possible. He was, tragically, very successful at it.

pulp said...

I read that book. I would have read it with nearly any opening, and as written it certainly didn't put me off. It seems completely appropriate for memoir and for the subject; it provides the sense of dread coupled with reassurance that the subject & victim survived intact enough to have a meaningful life.

The events following fully bear out the awful promise of the opening.

Ava Quinn said...

This opening worked for me. I remember seeing an interview with Alfred Hitchcock where he explained the technique he used for suspense. He told the interviewer to imagine they were sitting calmly at a table talking baseball when suddenly a bomb goes off. It would be startling for a brief moment. He then said to imagine showing the audience the bomb under the table and then proceed to talk baseball for the next few minutes. The audience is now engaged and yelling at the men to quit talking baseball and get out of there. That is what he saw as suspense.

By telling about the lobotomy, the author showed his readers the bomb. They know it's coming, but they are hopefully interested and engaged enough to see what leads up to it.

I wasn't a big fan of the Star Wars prequels, but the audience knew going in that Anakin would become Vader, but needed to see that final scene where the helmet was clamped in place. Then the originals told of the repercussions. This happened in a different chronological order than the lobotomy example, and fans were more emotionally invested in Star Wars due to that order. But I think it's the same premise. Giving away the conflict at the beginning can be very effective.