Tag Archives: writing

A few of my favorite ledes

In no particular order, and purposely without origin, I give you a collection of the beginnings of stories I have found compelling and masterful. (Please feel free to add any I should have here in comments.) Enjoy!

Gary Robinson died hungry.

Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god.

Sirhan S. Sirhan is nuts, nuts, nuts.

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin.

Depression is the flaw in love.

This isn’t at all what I expected. In 1985, by some sort of journalistic accident, I was sent to Madagascar with Mark Carwardine to look for an almost extinct form of lemur called the aye-aye. None of the three of us had met before. I had never met Mark, Mark had never met me, and no one, apparently, had seen an aye-aye in years.

It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take my place behind this desk, and face this learned audience.

All children, except one, grow up.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

It was a dark and stormy night.

All this happened, more or less.

The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The continents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude- a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea.

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.

The University of Toledo gave President Frank Horton a pay increase yesterday. It was his first raise in nearly a month.

‘They hit a little girl,’ and in his muscular black arms the first specialist carried out a seven-year-old, long black hair and little earrings, staring eyes — eyes, her eyes are what froze themselves onto M’s memory, it seemed there was no white to those eyes, nothing but black ellipses like black goldfish. The child’s nose was bleeding — there was a hole in the back of her skull.

Snow, followed by small boys on sleds.

Kazbek Misikov stared at the bomb hanging above his family. It was a simple device, a plastic bucket packed with explosive paste, nails, and small metal balls. It weighed perhaps eight pounds. The existence of this bomb had become a central focus of his life. If it exploded, Kazbek knew, it would blast shrapnel into the heads of his wife and two sons, and into him as well, killing them all.

Let’s talk about tattoos.

Ella had to find out what had attacked her, and she wasn’t the only one.

The imperfect man pitched the perfect game.

Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.

If on the morrow we should lose to the Germans at our national game, fret not, lads, for twice in this century we have beaten them at theirs.

If you could stop rubbing your itchy, watery eyes for one second, put down the tissue and look around, you’d see an increasing number of sneezing, sniffling sad sacks just like you.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

At 12:30, my husband and I were having a pleasant lunch in a restaurant. At 1:30, we were back home, sitting at the kitchen counter planning a trip to Vienna and Budapest with cherished friends. At 2:30, I was walking out of the hospital emergency room in shock, a widow, my life changed forever, beyond comprehension.

Floridians are going to have to start pulling up their pants and stop having sex with animals soon.

President Clinton returned today for a sentimental journey to the university where he didn’t inhale, didn’t get drafted and didn’t get a degree.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something.

A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

The Prosecutor

He is a man who earns a living by sending others to the scaffold. He is the official purveyor to every Place de Grève. Not only that, he is a gentlemen with pretensions to style and literature, a fine speaker, or thinks he is, who if needs be will trot out a line or two of Latin before deciding on death, who tries to create an impression, who is fascinating to his personal sense of self-esteem – O woe! – who, where other people’s lives are at stake, has his models, his appalling examples to live up to, his classics, his Bellart, his Marchangy, like one poet has Racine and another Boileau. During the proceedings he fights on the guillotine’s side; it is his role, his profession. His summing-up is his work of literature, he decks it with metaphors, perfumes it with quotations; it has to be good for the audience, it has to appeal to the ladies. He has his stock of commonplaces that are still brand new to provincials, his ornamental turns of phrase, his affectations, his writerly refinements. He hates the simple word almost as much as the tragic poets of the school of Delille. Have no fear he will call things by their proper name. Bah! For each idea which would disgust you in its naked form, he has disguises complete with epithets and adjectives. He makes Monsieur Sanson presentable. He veils the blade. He blurs the bascule. He wraps the red basket in circumlocutions. You don’t know where you are any more. Everything is rose-tinted and respectable. Can you picture him at night in his study, at leisure, doing his best to work up the harangue that in six weeks’ time will have a scaffold built? Do you see him sweating blood to make the defendant’s head fit into the deadliest article of the criminal code? Do you see him sawing through a poor wretch’s neck with a badly made law? Do you see how he injects two or three poisonous passages into a muddle of tropes and synecdoches so that, with much ado, he can squeeze out, extract the death of a man from it? Is it not true that under the desk as he writes he probably has the executioner crouching at his feet in the shadows, and that he puts down his pen now and then to say to him, like a master to his dog: “Hush! Quiet now! You’ll get your bone!”

What’s more, in his private life this public servant might be a decent man, a good father, a good son, a good husband, a good friend – like it says on all the headstones in Père-Lachaise. Let us hope the day is coming when the law will abolish these doleful duties. At some point the very air of our civilization must wear out the death penalty.

-Victor Hugo, Circa 1929 in France, Last Week in America.

Ways in which I am old,

or, why I need to accept that The Awl can publish good articles.

A few weeks of ago I found myself telling a teenager “You’re officially old now. That was quick.” after he’d tweeted “I don’t even understand the Internet anymore”, merely because our tweet conversation had been picked up and redistributed by @sodomy_bot.

Srly, in this way I am younger than my temporally challenged friend– I totally get the internet doing that. It loves a potty mouth, often algorithmically. It has loved my potty mouth for well-nigh 20 years. Despite my advanced age and the fact that I’m not a “digital native” I’ve often had an intuitive feel for the net. I get the inversion of privacy, I see institutions being disrupted, I’ve had a great track record in both predicting and participating in this whole rise of the internet thang. It has felt like something of a home for me for most of my adult life. In the 90s I taught a five week course that was a fire hose of protocols, clients, and social conventions called “The Internet From The Ground Up.” We started with what a packet switching network was and why it might help in the event of nuclear war, and got through why you should never type in all caps and what ttfn stood for, and eventually we all even made a website in class. My students, who were the staff and faculty of my college, often looked as if I had beaten them with a bat made of pure information. But I believed the more context you had, the more the next thing the net did would make sense to you.

I still believe in that approach, and I think that’s what mostly kept me young in internet terms. Once you understand that there’s an architectural politics baked into technology design, it’s easy to look at the protocols and interfaces and say: I can see what will happen to the people that use this, and therefore the world they inhabit. It takes only a little understanding of human nature, largely unchanged in its dealings with sodomy since it began, to understand why humans would write a sodomy bot.
So it’s with some pause that I too must admit sometimes I don’t geddit, and that this is where I am internet old. Back in the day of the paleonet, publications as I knew them had a distinct personality. They had a voice you could count on, a topic area you could model in your head, and a tendency to respond to the world in predictable ways. They were like people, and some were even like friends. Wrapped up in the designation of some corporate entity was something I could treat like a distant human, a penpal I would never meet. This quality was, of course, deliberate, and the result of a careful set of professional techniques. Editorial meetings, house style books, longtime guardians worked hard to create the gestaltic imaginary friends that lived under publishing brands.

You can blame the speed of the net, the disintermediation of gatekeepers, but I think it’s at least as much the loss of the artifact of print that decohered things under the urls that should have been, damn it, my friends and enemies online. This brings me to my moment: a moment lost in transcendental reading, lifted off the page and into the world the author envisioned. I love it when that happens. The article was a beautiful, to the point of lyrical, piece on James Dempsey’s discovery of a lost work of E.E. Cummings, one of my favorite poets. I read through the whole thing off a link on twitter before looking at the URL and realizing it was The God Damned Awl.

I really don’t have a good impression of The Awl. I have read some truly turgid pieces of shit on its pages, and don’t get me started on Hairpin– Now Stupider for Girls! I even have good reasons, in my own mind, for not liking The Awl. It always felt like railing against the man when in this case the man had set up your trust fund. It was self indulgent, it was snarky for its own sake– and in a bad way. Every time I’d looked at it (which wasn’t often) or that one obnoxious friend had sent me a link to and Awl piece I’d been dissapointed. But here they had gone and betrayed me, by publishing one of the best articles I’ve read in ages. Did I have to love the Awl now? Did I have to visit it as a regular reader just to find out if they ever publish anything that wonderful again? I had no way of containing this new Awl in my head, or what I should do about it.

In the 90s I found myself explaining to companies that because of search engines there was no such thing as a reliable front door to their site, and that they would have to live with it. For them, everything was disjointed if they could not control the way their users would experience their site. Ad firms and old corporate entities balked at this lack of control. “Get used to it,” I told them, “this is the new world.” Well, to myself today I say, get used to it, Quinn, this is the new world. Publications are no longer gestalt monoliths. They’re messy, they are off message at the edges that butt up against search engines and timelines. They are more like poltergeists than old friends. Even in many cases, my old friends, moved online.

I read a wonderful debunking of Second Life by friend and sort-of occasional boss at ITP Clay Shirky years ago, and while I told him I loved the piece itself, I spent 90% of my time berating him for publishing it with Vallywag, at the time the most despised rumor rag in my little world of techies. Valleywag was truly awful, so why had Clay given it this legitimacy? Didn’t he understand that now everything else on the site looked more respectable? What The Awl made me realize that he hadn’t made Valleywag more respectable, and that my image of The Awl and Valleywag had never been real in the first place. Clay hadn’t made Valleywag any more believable because he wasn’t there when Valleywag was being stupid. It existed independent of any particular post, and yet because of that, not at all. Not the way magazines and newspapers had existed before, not with that singular voice, that one relatable attitude. There was nothing substantial for me to pass judgement on.

So The Awl can produce literary nonfiction art. My granny walker cognitive approach to this realization is what has made me, finally after kicking back hard for years, old. Getting to the party late. On the Internet important political movements come from /b/tards, E.E. Cummings comes from the Awl, and moral values are codified by lolcats, who in their own turn take their language from IRC script kiddies. At some point or another the Internet makes us all old.