Viewpoint: Towards a unified theory of composition 

By Todd R. Nelson 

On a good day, writing spontaneously appears. Sometimes 800 words arrive wholesale. Other times, a lonely opening sentence infiltrates my peace, demanding elaboration, or a memory inquisition for coherent details. I still recall the day when “Dynamite was my first love” came to mind and I was obliged to fill in the following blanks of the story. This led to a later sentence: “Dad! We love you! Get down!” He lived. It led to my first published column. Suddenly, I was a columnist, thinking within the contours of predetermined column inches.  

This opener arrived the same way this year, some 30 years later: “My dad was not a car guy.” Part epiphany, part line of inquiry, part verdict. But what’s the supporting evidence? That would require a little detective work and interviews with witnesses. Fortunately, they were all within easy reach – my memory. Including my late father.  

An opening sentence can be the proverbial “riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” We are very often successfully disguised to ourselves as children, then adolescents, or even, finally, adults. Writing is a manner of unlocking our own deceptive stories disguised as gospel. Or not. Sometimes, the fiction is the point: We need a version to tell ourselves that supports the alternate reality we inhabit. 

“Ice – the kind that’s worth shoveling off the pond and strapping on your skates – is complicated.” This was written by someone who has been reading, and emulating, John McPhee. It is not McPhee, but it sounds like him, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. More inspiration derived from McPhee: “You see, even if you don’t like to write you have a handy topic: writer’s block itself.” On a bad day, you write about how bad it is that you can’t think of something to write. 

Here’s another McPhee-like opener, about things you’re not seeing but hope to: “Having spent a lot of time looking out the back window at home, I’ve been thinking about bears.” McPhee liked bears and could share a lot about their ramblings in Princeton, N.J. I wish I could share more about their ramblings in Penobscot. I’m waiting for my next bear. I am between bears. But if McPhee can write about a moose not appearing, I can write about the coyness of black bears. I did: “I was missing out on the nocturnal goings on in the forest around my house.” McPhee would approve of my delving into the non-appearance of bears on a real trail cam and turning it into fantastical performances.  

Sometimes a good starting point is the voice of another species. The hummingbird wanted a say, so I gave him one. Avian abduction. In January. “I like to check in after the winter solstice, when you’re reaching the peak snowy months.” These home thoughts to Mainers, from away, also channeled Robert Browning. Or was that the hummingbird channeling Browning, as I channeled the bird – or both? Riddle, mystery, enigma.  

“I was not there,” has a mysterious charm to it. So does, “Fifty years ago this month…” A temporal anchor or disappearing act is always a promising beginning. Choose any historical bracket and abscond to the past where a good story need not be true and promises fulfilled. Try, “Love is in the air.” As it turns out, it was just another way of talking about vernal pools and amphibian mojo on a spring night. 

Grandchildren, as it turns out, are inspiring for many reasons. “Freya June, age 2, is busily studying, though she makes it look more like playing.” The arrival of a new family member leads to further voice analysis. She also appeared as a pseudonym: “Lefty Fourchette is “dans sa cuisine creating her prix fixetable d’hôte, holiday menu.”  

A first sentence is a doorway, a threshold. “Open any cookbook,” came to mind one day as an exploration of the role of leaven in our lives. Or, “It is thrush hour,” was a doorway that pulled me back in time, place and person. I reconnoitered with gramma. Or, “It’s an annual reunion of sorts,” when I realized that a particular song is forever linked with October. I skipped through that sentence to a barn dance in 1973 when “Moondance” by Van Morrison was playing and I was 16. The rest is history. Heck, it’s all history. Can you even remember something that has yet to happen? Technically, no. Unless you’re the Moody Blues.  

“Tolkein knew; Ursula le Guin figured it out; the poets certainly know: The wisdom of the trees is more ancient and pervasive than our own.” This sentence is supposed to make you think of the Ents and their Moot in “Lord of the Rings”; leGuin’s planet of tree beings; and even more subtly a first line of a poem by Philip Booth that just had the right rhythm to swipe, and perhaps a further sense of mystery: “Mobius knew; he figured it out.” That’s being pretty obscure. Sometimes writing is just a conversation with other writings and writers of one’s acquaintance. Can the reader find interest and pleasure in this without absolute comprehension? I do. It’s like enjoying a tune without the benefit of music theory. It just sounds good. Has that swing. “Time was, August meant departure,” is like that.  

Time was, I lived in those days of future past. “In a galaxy far, far away, the part of the cosmos between ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Abbey Road’ LPs, the rock and roll pantheon were my imaginary friends, my ‘Star Wars’ action figures, my rebel heroes.” It also allowed me to write, “I eat dinner with my great, great, great grandparents every night.”  

Ultimately, we are the riddle, the mystery, the enigma, the quantum entanglement. And the answer. So much for today. What will tomorrow bring?   

Todd R. Nelson is a writer in Penobscot.  

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