According to a New York Times op-ed from over a decade ago, "81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them."
If that's still true today, there's almost 200 million American adults roaming the country, dreaming of the novels and memoirs and cookbooks they have yet to write. If even a quarter of them ever move on to the actual writing stage, our bookstores are going to explode.
But, as anyone who has ever had a longtime goal can attest, the likelihood of follow-through is much, much smaller. It doesn't matter if your dream is to bake a souffle, become an amateur welder or write a novel: Dreams often remain just dreams.
But what if they didn't? What if, in 2017, you actually wrote your book?
This October, I published my first book, "Exceptionally Bad." It's a collection of 30 short, short stories — 300 words or fewer. They're quick hits of flash fiction that I wrote as a challenge, accompanied by fabulous illustrations from artist Anne Lane.
Each started with a first line, and just a first line. My editor at Revolver, a Twin Cities-based arts organization, sent me a prompt every two weeks, pulling inspiration from the life of a historical figure. The prompts ranged from "I was too clever not to notice that I was being tested" to "Rich man, poor soldier, spy and killer, they all wept like infants on my chest." I didn't know whose life I was dancing around in until the end; I only knew I had to turn out a new story week after week.
Prompt-based writing can shake you out of a funk and help you battle the mocking abyss of the endless white page. To celebrate first lines and finally chasing your dream of writing that book, Anitra Budd and I joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to talk craft and creativity. Budd is a freelance editor and visiting professor at Macalester College. Previously, she worked as an editor for Coffee House Press.
"I find, a lot of times, that the real beginning of a story doesn't end up coming until two chapters in, at least on that first draft," Budd said. It's a common problem to bury your own beginning: Be prepared to dig it back out during editing.
For anyone out there — potentially 81 percent of you — who thinks you have a book in you, take the same challenge Anitra and I did during the show: Just start writing. Listeners provided the prompts, and we took it from there. Where would you go with these first lines?
Writing prompts: What's in a first line?
• "I turned the corner of the past, tripped, and fell into the black hole of the future."
• "Had she known that it was only half-true, her grief over the death of her daughter might have taken an entirely different turn."
• "As I looked out the window, the trees started to reach for me, whispering."
• "The blue lights in my rearview mirror flashed brightly as I drove along the lonely country road."
• "It was hard to tell whether this was the beginning or the end."
• "Walking into the Bellagio, the doorman's eyes stood out as the same color of soft coral I had just seen in the Las Vegas fountain light show."
The elephant's sweat pressed against my leg as my heart raced, I could feel it's hot breath near my neck.@KerriMPR— Melissa Sjoquist (@sjoquism) December 29, 2016
@KerriMPR Bang! My eyes darted open to see a hazy, grey sky above me; my head throbbed and something warm began to trickle down my back.— Matthew Bjork (@TeddyCruzZodiac) December 29, 2016
@KerriMPR I didn't mean to kill my father, but in the end, it was the only choice.— Katie Clausen (@MissKatieBeth) December 29, 2016
@KerriMPR while my great uncle's casket was being lowered into the ground, my grandpa muttered, it"s drafty in here, who opened the windows— Melissa Marts (@LaSardineCan) December 29, 2016
Do you have a killer first line in mind? Share it with us on Twitter @TheThreadMPR. And get writing!
Use the audio player above for the entire conversation about craft, creativity, and where Anitra Budd and I took these first lines.