Rooted in the land. Tree near Bellingham, WA.

Recently I had an inquiry from a writer who asked if I had a list of excellent first lines from memoirs. That sounded like something I should have. First words contain the vital “hook” that overcomes the reader’s resistance and skepticism. Think about how you challenge a book to speak to you when you gaze at its cover or open its first pages.

A really great memoir does more than hook the reader in the beginning. The first sentence takes you right to the heart of the matter, announcing one of the themes of the book. Often, the first paragraph in a work of art is like a haiku. It says in one breath what the whole book will say more fully as we follow the red thread of meaning.

Most of the lists of best and most famous opening lines come from novels. I shared some, and readers offered others, here. But what about memoir-specific opening lines?

Here are the first lines of some of the memoirs I selected as favorites in my personal top ten list.

1.”What are you looking at me for

     I didn’t come to stay . . .”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

2. “When everything else has gone from my brain–the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family–when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.”

An American Childhood, Annie Dillard

3. “Suppose your daughter is engaged to be married and she asks whether you think she ought to have children, given the sorry state of the world.”

Hunting for Hope, Scott Russell Sanders

4.”This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again.”

Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl

5. “In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the eldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.”

One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty

 6. “My childhood came to a virtual halt when I was around five years old.”

Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish

7. “The western plains of New South Wales are grasslands.”

The Road from Coorain, Jill Kerr Conway

8. “THE HIGH PLAINS, the beginning of the desert West, often act as a crucible for those who inhabit them.”

Dakota, Kathleen Norris

9. Prologue. “If you look at an atlas of the United States, one published around, say, 1940, there is, in the state of Indian, north of New Castle and east of the Epileptic Village, a small town called Mooreland.”

First Chapter. Baby Book. “The following was recorded by my mother in my baby book, under the heading MILESTONES:

FIRST STEPS: Nine months! Precocious!”

Zippy, Haven Kimmel

10. “Having just died, I shouldn’t be starting my afterlife with a chicken sandwich, no matter what, especially one served up by nuns.”

Learning to Die in Miami, Carlos Eire

11. “Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am.”

Lit, by Mary Karr (preface is an open letter to her son)

What do you notice about this list? One thing that pops out at me is that many of the women’s memoirs I love most are about the land under the life. The land represents the “beyond,” the spiritual dimension that words can evoke but cannot create or destroy.

What about your favorite memoirs? Go to your shelf and pull them down. Please contribute at least one first sentence to this list. I will give away a copy of Ari L. Goldman’s The Search for God at Harvard to the person who contributes the longest list of opening lines from their favorite memoirs. Extra credit if you tell us what you learn about yourself or your favorite books from doing the exercise! Deadline for submissions is Friday night, midnight, July 1, 2011. 

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