Yesterday's post, an attempt to get a story started, got me thinking, even while I was writing it and definitely afterward, about the beginning of The Pearl. I have not read that book since I used to teach it in to junior high school students in the '70s, but I read it at least half a dozen times then and it is one of those books that I feel like I can hold pretty well in my imagination even after all these years, and all of the other books I have read and forgotten. And there's a reason for that. It has to do with the way that it is written and the way that it engages the imagination.
I thought I'd take a look at the very start of that story as a sort of self-teaching exercise, to see what the difference is between what Steinbeck—who actually knows what he is doing—chose to do at the start, as opposed to what I did. So here's mine, followed by Steinbeck's.
BS: Seamus was a small lad who lived with his Mum and Da and his little sister Sarah in a three-room cottage in a country village near the forest. Each morning he would be the first in his family to wake, and he would get up quietly as he could, slip on his clothes, tiptoe to the door, and step outside to greet the morning.
JS: Kino awakened in the near dark. The stars still shone and the day had drawn only a pale wash of light in the lower sky to the east. The roosters had been crowing for some time, and the early pigs were already beginning their ceaseless turning of twigs and bits of wood to see whether anything to eat had been overlooked. Outside the brush house in the tuna clump, a covey of little birds chittered and flurried with their wings.Now obviously there are some similarities, which is probably why Steinbeck came to mind as I was writing. Both start out with a focus on a character waking in a house and attending to what is going on out of doors. But Steinbeck does a number of things that now, upon reflection, I can see would have vastly improved my own beginning if I had done them myself. First of all, I began with a classic mistake, one that I should have been aware of and have in fact often counseled my students to watch out for. I began with a generalized description of what Seamus would do each morning; Steinbeck begins with a very specific description of that Kino was doing on this particular morning. You may say, well, Kino isn't doing anything, actually. But he is. He's awake, and his eyes are registering the stars and the breaking light, and he's listening. Steinbeck is deliberate about enumerating the things that Kino hears as he lies there: the roosters crowing, the pigs rooting about, the birds in onomatopoetic action, chittering and flurrying. My language was flat and utilitarian, communicating information and not much else; Steinbeck's language is rich and sense-based, communicating information but also evoking a mood, paying attention to the quality of this particular moment as Kino experiences it, and thus indirectly characterizing Kino himself. At the end of my paragraph, we don't know much about the way Seamus's mind works, but at the end of Steinbeck's we know something about the way Kino's does: he listens well, he's attentive, he's patient. All I've got about the setting is that it's a house in a village; Steinbeck, in about the same number of words, has an inhabited world to life.
So if I were to take another shot at it, based on what I have observed in Steinbeck and still keeping within the self-imposed 64 word limit, it might look something like this:
Seamus woke to the sound of the milk truck passing the house. He raised his head and looked across the room to where his sister Sarah lay sleeping, only the tip of her head showing from under the covers. Seamus swung his feet carefully over the edge of the bed and stood. Grabbing his jacket, he tiptoed toward the door and let himself out.
I can't resist finishing off by returning to the beginning of The Pearl, because the paragraph below has always been one of my favorite individual paragraphs in literature. Kino, like Seamus, has stepped outside the house, and is watching as the sun rises:
The dawn came quickly now, a wash, a glow, a lightness, and then an explosion of fire as the sun arose out of the Gulf. Kino looked down to cover his eyes from the glare. He could hear the pat of the corncakes in the house and the rich smell of them on the cooking plate. The ants were busy on the ground, big black ones with shiny bodies, and little dusty quick ants. Kino watched with the detachment of God while a dusty ant frantically tried to escape the sand trap an ant lion had dug for him. A thin, timid dog came close and, at a soft word from Kino, curled up, arranged its tail neatly over its feet, and laid its chin delicately on the pile. It was a black dog with yellow-gold spots where its eyebrows should have been. It was a morning like other mornings and yet perfect among mornings.
There's just so much of a muchness here: the richness of the sensory details, the rhythms of the sentences (that first sentence in particular), the obliquely foreshadowing business of the sand trap and the ant lion, the appearance of the dog "with yellow-gold spots where its eyebrows should have been." That line just kills me. I mean, where would that be coming from? It feels right, it feels convincing, it feels authoritative, but it's not the kind of line that would occur to most of us to include, even if we knew the story we wanted to tell as well as Steinbeck knows his. But it helps to cement the scene in our minds and make this morning seem real. And then, at the very end, the jump to the generalizing summary statement, which in this case gets a ton of work done, especially when you are re-reading the book. "A morning like other mornings and yet perfect among mornings" is a description that rings all the more resonantly after you know how the events of the story have played out, and that there will never be a way back to that innocent perfection.