How much of your story must you know already to write its opening lines? 

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased.”

A line like this contains so much that it is as if the whole thing has been written already. Did Dostoevsky know that? Did he know about the scene where the narrator surreptitiously bumps into his adversary on the street and then holds a grudge about it for days? Did he understand the way the phenomenon of laceration would prevail throughout? Did he know the ending would go on forever? Or consider:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”

An opening line like that is a gut punch. It is hard to recover from a line like that. I refused to read the rest of that essay for many years because I found its opening line so difficult. But did Camus know how the essay would go on from there when he wrote it? Did he see the man on the phone behind the glass performing his dumb show? Did he understand the central role of the phenomenon of absurdity? Did he see the ending with Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill?

It is not a mere game to ask these questions. They are serious, perhaps the most serious. For a good opening line already contains its ending within it. When one has finished the story one must be drawn inevitably back to the opening line and it must reinvent itself before your very eyes as the beginning that already foreshadowed its inevitable conclusion. But how does one write a line like that? Some opening lines, I am sure, are written very close to the end of the project. Others are the inspiration that generate their completion. What is the process that elicits an opening line?

In short, How does one start if to start is already to have finished?

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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1 Response to Forewords

  1. dmf says:

    I doubt if readers track stories in such ways that make this so, but I’m very interested in “What is the process that elicits an opening line?” as relates to questions of judgement/fit like Siri raises here:
    I think one could do a better job of fleshing out the existential neurophenomenology but a good starting place I think.

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