I oughta name the novel False Starts based solely on the amount of times I've written three pages, seen nothing but flaws, and thrown it out into the electronic ether, sending its ones and zeros into some unknowable 21st century wastebasket that's quickly becoming filled with my opening lines and unearned epigraphs.
A compilation of the epigraphs I've considered are likely themselves book-length. Melville, Augustine, James Ellroy, Peter Gabriel, Kathleen Edwards, Sherwood Anderson, Nas, Roman antiquity--the list of once-selected sources is too long to take seriously.
We all know that the first line is, of course, crucial, so a disproportionate amount of time is spent on how a creakily opened door sounds. Universally, these opening salvos are pithy, ironic, and shine a spotlight on themselves as they scream "pay attention to me" with all the self-seriousness that a passionate amateur brings to their first open mic at the corner coffee shop. Every song is prefaced by a "This is a song about [a topic]" introduction meant to frame what's coming, but which only ends up distracting from it through unnecessary context and the unavoidable cloud of misunderstanding that the too-rare combination of true earnestness and true idealism so often breeds. What should stand on its own is given a picture frame that crops the image too closely, removing what seems extraneous but is in fact the crucial element of what's to come.
I cannot stop stumbling over these trappings, tripping over hurdles and scraping bare knees on literary blacktop while the 3-2-1-GO starting gun rings in too-close ears. I hop back up and get back to the race, ignoring the clock while knowing exactly what it reads, and put foot back to track while the imaginary audience remains silent in the stands, waiting to see where we're all headed.
Every single start, though, is the small town. Every single hypothetical narrative exists in my brain not as a way to examine people and journeys and the sacrifices we make for ourselves and each other and to cling to decency with worn fingertips and hands so weak we cannot even make a fist, but as a love letter to the archetypal American Small Town where I, for the last ten years, have believed to be the only place I will find peace.
Which is, of course, bullshit. I have a lifelong habit of creating heavens on earth, only to find them dismantled and dilapidated by the time I arrive. I eventually stopped trying to be there, acknowledging that even just days of reality are enough to tear down an elaborate romantic fantasy, but the effort never quite goes away. My mind still creates fantasy villages of 2,000-10,000 residents, nearly as many horses, and three main street watering holes, each serving a different emotion and thereby clientele:
The bright bar where people go to interact
The dimly lit bar where people go to be in love
The dark, quiet bar where people go to be alone
As I try to put these places on paper, to sketch their dimensions and ephemera in whatever wilted words and alliterative assemblage I can cobble together, I notice that the whole enterprise is powered only by my longing for somewhere I have yet to find in any lasting way. So I keep writing opening paragraphs about fictional towns, the kind of places I want so desperately to exist in the same way that we all hope Jennifer Lawrence is that cool or that Orson Welles would be that good of a drinking buddy, but then I, uniformly, come up short.
Because these aren't real places, and they can't be. By their very nature, they're out of physical and even emotional reach, because the longing is what I'm actually trying to articulate.
I hear people say that writers create their own ideal worlds, but I disagree. No matter what efforts I'm able to string out over a few hundred words—and no, it never really gets any further than a few hundred—everything ends up tasting like sunken eyes and hot tears dripping through a beard that needs trimming on their way to a mouth that needs to close itself and keep quiet.
But, no matter the desk at which you spend your late nights or the mythical home at which you tell yourself you'll one day hang your head, let your spirit stay unbroken, may you not be deterred.
And I will do what I can do.