Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.
In the opening scene of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, struts along the Brooklyn sidewalk in his neighborhood making a pit stop at the now famous but no-longer-in-business Lenny’s Pizza. He asks for two slices, not one–“Two, two gimme two that’s good” he says to the person at the counter–but had he said instead, “I’ll have a slice, gimme one, that’s good,” the next step would still look the same: a big, luscious bite into the southernmost tip of that cheesy, sometimes-folded in half and delightfully gooey triangle. It’s a geometric singular sensation, the triangle most people think of simply as the New York Slice.
Full disclosure: I have allegiances, alliances and attitudes about pizza and geographic regions. But this is not that column.
Let’s go back to that first big bite. And begin there.
What does it mean to take a big bite as a writer? Does it mean starting out with a bang, with tension and suspense or language that leaps off the page in the first sentence? That first sentence has developed quite a reputation in writing circles. Consider this excerpt from an interview with Joan Didion from Issue 74 of The Paris Review:
You have said that once you have your first sentence you’ve got your piece. That’s what Hemingway said. All he needed was his first sentence and he had his short story.
What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.
The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.
Sure, once you finalize that first sentence you may be “stuck with it,” as Didion suggests, and all that flows out, but remember you can take your time crafting it. Think about what you want to convey and how you want to convey it. Own its power. Then, let it take you to the next line, to what Didion calls “the commitment.”
Does taking a big bite as a writer mean writing freely and wildly, knowing even as you let the lines flow out of you that some of what you put down will most certainly be taken out during revising up or down the line. Kind of like ordering three slices when you know you’ll only eat two.
Speaking of free and wild, a nod to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages seems only right here. I’ve been doing a variation (italics suggest I bend the rules a bit and there are some months when I miss days like water) of Morning Pages for a few years now. But I do them.
“Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing,
done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages–
they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about
anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes
only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and
synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put
three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.”
Anything and everything. Sounds like a great name for a pizza.
Finally, might taking a big bite mean tackling a topic or drama fully and completely, dedicating yourself to seeing it through and believing in the characters you meet along the way (I’m talking to you, fiction writers!) or the ideas that surface with the crafting of each new scene, chapter or section? I think it could mean this. I think it could mean that you might feel in your bones how hard and complicated and messy a project is but you do it anyway. You bite down hard and chew it slowly and try to savor every taste and texture. You try to surrender to time but know it will still take much longer than you ever thought to complete. And somewhere in those blocks of time, patience and faith are cultivated. To really stretch the food metaphor here, you may even develop a taste for the whole process, no matter how long it takes. So much of the March 12, 2023 interview with Jennifer Egan in The New Yorker is strong and solid, but my favorite four lines are here: “I wanted success violently. But my ability just wouldn’t back me up. It just insisted on moving more slowly. And, in retrospect, I have to say I’m really grateful for that.”
How could I write a column about pizza and not mention toppings? I’ll leave that up to you. What toppings might you choose for your next sentence or paragraph? And why?
Wood-fired. Deep dish. Thin crust. Or that iconic New York Slice. The possibilities flow, one right after the other.
Kind of like a great sentence.