First Lines as Inspiration

It’s a Bob Dylan day.

Earlier, I posted a review of the Dylan biopic I’m Not There at  Now, I’m using a little tidbit that caught my eye while prepping that post to get this one rolling.  Others may caution against quoting Bob, but I’m hoping to pull it off.

Here we go:

“It is the first line that gives the inspiration and then it’s like riding a bull. Either you just stick with it, or you don’t.”

That’s a Dylan remark about the writing process.

I’m not a Bob Dylan nut.  There’s a lot to like about the guy and his music.  There’s plenty to dislike, too.  I agree with his sentiments on some things and find other statements he’s made nothing short of silly.  This one isn’t right or wrong, good or bad.  Assuming he was quoted correctly and was being honest at the time, his perspective on writing and inspiration is true.  For him.

I’m wondering if it’s true for others.  For you.

There are times when a great opening grabs me and pulls me along at sprint, opening doors for me until the last period hits the page.  In those situations, I’m a true believer in the power of a first line’s inspiration.  It makes bull riding easier when that happens, too.

In other cases, I develop an almost visual understanding of the completed piece and it begins to write itself.  It’s sort of like A Beautiful Mind, only it’s not high-level mathematics and rarely, if ever, represents what would pass for pure genius (unfortunately).

Sometimes, I know how the work ends and it’s all a matter of figuring how to get to that point.  I almost work backwards to the beginning.

And I can’t overlook the times when every word is failure and the only way to put the train on the tracks is to keep plugging along until I have a draft to revisit.

I stay on the bull even when the first version of the first line is a clunker.

For me, the underlying inspiration in all of those situations more often involves the ideas at issue than the words I’ll eventually use to express them.

What about you?

Does it all start with the first line for you or does that initial kick-start come from somewhere else?

If the first line had been “Maggie comes fleet foot / face full of black soot” instead of “Johnny’s in the basement / mixing up the medicine”, would “Subterranean Homesick Blues” be materially different?

By the way… “It’s a Bob Dylan day” wasn’t one of those inspired openers.  I wish it had been.

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