“The first time I robbed Tiffany’s it was raining.” My father was pleased with the opening of his story, Montraldo. “That should hook the bottom feeders,” he told me with a bravado that was in no way characteristic. Sometimes as in the case of Look Homeward Angel—or anything else by Thomas Wolfe—there are practice swings before wood hits ball. (“Before the wood hits the ball”? ) You’ll see below that I’ve crossed out the warm up, though it’s there in case your train has been delayed.
A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.
Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.
The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.”
If this is all too much for you, don’t take the course. Though I wish you would. You have to forgive me for being from a generation raised on sentences so long you had to break surface and gasp for air before you hit the far wall and hung there panting. And equisite blend of bait and contract is often found at that start of a great novel. Nor do many launches create the oxygen debt Thomas Wolfe demands. Just for instance I adore the novel that begins: “The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.”
I bet you recognize this one: “Call me Ishmael.”
I am not going to restrict our study to a single sentence, or even—necessarily—three paragraphs. I want to hit that sweet spot where the reader and the writer both ink the contract. I hope to find exquisite openings that foreshadow the entire novel, but I will settle happily for any pack of words that touched or tickled me.
My plan is to distribute copies of famous openings. You and I will read the texts aloud. Don’t be uptight. This is not an acting class. You should also know that I don’t expect you to read the entire book. I think that we can best improve our writing through the close examination of small formations of words.
After reviewing excellence, we each will write for half an hour. No less than one paragraph and no more than three. You can rewrite the first page of that novel/memoir you are shopping around, or a manuscript you once abandoned. Or you can write three paragraphs to satisfy a whim. What if a Chimpanzee was (were?) elected President of the United States?
When you are writing I will be writing too. While I fear this eventuality, I also hope that some of you will come up with a better sample than my own, The locally grown pieces will be read to the class. A farm-to-table operation. If there’s time Then we will read the classics aloud a second time and maybe even have another writing session. If anybody is too easily shamed to read to the class, I will do the honors, or ask another student, but I recommend you eat your own dogfood. Since we all talk—and some of us even listen— it should be useful to hear your prose spoken. While I hate to contradict myself, I do know how many extraordinary writers took up fiction because they were mortally shy.
This class will take place in-person at HVWC and will be capped at 8 people.
Ben Cheever edited The Letters of John Cheever and has published four novels (The Plagiarist, The Partisan, Famous After Death and The Good Nanny) He wrote two nonfiction books—Selling Ben Cheever and Strides. With illustrator Tim Grajek, he produced a children’s book tittled The First Dog. Ben taught writing at The New School for Social Research and in the Bennington MFA program. If you go to PCTV.76.org and type Ben Cheever into the search you can see him hosting a show started with Herb Hadad about 150 years ago. Ben has free-lanced for The New Yorker and The New York Times. He’s chin-deep in a book on Canis Lupus Familiaris. He lives in Pleasantville, New York. Note: While he has not won a significant prize, young Cheever is in the running for Writer of the Longest Course Description ever Posted for The Hudson Valley Writer’s Center.
Questions? Write Ben at bhcheever@gmail or call 914 208 0027.
Event Location and Ticket Information
Hudson Valley Writers’ Center
300 Riverside Drive
Sleepy Hollow, NY 10591
Handicap Accessible? Yes
Date: Tuesday, October 17, 2023 - Tuesday, November 7, 2023
Times: 6:30 pm - 8:30 am