So Many Ways to Start a Story -

Catherine Lanser
3 min readJul 11, 2021

I’ve been studying first lines and first pages of memoirs. I’ve rewritten mine at least a million times. Well, maybe not that many, but at least many times as I’ve rewritten the intro for this article. We all know that openings matter. People need to be wowed to keep reading.

Readers use the Look Inside feature on Amazon or flip open the first page in a book and start reading. If they are bored by the second paragraph of an article and stop reading, why would they keep reading a book that doesn’t immediately pull them in? Here are three common themes I saw in the opening lines of memoirs.

First Lines As Set-up

“My father would never describe himself as a poet.”

The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father
Kao Kalia Yang

“For thirty-three years I had a hole in my heart and I did not know it.”

Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember
The Stroke that Changed My Life
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Both of these lines set up what the book will be about. In The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father, if he doesn’t describe himself that way, the book must be about how Yang, his daughter, will make the argument that he is.

Hyung-Oak Lee is talking about a physical and metaphorical hole. This line is a bit unexpected for a book about stroke but sets up a theme of the book of how the stroke taught her to live differently and begin to protect her heart

A Pivotal Memory, Or Is It?

“My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.”

The Liars’ Club: A Memoir
Mary Karr

“My strongest memory is not a memory.”

Educated
Tara Westover

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both of these wildly popular memoirs started with a memoir. Westover has said she read Karr, as most memoirists have, to get a sense of how to write nonfiction. Both endured tragic, unorthodox upbringings. Starting with a memory or a phantom memory that haunts the writer is a strong way to start a book that covers such deep topics.

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Catherine Lanser

Narrative nonfiction and memoir. Querying my memoir about my family, told through the lens of brain tumor.