Reading Like a Writer: John Crowley

These are the first sentences of Little, Big by John Crowley:

On a certain day in June, 19–, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited. His name was Smokey Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one the conditions placed on his coming there at all.

And this is the last:

Even the weather isn’t as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were.

Here are some thoughts on strategies I noticed in the first sentences:

  • The first phrase both promises a “certain day” and ignores that promise by including only the month and century. The first seven words contain a degree of tension between the abstract and the specific, maybe between the certain dates of history and a more general nostalgia. Tension between what is objectively before us and what might be imagined in the past and the present and the consequences of moving back and forth are probably themes of the novel.
    • This tension continues with the unnamed and abstract, but capitalized, City
    • and the “town or place” called, more specifically, “Edgewood.”
  • The main character immediately has a task, something they are doing, and that character is moving forward into an unknown area bit by bit, like the reader. If I’m remembering well, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino begins similarly but much more explicitly.
  • In the second of the first sentences, the character is named. Readers might have read on just to discover the character’s name. It is a slightly odd name. Odd names raise implicit questions: “What kind of person has that name?” “What kind of person names their child this and how has this name shaped him?” Characters beyond the named character are suggested.
  • The second of the first sentences also suggests the reason for the task, for the process, the character is involved in: a marriage. And, interestingly, conditions have been placed upon the successful completion of the task. More implicit questions follow: “Who would expect this? Why?” “What will happen along the way?” “Will he be tempted to ride and how will he respond to the temptation?” “How did they meet?”

The last sentence is interesting because it makes a traditional, nostalgic beginning part of the end of the book. At the same time, it warns against nostalgia with three “nevers” and calls for it with three “remembers.” With “once upon a time,” it evokes fairy tales and the possibilities imagination suggests.

Consider trying some of these strategies in what you write next.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s