Thursday, October 10, 2013

Writing for a living

Among my many jobs, one was writing tech manuals for a new super-duper online program to revolutionize how work gets done, in a place where it had been done in a most specific manner for about a hundred years, and target the manual to those who held both computers and reading in equal contempt.

This project I handled in concert with another writer. Both of us Lit majors.

My text was "dah-dah-dah -- Your're almost there -- dah-dah-dah -- you're doing fine -- dah-dah-dah -- You've got it!" And his was prose that went on for pages -- "If a red light blinks in the upper corner of your screen, this indicates a problem, but a problem that can be tackled if we consider the three probable solutions..." Mine was the more popular, and his the more accurate. So neither of us communicated anything of value.

In any case, we could finish our daily job in about an hour, so had time to kill. Which we spent quizzing one another on the first lines of literature.

"Ok, so who said this..."

Then the competition escalated to: what is the most recognizable first-line in English Literature? Something we didn't admit was that both of us scoured our book shelves; it made the next day interesting, attractive; a reason to get up in the morning.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged," he said.

Oh, that's good. Better than my, "Happy families are all alike..."

When the rubber hit the road, the shit hit the fan; in other words, when they flicked the switch on this new technical wonder -- our actual job, it was chaos. My stuff didn't work, and no one had read his. So the true techie wizard had to travel from San Francisco to San Diego and sort things out, personally.

Oh, well. We tried. And no one seemed to hold us accountable. So back to what mattered.

"The sun shone, having no alternative," he bid.

"Mother died yesterday," I countered.

To our credit, we never stooped to "Call me Ishmael."

42 comments:

  1. Without a doubt my favourite first line of a book:

    "It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured."

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  2. I've never understood technical writing and that includes prescription labels and legal documents. “The Heart wants what it wants - or else it does not care."

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  3. “Her father had taught her about hands. About a dog's paws. Whenever her father was alone with a dog in a house he would lean over and smell the skin at the base of its paw. This, he would say, as if coming away from a brandy snifter, is the greatest smell in the world! A bouquet! Great rumours of travel! She would pretend disgust, but the dog's paw was a wonder: the smell of it never suggested dirt. It's a cathedral! her father had said, so-and-so's garden, that field of grasses, a walk through cyclamen--a concentration of hints of all the paths the animal had taken during the day.”
    ~Michael Ondaatje, from The English Patient

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  4. Your experience seems to be the norm for new-fangled ideas that no-one in management actually understands. I can say from experience that techies don't think or speak like the rest of the world, so getting Eng Lit grads to write the manuals was a brilliant idea. Sorry that no-one tested it beforehand to see if it would work.

    I only knew one of the first lines, but googling the others was great fun. You should enter the Bulwer-Lytton contest. I know someone that won it a few years ago.

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  5. Ms M. I don't remember that passage from The English Patient - a lovely book - but a dog's paws smell of sweat, the only part of a dog that has sweat glands. And I love that musty perfume, better than any man's armpits.

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  6. Boz's paws smelled like buttered sand.

    I was looking for the Gabriel Garcia Marquez opener, which is another famous one, and I found a good list:
    http://matadornetwork.com/notebook/15-immortal-opening-lines/

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  8. And then there's this:


    The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest


    The best opening line of the worst novel evah.

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  9. Hi, Tom.

    How did we keep that job for two long years? Long enough to travel to best last lines? You were so sure I'd choose Fitzgerald. But no.

    "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

    That was my favorite, maybe.

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  10. "Call me Ishmael," would have been about the only one I'd know!

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  11. Surely "His soul swooned . . . " is from Gabriel at the end of Joyce's "The Dead"? If not, somebody plagiarized. "The Dead" is one of the very few slow, elegantly dreary pieces I've actually loved, mostly because of that conclusion. Still, I'd probably choose both the first two and the last two pages of Gatsby.

    I realize "Call me Ishmael" is a predictable choice, but I can't help but love it. Such conciseness and simplicity to lead off such a (wondrous) windbag of a book.

    Love MsM's dog paw. I discovered it embarrassingly late in life--should have spend more time on the floor, getting the pooch perspective as well as the perfume.

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  12. They're all great. And yes, that was from The Dead, really the only Joyce piece I still like.

    Have to admit, I didn't recognize Carolynn's choice.

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  13. The first line of "The Dead" is "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet." Not a bad line, but not as lovely as what he brought at the end.

    And god bless Google. Here's Carolynn's pick: http://www.amazon.com/Shantaram-Novel-Gregory-David-Roberts/dp/0312330537

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  14. I know, I may have to get Carolynn's book because it's a wonderful line.

    Bellis, what was your friend's winning entry?

    Ok, here's one that EVERYONE knows:

    Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow, it was hotter then. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon after their three o'clock naps. And by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum. The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer. There's no hurry, for there's nowhere to go and nothing to buy...and no money to buy it with.”

    Sigh.

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  15. "Many years later, in front of the firing squad, colonel Aureliano Buendía would remember that distant afternoon his father took him to see ice."

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  16. Terry, another sigh. Seems I haven't changed at all -- I could still play this game all day.

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  17. My favorite line from "The Dead" (Could there be a finer name for a lost love than Michael Furey? I don't think so.):

    Gabriel Conroy: [asking Gretta about Michael Furey] What was it he died of so young? Consumption, was it?

    Gretta Conroy: I think he died for me.

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  18. Terry took mine. Once you start, you cannot stop, and are swept away.
    I love this story!

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  19. Kafka's

    "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect"

    but I always screw up quotes, so my version is....

    "I woke up as a bug"

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  20. I don't know that I have a favorite opening line, but my students sure do:

    "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

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  21. Excuse me, but if you look back in the thread you'll see I was the first to mention Marquez, so I win.

    Actually, though, I think Carolynn wins.

    Karin, you'll be so jealous. I just read Mockingbird for the first time. A lot of people wish they could read it for the first time again.

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  22. Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book', thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversation?'

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  23. And I'll bet neither you nor he ever mentioned, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were." At least, I think those are the exact words. I first read it at age 11, and have not read it in at least a decade.

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  24. And Anon's comment reminds me of when Ryan was about 4 or 5, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire was a new and hot show. His older sibs were watching it one night, and Ryan came to me, puzzled. "No one likes Millionaire, so why are they watching it?" he queried. "No one likes shows with humans in them."

    Just like Alice and the books with no pictures.

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  25. "When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell."

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  26. It was a dark and stormy night----- Call me Ishmael---
    I guess I can't play with the big kids because I can't ever remember those great openings. but "Once upon a time" opened doors of wonder for a very little girl who got hooked on books from before kindergarten. Now I have lots of ideas to explore, as if I needed an excuse to excuse myself from the world around me. And by the way, though I don't know any killer first lines, how about that Alice Munro?

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  27. Doris Who? Cousin of Coris?

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  28. I must confess -- what I submitted is not an opening line. But it is from The English Patient.
    When I had a dog, I remember his paws smelled of grass, dirt, and some mustiness. I also had a relative who loved to smell "puppy paws".

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  29. Petrea beat me to "One Hundred Years of Solitude" so let me just say I would have stooped, and stooped quickly, to "Call me Ishamel."

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  30. A combined score from blog and Facebook shows Marquez and "We called him Old Yeller," are neck and neck.

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  31. "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person."

    I love that opening line and the story that follows ~

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  32. "From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with."

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  33. I remember reading once that Margaret Atwood said "call me Ishmael" was her favorite opening line of a novel.

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  34. After much thought:

    “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”

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  35. I enjoyed so much reading these comments, Karin. An interesting post like yours brings many interesting contribution from readers.

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  36. You're right, Sonia. When at its best, this blog is a collaborative effort.

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  37. ahhh. this is where I come for a sentimental education everytime

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  38. Tough to write to an audience whose intelligence you can only guess.

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  39. Lucky you. I can only, barely, live to write.

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  40. Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course.
    Homer

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