"Only amateurs say that they write for their own amusement. Writing is not an amusing occupation. It is a combination of ditch-digging, mountain climbing, treadmill and childbirth. Writing may be interesting, absorbing, exhilarating, racking, relieving. But amusing? Never!".... ...Edna Ferber, A Peculiar Treasure, ch. 1 (1939).
Commentary of the Day - April 8, 2002: Who Needs Chapter One? Guest Commentary by Felice Prager.
My son is fourteen years old and knows more than everyone else these days. If I say it's too big, he says I'm old and know nothing about style. If I say it smells rancid, he'll eat it anyway and tell me how delicious it tastes after each bite.
So when he came home from school and told me his teacher was making them read To Kill a Mockingbird, I said nothing, even though I was happy that his teacher was challenging the class. It is an age-appropriate novel with an important message, and though I haven't read the book in years and I haven't seen the movie in more years, I thought his teacher (or the school district's curriculum committee) made a wise choice.
But I'm also smart. I know my younger son and I know he often balks at what is recommended to him, especially if I am the one making the recommendation. So, I grabbed his 17-year-old brother when he came home between his social obligations to change clothes and raid the refrigerator, and paid him to sing words of praise about the novel. He'd also read it in eighth grade and I vaguely remember him liking it. My philosophy in parenting involves bribery and payoffs.
"Sell it!" is what I paid for.
"It was murder to read, but it was kind of cool once we were done with it and the teacher told us why it was a cool book," is what I got.
I think the warranty is up on my kids.
Plus I can't remember where I bought them.
And I lost the receipts.
However, here we have a fourteen-year-old kid who likes to get good grades and doesn't mind reading. This is the boy who, in spite of his know-it-all teenaged personality, finishes homework early so he can go out and ride his BMX bike in the desert with his friends. He starts to read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I am being the diligent parent, making sure the TV is off and the house is quiet for him. I see him open the book to Chapter Two. I see him bend back the binding so it will stay open. "You read Chapter One in school?" I ask, looking over his shoulder.
"We don't have to read Chapter One."
"Did your teacher read it to you in school?"
"Nope. Mr. Wells said Chapter One was boring and added nothing to the plot of the book. He told us to start with Chapter Two."
"He told you to start with Chapter Two?" My hands are on my hips and I'm tapping my toe as an indication of my reaction. My kid knows it.
"Don't start, Mom." He is well aware of who I am and what I do, and he sees me struggle, throw things, and talk to electrical appliances. He also knows that before I was a parent and before I was a writer, that I was an English teacher, a middle school English teacher. For emphasis, he adds, "It's not a big deal, Mom. Please don't call the school."
Can you see my hair turning gray?
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…" (A Tale of Two Cities)
"Call me Ishmael." (Moby Dick)
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." (1984)
"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter." (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." (The Catcher in the Rye)
A vision goes through my brain. I see To Kill a Mockingbird's author, Harper Lee, sitting at her Smith Corona, struggling through Chapter One. I see her rearranging words in her head, preparing that all-important first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page. And then my kid's voice rings through my fantasy, "Mr. Wells said Chapter One was boring and added nothing to the plot of the book."
Ms. Harper Lee falls to the ground, clutches her heart, and dies, never to finish her classic novel.
Then my imagination continues through Author Hell. I'm sitting at my Dell Inspiron, clicking at the keyboard, doing the umpteenth rewrite to MY first chapter. In my mind, I'm hearing Mr. Dickens: "Times like these were pretty ambivalent." And I'm hearing Mr. Melville: "Ishmael, who?" I'm hearing Mr. Orwell: "Hey, it's 1984. Get over it."
I'm flipping through my Writer's Guide reading blurbs about how to submit manuscripts: "Send Chapter One" and "Send the first 15 pages." Suddenly it occurs to me that I have fallen for the biggest writer's hoax of all time. THEY don't want Chapter One. THEY don't want the first 15 pages. "Chapter One was boring and added nothing to the plot of the book." THEY must want Chapter Two. That's got to be it. Chapter Two is the key. They probably went to college with Mr. Wells.
I open the file on my computer that has one of the many versions of my manuscript. I highlight all of Chapter One, and I paste it into a new file. I change the word Two to One on Chapter Two. I change Three to Two on the next chapter, and so on until all the chapters are reconfigured. Then I repaginate. Then I start to read my manuscript in its new form, fifteen pages shorter.
It's not completely confusing, but it's my book and I already know the set up. I know the manuscript so well that I could write the Cliffs Notes for it. If it weren't my book, however, I wouldn't have a hint about who the characters are or what is going on, but there are lots of books like that. I've read hundreds of pages in published books, thinking, "How can I be on page 145 and still not have a clue what this book is about? Did I sleep through the first 144 pages?"
Then it occurs to me, Chapter One IS a big deal. My son's English teacher, with the best of intentions, I'm sure, is taking away something that the author and her editors WANTED her readers to know. Chapter One does matter. Who needs Chapter One anyway?
We all do.
Chapter One is why we read Chapter Two and without Chapter One, we lose the heart of the book. We lose its essence. We lose the difference between mediocre and masterpiece. And an educator who makes such a random decision, without benefit of legal advice, should be sent up the river...permanently.
"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt." (from To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter One by Harper Lee.)
Note: There have been over 15 million copies of To Kill a Mockingbird in print and translated into forty languages. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film. Both are classics. Both started at the beginning.
©2002 Felice Prager
Felice Prager is a freelance writer from Scottsdale, Arizona. Her work has appeared in international, national, and local publications, as well as many Ezines. Email: SurfPrincessAZ@aol.com Web site: WRITE FUNNY! at http://www.writefunny.com
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