Nonfiction openings #001: “You Owe Me,” by Miah Arnold

color fancy footwork

I’ll begin this week’s look at nonfiction openings with a tear-jerker from Miah Arnold:

YOU OWE ME, by Miah, Arnold, from Michigan Quarterly Review

The children I write with die, no matter how much I love them, no matter how creative they are, no matter how many poems they have written or how much they want to live. They die of diseases with unpronounceable names, of rhabdomyosarcoma or pilocytic astrocytoma, of cancers rarely heard of in the world at large, of cancers that are often cured once, but then turn up again somewhere else: in their lungs, their stomachs, their sinuses, their bones, their brains. While undergoing their own treatments, my students watch one friend after another lose legs, cough up blood, and enter a hospital room they never come out of again.

            Effective opening, yes?  Here’s why:

1.      Strong opening words that get attention. Note the first six words: “The children I write with die.” There are two words we never want to see together: “children” and “die.” She has us after that sixth word. We’re going to keep reading.

2.      PATHOS. Pathos is the sympathetic or empathetic feeling readers have for the character or person they’re reading about. Unless you are the most unfeeling human being on the planet, Miah Arnold has you caring about these children and caring about her too before the end of the opening paragraph. We know how challenging it must be to work or live in that kind of environment.

Try this:

Try to imitate the style of the paragraph above, but write as if you are a coach or a physical education instructor, and you’re working with children who have severe physical challenges—birth defects, amputations, blindness—not a lot of trophies in the cabinet, exactly (but what DO you have?).

Coming tomorrow: A shocker of an opening by Dudley Clendinen…

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *