John McPhee on Writing a Lead

From Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process:

I have often heard writers say that you have written your lead you have in a sense written half of your story. Finding a good lead can require that much time, anyway–through trial and error. You can start almost anywhere. Several possibilities will occur to you. Which one are you going to choose? It is easier to say what not to choose. A lead should not be cheap, flashy, meretricious, blaring. After a tremendous fanfare of verbal trumpets, a mouse comes out of a hole blinking. . . .

The lead–like the title–should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.

(p. 50).

Another Improvisation

In my writing group the other night, we had 15 minutes to write something beginning with this line from Auden: “About suffering they were never wrong.” Here’s what I came up with.

About suffering they were never wrong.
They had scoped our pains with surveyor’s eye
And spanned a compass o’er travails long
That ran from dawn to lights that die.
All humanity’s woes and cares
Were catalogued as sundry snares.
There’s grief, there’s woe, there’s dark despair,
And lust and loss without compare.
And when the survey was mapped out neat
They took the chart and tacked it high
And aiming darts did then compete
To see which pains on souls should lie.
Thus the Fates do now compete
Leaving shears aside as dated,
So when you suffer, sore, complete,
Know your pain was struck, ill-fated.

(I can’t type this without wanted to revise it (e.g., do now contend), but that’s beyond the scope of a 15-minute exercise.)


A few nights ago, I was asked to write something, either prose or poetry, using as many of the following words as possible: palimpsest, raven, gnosis, anticipation, rebirth, sapphire, and gravel. Muddy might also have been on the list.

The time limit was 10 minutes, but I ended up having only about five. Here’s what I came up with.

A palimpsest in raven ink
Commands a scholar’s study
In anticipation of a semantic link
Deciphered from those muddy
Letters set upon each other
Close as gravel, or clutter’d sink—
From this confused compounding,
A rebirth of sense—I think.