Thursday, August 18, 2011

Last Words, First Words

The last word my Aunt Lillie ever said was “Mama.”   She was in her sixties, in Mount Sinai, dying.  She hadn’t seen her Mama since she was four years old.  The cancer that sapped Lillie’s life had killed her mother, too, at 34.

In writing, first words and last words have huge importance.  The first words a character speaks in a play, even if it’s “hello”…ah, but should it be “hello,” or “hi,” or “Yo,” or “Good afternoon?”; the possibilities are endless. These words are the audience’s first inkling as to what the character is about.  They should, if the writer is skilled enough, link somehow to the very last words that character speaks, better still, to the last words of the play itself.  The audience doesn’t need to know this; perhaps it shouldn’t.  Like the last notes of a piece of music, the beginning and the end of a play, or a story or a book or a poem, for that matter, should have a sympathetic resonance in – if I can draw this analogy shamelessly further – the key signature of the whole.  Do I mean that if the first word is “hello,” the last word might be “goodbye”?  Maybe.  Or maybe that’s too obvious.  It’s what the skill, the intuition, the – dare I say art? – of the writer should decide.

Not every writer knows this, not even the good ones.  Some do it by instinct, and couldn’t for the life of them tell you why the beginning and end seem right together, but they do.  If they don’t, if they jangle, if the end has no relationship to the beginning, then the work, whatever it is, is like an uncooked meal; it gives you indigestion.

In life, first words are often Mama, or Dada, or Gimme, or Light.  And last words – well, they can be as telling as Gertrude Stein’s: “What is the answer?” and then:  “Well, then, what is the question?” or Henry Thoreau’s when asked if he’d seen the Other World: “One world at a time, one world at a time.”

How much these last words tell about their subjects!   How much the first words and last words of a literary work tell about what comes between, and the skill of the writer who chooses them.

If I were writing this – and I am – I would tell you that my Aunt Lillie’s first word in this world was very probably the one she died on: “Mama.”

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