In my quest, as a nurse, to become a writer of memoir, I learned the importance of first sentences: to draw the reader into the story immediately. Think of the classics: “Call me Ishmael” (Melville’s Moby Dick) and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities).
In each issue, Poets & Writers highlights first sentences in a section called “Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begins.” In the July/August 2011 issue, this first sentence caught my eye: “There was a great deal of shouting and then a shot.” (Jesse Ball’s The Curfew)
Reading that sentence reminded me of hearing the diagnosis of “GSW” for the first time during a shift change report on a med-surg floor. I thought of IVs—the common 5% D/W (five percent dextrose in water solution), automatically transposing that to D5W, which, of course, still made no sense with respect to GSW. As the nurse continued giving her report, I was able to deduce that GSW stood for Gunshot Wound. I was scared, especially when the nurse also said that a policeman was on duty outside the patient’s room.
And that led to me to thinking about all the first sentences we could write from our everyday experiences that would grab and hold our readers’ interest. So, for fun, I thought I would look at first sentences in essays written by nurses. I chose essays because there are too few nursing memoirs on the bookstore shelves to find examples—all the more reason we nurses need to write the story of our career!
I took the following first sentences from Reflections on Doctors: Nurses’ Stories about Physicians and Surgeons (edited by Terry Ratner, Kaplan Publishing, 2008). Read them and ask: Do I want to read further?
“In my 24 years as a nurse I have refused doctors’ orders on only two occasions.” (Karen Klein, “Refusing Doctors’ Orders,” p. 1)
“My first day in the field in Kosovo was June 6, 2000.” (Nancy Leigh Harless, “Please Help My Son Not Die,” p. 9)
“Mornings are not supposed to smell like burning flesh with wispy twirls of flesh smoke moving sensually and methodically toward the cluster of operating room lights.” (Adrienne Zurub, “A Truth about Cats and Dogs,” p. 21.)
“We are creatures of words: beautiful words, idle words, hurtful words, empty words, and sometimes, healing words.” (Cheryl Dellasega, “Every Patient Tells a Story,” p. 27)
“’Get up and give that doctor your chair!’ barked my nursing instructor, Mrs. Castle.” (Carolyn Lounsbury, “Ms. Manners,” p. 75)
“I watched a stranger’s heart beating today.” (Terry Ratner, “Relinquishing a Soul,” p. 125).
In fairness, I have to mention that editors may change an author’s first sentence, and also that it’s an acceptable strategy, in addition to first sentences, to have a build-up in the first paragraph that grabs the reader. Note, too, the “grabbiness” of the titles. They can help intrigue the reader.
So what did you think about the examples? Did you want to read further? Or are you already thinking about a first sentence from your work today? This sentence from my working days immediately came to mind: “The first thing my patient told me today was that he wanted to ‘off’ himself.”
Whenever a good first sentence occurs to you, write it down. Save your collection. If you have no time now, they’ll serve as memory joggers for when you do, and they can evolve into a memoir that can educate others about your work. And, if you’re a nurse, your story can also promote the professionalism of nursing.
Stay tuned for more on this topic.