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Inexperienced writers sometimes assume that they have to write about something dramatic or sensational to interest readers: the afternoon I scored the winning touchdown, the night I danced as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker Suite, or the morning I nearly died drag racing my father's Porsche. However, some of the strongest narratives often result from taking something less significant—even disappointing—that happened to you and making it come to life for your reader. Instead of the big touchdown, how about the game you sat out on the bench? Instead of the dance performance, how about a dance rehearsal? Instead of near death in the Porsche, how about your near death, one day, from boredom? In other words, take something common and make out of it something uncommon.

Recently, I asked the twenty-two freshmen in my writing class to write narratives about topics of their choice. As you might guess, their topics varied widely: high school sports, the first day at college, the death of a grandfather, the divorce of parents, childhood games, record collecting, a mother-daughter relationship, and quite a few work experiences.

For the moment, let's look at the openings of six of these papers. Five dealt with jobs, the sixth with a judo class the writer attended. Most of these students didn't write about the drama of their experience, but about the everyday nature of it. Here are their lead paragraphs:

joan: I was a Dunkin' Donuts girl. Just another face behind a pink hat and a grease-stained uniform. The job could have been degrading if I ever let it get under my skin. To get the job I had to be able to count out a dollar's worth of change and read . . .

jeff: The heat from the huge multiple amplifiers drains every bit of energy out of me. The sweat from my body soaks my uniform right through, like I fell into water. It's dripping into my eyes, burning them because it's mixed with sulfuric oxide. My safety glasses are constantly slipping to the end of my nose . . . None of these precautions do any good because I'm wet with sweat in 150-degree heat, waiting like a target to be shocked . . .

sue: Every morning when I woke up, the dull throbbing of my lower back reminded me that I worked the night before. The odor of stale cigarettes, French onion soup, and grease from the grill lingered in my room, coming from my uniform crumpled on the floor . . .

frank: I never really minded running around, it was just so monotonous. The life of a gopher could be summed up in a few short commands: "Hand me that! Pick up these! Help me with this!"

stephany: T.G.I.T. Thank God It's Tuesday. I always look forward to Tuesdays. They mean two things: Tomorrow is my day off and today is my boss's day off, so I won't be asked to pick eggs. I really hate picking eggs—I get all covered with dust, eggs, and grain. By the end of the day I'm so tired I just want to sack out. When I was hired my boss told me I'd only have to pick eggs once in a while, but this week I had to pick three times. It really gets me, because my real job is candling eggs . . .

kate: "Ten pushups? You've got to be kidding!" I don't think I've ever done more than two in my life. I strain my arms trying to touch the mat . . .

It's not the subject, of course, but the treatment that draws us in or turns us away. In these examples, Joan's bouncy opening reminds us more of a cheerleader than a coffee shop waitress, and we wonder what else lies ahead. Jeff starts fast, giving us little context, except to see him drenched in sweat on the battery assembly line waiting to be electrocuted (do we read on, in part, to see how he survives?). Sue describes her job from the morning after; Frank describes his with the words of his many bosses as he helps lay underground cables; Stephany's colloquial, talky voice carries us into her piece; Kate's present tense puts us with her on the mat doing push-ups.

Some of these writers, such as Kate and Jeff, wrote their opening paragraph on the first draft and let it stand through successive revisions; others, such as Stephany, found this opening only in the last draft. And one, Joan, scrapped the strong opening printed here for a different approach in subsequent draft. In short, each writer had to work through his or her own process to find the writing that was most satisfying.

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