First Impressions: How to Open a Personal Essay

Joan Didion in 1967, the year she published
Joan Didion in 1967, the year she published "Goodbye to All That." Photo: © Ted Streshinsky/Corbis

We've been saving our pennies for "The Paris Review Interviews (Boxed Set) I-IV" ever since we discovered the Interviews section of their site, where we recently found this reflection on starting a piece from fiction writer T. Coraghessan Boyle:

"I have an idea and a first line -- and that suggests the rest of it. I have little concept of what I’m going to say, or where it’s going. I have some idea of how long it’s going to be -- but not what will happen or what the themes will be. That’s the intrigue of doing it -- it’s a process of discovery. You get to discover what you’re going to say and what it’s going to mean."

Can a similar process of discovery apply to nonfiction? Why not?

Here we highlight the opening lines from some of our favorite works among those selected by Phillip Lopate for The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present,” each representing one of the book's five sections, beginning with "Forerunners" and ending with "The American Scene."

1) "The messenger you sent with tidings of the death of our little daughter apparently missed me on his road to Athens, and consequently I learned about the child only when I arrived in Tanagra." -- Plutarch, Consolation to His Wife

2) "I have no doubt that I often happen to speak of things that are better treated by the masters of the craft, and more truthfully." -- Michel de Montaigne, Of Books 

3) "There is a spider crawling along the matted floor of the room where I sit (not the one which has been so well allegorized in the admirable Lines to a Spider, but another of the same edifying breed); he runs with heedless, hurried haste, he hobbles awkwardly towards me, he stops -- he sees the giant shadow before him, and, at a loss whether to retreat or proceed, mediates his huge foe -- but as I do not start up and seize upon the straggling caitiff, as he would upon a hapless fly within his toils, he takes heart, and ventures on with mingled cunning, impudence, and fear." -- William Hazlitt, On the Pleasure of Hating

4) "He always feels hot, I always feel cold." -- Natalia Ginzburg, He and I

5) "It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends." -- Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That 

Based on these one-line introductions, can you predict the direction of the essay? Page through Lopate's collection, one intriguing piece at a time, to discover for yourself where the authors end up.