To create a strong opening, identify your SUCK.

Today is the 25th anniversary of my brother’s suicide. 

In the lead up to those first few anniversaries, I recalled our final visit, our last AOL session, and the words ending our terminal chat. I relived the timeline of his last few days, each moment told to me and each moment I read in the terrible newspaper account of his death. And then I cried, like I will cry off and on today. 

At year five, I noted the age of my grief. At ten, I started bracing for the day when it would outlive my brother.At eighteen, when that date began to near, I wrote about a children’s game we’d played called nuclear holocaust. When the twenty-year anniversary arrived, that essay about the game was published in Kenyon Review. By then, the initial thread about anticipatory grief had morphed into something about reaching this milestone at the half-life mark and a the way memories decay.   

After that essay was published, I considered other aspects of grief, like what happens when you deny its existence.  

No matter what I write, the anniversaries continue.  

Twenty-five is the silver anniversary. If this was a marriage, I’d scroll through all the celebratory items I could purchase—silver bowls, candleholders, picture frames. Shiny objects designed to commemorate the brilliance of our love. 

To honor this milestone,I’ve been drafting an essay about long grief and the gifts hidden its darkness. I know what I want to say and where I want to land, but I’m struggling with where to begin.

The first three drafts were written directly to grief, using the 2nd person POV. While this led to words on a page and my ultimate landing point, my kind, gentle internal editor has said, No, that’s not it. And so my drafting continues. 

In the story draft section of Allison K. William’s book Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book, she encourages writers to begin with a SUCK—an event or action that’s
and Kicks off the story.

The event is simple in that it’s a single incident “that serves as a case study for what’s wrong in the main character’s life.” But it shouldn’t be an everyday moment. Something unexpected must happen that’s specific and concrete. 

Most importantly, that moment must result in your protagonist taking action. As Allison writes, “she must say ‘yes’ to the adventure and begin her journey to personal change/changing the world.” 

In Seven Drafts, Allison offers examples of action, situation, and voice SUCKs authors have used to launch their stories. 

The key to creating a strong SUCK is summed up in this quote:

“Don’t start at the beginning. Start at the interesting.”–DongWon Song

I think the most unexpected part of long grief is how little of it is about my brother. Sure, he’s the catalyst, but grief and I talk about so many other things now—like worthiness, acceptance, and grace. 
My brother is a part of my everyday life. He exists in the blank space on the “property of” section of Art in Focus, the book resting on the shelf ten feet from my writing desk. He comes alive in the pages of the memoir I’m editing and that weird cackle that erupts from my throat when I encounter something hysterical, or describe foods in my weird family way—like talking about how the wild rice I made tastes a little like zoo. He is the picture I pass on the way to my office, the lips building my smile, and the curls that have formed in my once-straight hair.

A picture of Joe and me taken two years before his death. 

My brother is both alive and static—he will never age, have a breakthrough, or appear in a future story.  

But grief and I—our story continues and it evolves as I grow. For that, I’m very grateful. 

Maybe you’re struggling with where to begin a big story. 

When that happens to me, I turn to the Buddhist proverb about the blind man and the elephant. In the proverb, a raj gathers all the blind men in the city so he can ask them to describe an elephant. Some pat the ear. Others feel the tail. Still others touch the feet or stroke the elephant’s back. Each time they describe a body part, they say that is the elephant. The moral of the story is that parts can’t stand in for the whole, and believing they do is to fall into a trap of ignorance.

While that’s true, those parts might be the entry point for your project. If your story is too big to wrap your head around, focus on the SUCK in one part—be it the tusk or tail. Find the simple, unexpected, concrete moment that kicks off something, and use it to draft the pages that will eventually help you uncover the truth embedded in your work in progress.

While you’re working on that, send me answers to the following questions:

  • What’s the best beginning for a book you’ve read? What is the story’s SUCK? 
  • What unexpected openings have you found for your projects? 

No matter what your days are like, know that we’re all in the trenches. Take care of your beautiful hearts, and as always, write on. 

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