The summer of 2013, I found myself on the phone with Stephen King, listening as he described how he wrote the opening sentence of It: “That’s one that I worked over and over and over.”
Drawing on four decades of work, from Salem’s Lot to Needful Things to Doctor Sleep, the author recounted the arduous way his books usually begin—how he’ll spend weeks, months, sometimes years of nights lying in bed with a laptop, thinking, experimenting, fiddling with the words, until the language clicks. The right first paragraph, when he finally finds it, casts a kind of spell, what King called an “incantation,” that makes the finished story seem somehow inevitable.
As I listened, I thought of my novel, the one I was struggling to write. I was attempting to get beyond the first 50 pages—aiming to write 1,000 words every morning before heading off to work, and often just staring at the screen and feeling seasick instead. My cast of characters had shifted over time, and I’d tried telling the story from different points of view. But what King was saying rang incredibly true: Whenever I felt lost, my opening sentence, which I’d worked and reworked, always reminded me of what the book was meant to be.
I was talking to King because, in the fall of 2012, sensing that my post-MFA plan (finish my novel in a year, get it published, settle into the creative life) might need a little tweaking, I’d pitched a series called “By Heart” to The Atlantic. The formula was simple: Each week, I’d interview a well-known writer about a favorite passage from literature and edit their thoughts into a short essay. In part, I thought that the series would force me to publish regularly (and the extra income wouldn’t hurt). But mostly, I was looking to ask questions I wanted to answer badly for myself. What inspires you? I wanted to query my favorite writers. Where do your best ideas come from? And how do you possibly manage to turn those flashes of insight into something crystalline and whole?