Bard Press Essay #15
June 10, 2021
In this last week, I’ve been reading two books on mindfulness, and from my work-a-day world of book publishing, it is interesting to look at the approaches the authors made in the opening to their books and what those words say about the rest of the book.
Fully Present is written by researcher Susan Smalley and mindfulness instructor Diana Winston. They start Chapter 1 of their book with:
“A world-renowned psychiatrist once posed a question to a room full of mental health experts. He asked, “What is the ‘seat belt’ of mental health?” Seat belts save lives; buckling up is a simple thing to do to protect ourselves from physical harm. What is the comparable tool to protect us from the mental hazards of lfe? What is the seat belt to protect us against unhappiness, depression, anxiety, pain, and suffering? Mindfulness may be the mental “seat belt” that protects us along the bumpy, twisting, turning road of life, whether we encounter unexpected drop-offs, terrible accidents, or smooth sailing.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher, opens his book Present Moment, Wonderful Moment with this paragraph:
“Everyone has pain and suffering. It is possible to let go of this pain and smile at our suffering. We can only do this if we know that the present moment is the only moment in which we can be alive.”
In one paragraph, you can see the difference in approaches that the authors of these two books are going to take. Smalley and Winston use metaphors. Hanh, without wasting words, points directly at the problem and the solution.
If it feels like Smalley and Winston are wandering a little bit, then you would likely feel the same thing through the rest of the first chapter, where they choose to make an attempt at defining what mindfulness is. The rest of Hanh’s book, after his succinct opening, the reader finds is a collection of short poems called gathas, that are meant to focus the awareness of readers.
You signal a lot to a reader in the first paragraph, whether you realize it or not. Choose those words wisely.
P.S. Jonathan Lee has a short piece on Granta called How to Start a Novel, where they examine their favorite opening lines. Lee is even more deliberate in what a good opening line says about everything that follows.