Can you write a memorable opening of your novel with only three little words?
February 6, 2013
He wrote: “Call me Ishamael.”
And he became famous.
Those were the first words written in Moby-Dick, and they formed one of the most recognizable opening lines in American literature. The book turned a runaway beachcomber and whaler into a legend.
Herman Melville had no burning or unquenchable desire to become a whaler. He did not yearn for the sea. He was simply fighting for survival. As he once wrote: “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”
Herman Melville had been the son of a prominent New Yorker, a rich merchant who had been a rebel and rogue in the midst of the Boston Tea Party, a major in the army of George Washington, and the commissioner of the Boston and Charlestown Harbor, appointed to the post by four Presidents – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.
But, alas, the Great Depression of the 1830s stormed across the country and left the family destitute and in financial ruin. Money dried up. Melville’s father died. And bankruptcy robbed them all of their dignity, The servants were dismissed, and the inner circle dances of high society went on without the good graces of Herman Melville.
He frantically tried to find a job. Anything would do. He was not afraid to work.
Herman Melville clerked in a bank, as well as in a cap and fur store. He studied the math and science of surveying before heading west to survey the uncharted territory west of the Ohio River.
No one knew he was coming.
No one cared he had arrived.
In desperation, Melville became a merchant marine, sailing on the St. Lawrence. The sea began to change his life. Two years later, on Christmas day of 1840, he signed on the whaler Acushnet and would be gone for three and half years, even jumping ship in the Marquesas Islands because he and the good Captain Valentine Pease couldn’t get along. He didn’t write about mutiny on the Bounty, but he could have.
When Melville finally found his way back home again, he enthralled his family with tales of the sea and finally decided to write down his recollections of natives with strange tattoos, mad whalers, mad captains, and a mad rush of the sea. He doubted if anyone would believe him. There were days Melville didn’t believe what he had seen with his own eyes.
Melville wrote a handful of novels, made a moderate amount of money, worked on the docks for four dollars a day, ran with such literary notables as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and bought the farm he called Arrowhead near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He wrote of his rambling farmhouse, built in 1783: I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is all covered with snow. I look out my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin, & at night when I wake up or hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go & rig in the chimney.
Herman Melville was landlocked, perhaps. But he had not escaped the sea.
He would sit beside the window and gaze upon the humpback of Mount Greylock in the distance. It did not remind him of a mountain at all.He thought it looked more like a whale, a great white whale.
So he sat down to write about it. And he called the whale Moby-Dick.
But, Melville wondered, how should I begin the story? Maybe three simple words would do: Call me Ishamael.
They were three simple words that would never be forgotten.
Mellville did, however, leave us with these lasting thoughts on writing and the foibles of life:
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, thought many there be that have tried it.
It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.
Friendship at first sight, like love at first sight, is said to be the only truth.
We cannot live for ourselves. A thouand fibers connect us withour fellow men.
Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.
It is better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.
Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.
Genius is full of trash.
Life is a voyage that’s homeward bound.
Whatever my fate, I will go to it laughing.
Caleb Pirtle III is author of Wicked Little Lies. It took him more than three words to write the opening sentence but only one word to write the last. Please click the book cover to read more about he novel on Amazon.