This Woman's Experience is a series of blog posts about what growing up, and life in general, was like for women who were born before 1965. It's intended to show the young women of today how it used to be. They need to know this.
Kitty Philips is my guest blogger today. Kitty is a 7th generation Floridian currently residing in the mountains of Tennessee. She grew up in rural North Florida and is from a long line of farmers and working women. (More info at bottom of post.) She's also, in my opinion, more than a bit of a 'bad-ass' and someone I wish I'd had the confidence as a young woman to be more like.
So, here's Kitty:
Can you imagine a world where you, as a woman, can’t get a credit card or any credit in your name without your husband’s approval? You can’t buy a car. You can’t get birth control. You can’t have any 'female' surgery. You can’t open a checking account. Your husband can call your doctor and have access to all of your records without your permission.
This is the world I came of age in. The 60’s. Those were difficult times for women. Not that my father was like that. Women in my family have always worked outside the home. It was encouraged and not frowned upon. But once I left home, I found doors closed to me. Car loans. Apartments. Credit cards. And certainly reproductive services.
These were the things the Women’s Movement was about. We didn’t even think about being called 'honey'. We wanted basic rights – equal pay, equal employment, equal care, equal financial opportunity. As late as 37 years ago, I couldn’t get the same amount of life insurance as my husband, even though I made the same amount of money. My salary wasn’t as important as his. Which translated to . . . I was a lesser person.
Many of these restrictions were laws – laws! Some were just understood.
The Women’s Movement or the Women’s Liberation Movement came about in the mid-60's and lasted until the early 80's. The main objective was to make women equal class citizens. There are some who say it came out of the civil rights movement. I think it really started during World War II, when women filled the jobs left by men going into the armed forces. Rosie the Riveter exemplified those women. After the war, and the men came home, women were no longer satisfied to stay at home and be the little wife.
We marched. We burned our bras. We staged sit-ins. We staged walk-outs. We wrote our legislators. We talked to our men. In some cases, there was violence. But change oftentimes involves violence. The movement was really about the patriarchal and sexist system in this country. The media portrayed us as man-haters, but that was far from the truth. Unlike today’s Me Too movement, we didn’t hate men. We loved men. We just didn’t want to be second class or subservient to them.
As a result of our work, women’s issues were brought to light. Roles were revised. Sex could be discussed. Our feelings and needs were brought out into the open. Our problems were added to books and courses in sociology, psychology, and even biology. Departments on women’s rights were set up. Colleges began to teach courses.
Abortion laws were changed. Women wanted to rid the country of the idea of objectifying women. We protested the Miss America Pageant. We wanted control over our reproductive processes. We wanted to be paid for maternity leave. We wanted safe havens from abusive relationships. We wanted laws that would make marital rape a crime. We wanted the right to initiate and achieve a divorce, including a 'no fault' divorce.
My generation of women fought to change these antiquated laws made by rich, old, white men. Because of us, women have access to birth control. Women can have credit without their husband’s permission. Women can expect and receive equal pay for equal work. Women can buy a house without asking anyone. Women can buy a car. Women’s health records are not available to their husbands, except with their permission. Women can serve in any position in the military and can take any job they are qualified to perform. We don’t have to be married or have children to lead full and rewarding lives. We can get a divorce. We can get help if in abusive relationships. We can talk about sex in the open.
But I fear many of our rights are eroding, and we are regressing. Look at all of the anti-abortion laws or attempted laws today. I don’t care if you call me 'honey'. I do care if you try to tell me what I can and can’t do with my body. I can’t imagine being a man in today’s corporate world. I would never be alone with a woman for fear of the accusations and retribution. That is not what we fought to change and protect. We did not hate men. We gloried in our differences. We wanted equality, not dominion over men. I will not be part of the Me Too movement. They have lost sight of what we fought so hard to achieve. They are making a mockery of our work. Many don’t even know what we were able to change. They should read works by Gloria Steinem and Susan Brownmiller before going forward.
More About Kitty Philips:
After high school, she took a year off, traveled, and married. At 23, she found herself divorced and pregnant. As a single parent, she understood the need to find an occupation that would provide an income for life - and she knew it would not be in a traditional woman's job. Relying on her grandmother for her daughter's day care, she commuted to college in Daytona and earned a degree in computer science.
After graduation, she entered her career as a programmer and met her husband, Jeffrey. They've traveled the world diving, horseback riding, and cooking. Along the way, she became a US Coast Guard Captain, a SCUBA intstructor, and Florida Master Naturalist instructor, and a chef.
She and Jeffrey, and two horses, live in Tennessee and continue to travel. She is now a junior at Tennessee Tech, majoring in Environmental Science and Sustainability.
I've posted this tribute to my dad several times, but it's a good one & I think it deserves another post in honor of Father's Day. My dad passed over twenty years ago. He was a (as he would say) 'real kick in the pants.'
We only get one father—biologically speaking. But a dad? That’s a different story. For some people, Dad is the one who contributed his DNA to you. For others, it’s the guy who volunteered to step up and be the dad. I am thanking all dads, whether they’re blood-related or not. And as a tribute, here’s to them and their foibles.
There are a few things I know for sure about dads. They like sports, especially football and—when Mom’s not in the room—cheerleaders. They relish a cold beer after mowing the lawn. They make the best tree forts. They believe winking at you erases a clumsy remark. They have deep, meaningful conversations with the family dog, but can’t cough up a word when asked by Mom to help explain the birds and the bees to their kids. They love steak. They wear T-shirts from their high school or college days until they disintegrate. They tell the same corny jokes year after year and laugh harder each time, ignoring Mom’s eye-rolling. They adore their children.
My dad passed away twenty-one years ago. I question both his and my mother’s (very much alive) sanity. They decided to have a big family, wanted all six of us. I’ve raised three children and can’t imagine having had three more. I don’t know how my parents didn’t succumb to the temptation to lose one or two of us. In my dad’s wake, he left a legacy of events and stories that still entertain us. Tales about Hawaii after World War II, college pranks, and how he won my mother over from some other guy.
Dad loved to dance. When I was little, sometimes I’d wake up at night and hear music. I’d sneak downstairs and find my parents on the sun porch doing a wild, swinging jitterbug to big band music. They were laughing, smiling—no, beaming ear to ear.
Dad was cheap. He thought nothing should cost more than fifty dollars—ever. No matter how much time had passed since his find-a-nickel-and-see-a-movie childhood. He’d tip waiters and valets with quarters. As we grew older, we realized Mom always tucked extra cash in her purse for surreptitious purposes. He did get a little better with the tipping thing, but we all were prepared to leave a sweater on a chair as an excuse to run back to the table. He loved cute waitresses, and back in the days before political correctness (think Mad Men era), he’d pinch their bottoms and laugh, embarrassing us. Dad was a charmer, though, and the waitresses never looked angry. Really. I guess some people can pull off anything. My middle son inherited that gene. He’d never pinch anyone, but boy, one smile and whammo—he’s got the popular vote.
My dad’s favorite drink was the Manhattan. Four parts rye whiskey to one part sweet vermouth with a dash of bitters and a Maraschino cherry. It’s etched into my brain because Dad taught me to make them when I was ten. These days, that would probably be considered child abuse. Heck, my kids didn’t learn bartending skills until they were at least twelve. Kidding. While Mom was busy preparing dinner for eight people, I’d fill the cocktail shaker with Manhattan ingredients and frost a martini glass in the freezer for him. When he came home from work, he’d sit at the counter and do the crossword puzzle, sipping the drink I’d served and talking to Mom.
But here’s the endearing part, something I didn’t realize until many years later. He’d pluck me up and onto his lap and challenge me with some of the crossword clues. No matter what I’d answered, if it was the right amount of letters, he praised me and filled it in. (In ink. He and Mom always did their crosswords in pen.) After a few answers, I’d get bored, jump down, and go find a sibling to pester. Now, as an avid puzzle doer, I can only imagine what a pain in the rear it was to work around and ink over those incorrect answers.
Before the internet, or even the concept of a home computer, dads relied on nudie magazines. Keeping them hidden from the wives and children was a big challenge. We kids always found the stash, however. We never let on, and we never told our moms. It was our only source of sex education. What we didn’t know was that all the moms knew exactly where they were also. Yeesch. Everybody just pretended they didn’t know diddly. As it turned out, to share the financial burden of keeping up with the latest issues, Dad had an exchange program going with the Episcopal minister (father of five) next door. They traded copies back and forth for years. I told you he was cheap.
I miss him.
I hope you have a dad in your life. He may not be the biological contributor, but love is not measured by DNA. Treasure every bad joke, every inappropriate or clunky comment, every moment they choose to spend with you. Appreciate the efforts made to cheer you on, lift you up, and lessen the pain, even if they don’t work. He cares enough to try, and it hurts him more than you know to see you go through life’s inevitable adversities. And don’t ever let him be all alone on Father’s Day.
This Woman’s Experience is a series of blog posts about what growing up and life in general was like for women who were born before 1965. It’s intended to show the young women of today how it used to be. They need to know this.
The Old Maid
Hard to believe now, but when I was a teenager in the early 1970s, it was still very common to call a woman who hadn’t married by her early twenties an old maid.
So prevalent was the idea that a woman staying single was a social pariah, that there was a popular card game called Old Maid. The loser of the game was the old maid. We played it all the time as kids—it was on the shelf right next to Monopoly, Parcheesi, and the checkers set—and thought nothing of it.
It was believed a woman who wasn’t married was either ugly, stupid, had an objectionable personality, or didn’t bathe regularly—or all the above. Something clearly had to be wrong with her, and she got whispered about.
The name given an older woman who’d never married was spinster. The word just sounds awful, doesn’t it? The name for a single man was and is bachelor. No stigma to that—ever—not now, not then. In fact, he was quite sought after, instead of shamed like the women.
In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life (which I love and watch every Christmas eve), in George Bailey’s alternate reality, where he was never born, he asks the angel Clarence to show him what became of his wife, Mary Hatch. Clarence said to him, “You’re not going to like it, George. She’s an old maid.” And he said like it was worse than being a convicted murderer on death row. George reacts with abject horror, as though it was indeed much worse. Mary is shown all buttoned up in ugly clothes and wearing severe black-framed glasses (although she didn’t wear glasses as an adult in her life with George?), and she’s a librarian—which was known as the signature loser job for a woman who couldn’t attract a husband back then.
There was a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon (and I loved and still love all those Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons) that had a scrawny, desperate old maid chicken (woman) who was easily seduced by Leghorn. He was fooling her, didn’t mean it, and we laughed at his deception and at her gullible reaction.
So when I tell you it was prevalent, it was PREVALENT! It was everywhere. TV shows routinely made fun of single women and suggested they were desperate to the point of panic. Married women on TV and in movies were always trying to fix up their poor and unfortunate single friends. Mary Tyler Moore’s best friend Rhoda made more disparaging comments about herself and being single than the others did on the show.
It all worked really, really well. The last thing a brainwashed girl like me wanted was to go through life being thought of as a misfit. The social pressure to be a good girl and a good wife was enormous. But it’s only in looking back I realize that pressure was an influence on me. It was just the way things were.
The women who, beginning in the late 1960s, started to organize for women’s rights were disparaged in my little world. They were unfeminine. Probably disgruntled. Mad because a man dumped them—undoubtedly because of their objectionable qualities. In small towns like mine, that was the way everyone thought. Decent women turned up their noses at the very idea of protesting. Apparently, the bloody efforts to give them the hard-won right to vote by their forebears were totally forgotten. How the hell had those women been received? Not well, either.
The 60s & 70s women’s libbers were very brave to speak up at a time when most other women thought they were vulgar and mannish for daring to upset the apple cart. I didn’t admire them or think they were brave at the time, of course, being the perfect little robot. Is it any wonder I married at twenty? I had no business doing that, but I remember thinking it was my only option, and I was strongly encouraged to do so.
Now I thank God for the courage of those feminists. I can’t imagine going back to how things were. We still have a ways to go, and I do hope we soon have women representing us in government and business in the same percentages as our presence in the population. Over fifty percent, please.
I’ve had some amazing and surprisingly prescient ideas over the years. I’ve had some truly boneheaded ones, too, to be sure. But the good ones stayed with me. They were solid, marketable ideas with the potential to make serious money.
In my early twenties, I’d finally mustered the courage to leave my first husband after three years of his cheating on me with anything in a skirt and daily dressing downs about how stupid and ugly I was. (Low self-esteem issues. Read my previous posts in this category.)
I had no money. No savings. I made close to minimum wage. I didn’t even own a car when I first left the husband. (We were broke—he came from a poor family as well.) I knew no one, not even my nuclear family, with any influence, money, or power. No one took me seriously anyway, as I was a pretty blonde who didn’t go to college. So therefore, I was easily dismissed as fluffy and flighty. (The why no college is another story to tell.)
Twice I dared to write up business and marketing plans and got up the courage to broach the subject with an acquaintance I’d met through work. The first time I was laughed at and utterly humiliated by comments like, “What would you know about it?” and “You can’t do that.” The inference being that someone else could, just not me.
A couple years later, I worked as a bookkeeper for a mom & pop lumber yard and hardware store in Honolulu. The owner was a portly white man in his sixties. He and his wife seemed to be good people who treated me like I had some brains, which I so appreciated.
I had a brilliant idea for a store. Yes, it was brilliant. The idea still holds up today. I’ll tell you why in a little bit. I mustered the courage to talk to my boss about it, telling him just the basics at first.
He appeared to give it some thought, then acknowledged it might be something. I was jumping for joy inside my head. He suggested we have dinner after work one night to talk about it more. Now, I wasn’t put off by that, because I knew for a fact he did dinners with business associates, vendors, etc., all the time.
A few nights later, we met for dinner in a well-lit, well-known restaurant, so I was under the impression he was taking me seriously. I showed him a few things I’d drawn up and written in regards to the store’s concepts, why it was different, and why I thought it would really take off.
He listened to all of it. Then he put his hand on my thigh and said the things you hear creepy old guys say in the movies. “You know, I’d be more inclined to get involved with this, if you wanted to do something for me.” “I’d love to help you, but the business world is made of tit-for-tat.” Finally, he just came out and asked me. “Do you think we could, you know, do it?” Then he leaned in and planted a gross wet one on my lips. I escaped as fast as I could.
The next day, his wife was giving me stink eye. I felt guilty for some stupid reason. I hadn’t done anything wrong. Hadn’t flirted, hadn’t said anything that would make him believe I’d sleep with him. Had he told her I did? Maybe it was an offensive move on his part, thinking I might show up the next day and rat him out?
I quit that job soon after. Couldn’t stand to be looked at like that. Couldn’t stand feeling guilty for something I hadn’t done.
A couple years later, guess what opened? My store. Well, someone's store. It was almost exactly what I'd laid out and it was a hit. Made a ton of money. I don't know if my former boss had a hand in it or not. But it proved to me my idea was indeed a good and sound one.
My teen years were in the early 70s. It seems hard to believe now, but it was commonplace to tell jokes about how stupid women (especially blondes) were. I was blonde, with blue eyes.
If you grow up around men who denigrate women, however mildly and socially acceptable at the time, you absorb the idea that you are less than. Not worthy of much. I did.
In my forties, I began examining my past to understand why I was so insecure. I’d never connected the dots I laid out for you above. Once I started, more long-repressed memories surfaced, and it became clearer and clearer why I had no confidence in my abilities.
There were two exceptions to my insecurities. The first was—I was, and knew I was, a good mom. I was/am a good cook, hostess, and housekeeper, too. These things I know as solidly as I know that I breathe. It’s not a wonderment that these were my only confidence categories. I was raised to be a good mom, cook, and housekeeper. That was the expectation placed on me since toddlerhood. It was what I was taught at home. I make meals and desserts from scratch. I can sew draperies and clothing. I was taught to embroider, knit, and crochet. I read Emily Post and other columns about etiquette and hostessing hints, ever determined to excel at those things.
One of the jokes that, as I look back was typical of the time, now makes me cringe. As I stood listening to it, I remember clearly laughing along—far too insecure to challenge the basic notion or how I did or did not fit into that description.
So, here’s the scenario. And, remember, this is but one small, isolated incident out of a lifetime of programming and denigration. Not a purposely-done-by-my-parents programming, though. They were products of their upbringing and the societal norms of the time. They were (Mom still is) good people. Amazing people, actually, considering where they came from. They did the best they knew how.
My father and my high school boyfriend—who would become my first husband—were standing in the kitchen with me, just the three of us. I don’t recall what else was discussed, but somehow this joke happened.
Dad said to the boyfriend, “Do you know why educating a beautiful woman is like pouring molasses into a fine Swiss watch? Because everything stops.”
Boyfriend laughed uproariously with my dad. I laughed along, and I remember the glum feeling that went along. It wasn’t outrage or upset on my part. No, I believed the joke was correct. The glum feeling was a tired acceptance—I realize now—that the joke truly did describe my life and all I couldn’t hope for.
It takes a lot of hard work and diligence to dredge up old memories, counter them, and finally understand why and how the deep, deep insecurities were imbedded. Thank God, I did.
About four years ago, I was on a plane seated next to a twenty-two year-old woman. We struck up a conversation. She was bright and funny, and her self-confidence just illuminated her whole being. I was both envious and joyous. Envious, because I so wished I could go back in time—knowing what I know now—and redo some major life choices, so I could be more like her. Joyous, because I knew this woman would never have to go through what I did.
She spoke about her mother , and how frustrated she was with her, because her mother would never stand up for herself, wouldn’t speak out if wronged. I tried to explain it might have to do with how her mom was raised and to find out what she could about that.
As we talked on, she asked about my life, too, and it occurred to me that she might not be aware of what life was like for so many women when her mother and I grew up. I kept it brief, merely saying that I was strongly encouraged to be a wife, mother, and happy housekeeper. And it was impressed upon me that I wasn’t smart enough to do anything else. She looked horrified. I suppose her mother or the women of her family never discussed such things. Mine didn’t.
So, I thought I’d horrify her further by plucking an old fact from my recesses. I told her about the dawn of credit cards. Until 1974, credit card companies denied single women access to the cards. They were reserved for men and married women—who had to have their husbands cosign for them. I remember my parents discussing whether or not my mom should have one for his account.
Well, you’d have thought I told her I ate my children. She just shook her head and said, “No way.”
I went a step further, hoping I wouldn’t insult her, and asked if she knew what women in this country went through to get the right to vote. That it didn’t happen until 1920. Again, she looked shocked. I guess American history wasn’t her strong suit in school?
When we deplaned, I asked her to do something for me—please read up on women’s history and do her part to inform others her age? Only by doing that will they not take what they have for granted.
Why review an award-winning book that's been out since 2000? Because the story & its characters have stayed with me that long. I've reread it since, and I still love it. I'm sure my assessment will fair poorly in comparison to the others who've reviewed it all these years. You should read it, if you haven't already.
Here's the first paragraph of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood:
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.
The story is set in Southern Ontario and spans the life of Iris Chase Griffen in the twentieth century, with most of the action happening in the 1930s and 40s. With her family's affluence and standing diminishing rapidly, her father seems to have zero interest in interrupting the decline, and his subsequent decisions are devastating to his daughters.
What I love about this book: The characters are human - quite flawed - but not overdone. The girls' father is horrible with how he lets them down, but Atwood makes you feel his despair and depression. It's an examination of human tendencies and faults - the truth of how people react to situations, and it hits us where it should. I think because we all have family members who have not risen to the occasion. We get it.
The story is layered, revealed little by little. The Blind Assassin story inside the main story is done so well, the reader is also eager for the respite it provides, along with the characters.
Atwood's use of similes and metaphors is wonderful. The comparisons aren't forced and used only when it truly helps to further convey the mood or situation. 'The leaves of the maples hang from their branches like limp gloves . . .' is one example. There are many.
It's a great read.
Before you complain—please understand I know there are many exceptions, I (and my guests) are speaking of what a large number of women experienced, and we know they are not universal experiences.
I so admire young women today. They’re strong and confident. Traits I wish I had at their age. It’s important for today’s young women to understand what went before and what shaped our lives. Women born in the 50s/early 60s and before were roundly discouraged in so many ways. The blog entries in this category are meant to help us understand each other better.
I was born in the late 50s and grew up in a tiny New Jersey town, where most the moms stayed home with their children. I remember, and can count on one hand, the moms who worked outside the home. Few subjects were ever tackled head-on in my world. I learned what my place in the world should be by inference.
A mom who worked at a paid job got whispered about. Her mom has to work. It was a scandalous thing. The unmistakable inference was they were too poor, the husband didn’t make enough money to support them, and wasn’t that a shame? Clearly, the kid gossip was created by the overheard conversations of our mothers.
One of my friends had a mom who worked. Her parents were clearly way smarter than any others I knew. Her mom actually went to college and had some sort of important job. So did her dad. I felt intimidated when I went to her house. They had a beautiful home, drove way nicer cars, and the level of discourse at their dinner table was light years above ours.
It all confused me. I was supposed to feel sorry for my friend, because her mother worked. But she had really nice clothes (new, not hand-me-downs like mine.) They went on great vacations—even to other countries! My family never went out to dinner. We couldn’t afford it. I can recall maybe three times we went to dinner as a family. Maybe. And we didn’t take family vacations. Ever. Not until I was older and out of the house did my parents take the family/younger siblings anywhere.
But my friend’s mother got whispered about? Looking back, I understand the subliminal—and constant—messages hammered into my brain and how they influenced my (truly awful) decision making as a young woman.
I was encouraged/prodded/expected to marry early, have children, stay at home, clean the house, become a thrifty and clever wife and mother, a great cook, and a perfect hostess. As a teenager, I read etiquette columns with the best hostess-ing hints. My father firmly believed that educating women was a waste of time and money. I grew up believing that was the way it was. When I entered high school, I still harbored a dim hope of becoming an architect. By the time I was a junior, I’d given that up. My dreams and ambitions were finally drilled out of me. All I expected in life was to hopefully marry someone who would take care of me.
Gaining approval was everything to me. I was so needy for acceptance. So, I did what I was told. That did not work out well, but that’s fodder for a lot more stories.
It seems a bit silly to write a review of a book that already has too many to read, but here's my two cents. I also know I'm bucking the popular trend by not raving about it.
I did love the premise & how it showed the parallel lives of two children all the way to the end of WWII. Each from very different circumstances. There have been soooo many books about the war, so this was a very fresh perspective to see it from.
The author did a fantastic job of showing life for the average French and German citizens during the build up to war and during - the ongoing terror of being involved just because you were alive.
What I didn't love was the ending. I won't spoil it, but after all the sadness, tragedy, and ever-grinding stress the characters go through, I think they (and the reader) deserved a little bit happier ending. It didn't need to be sparkles and rainbows, but yikes.
I'm also not so fond of the colons, semicolons, and the endless loose and run on sentences. Yes, I am aware this is 'literary', but 100-150 word sentences that comprise their own entire paragraphs are annoying to read. (IMHO, of course.) I had to keep going back over them, to be sure I understood the author's intent/implication with that sentence. They took me out of the story more times than I can count.
The bottom line is it is worth reading - for the unique perspective alone.
I’ll start with this:
Joanie was sitting on the bus and looking out the window when the truck hit George.
It’s not a compelling sentence, much less a great first sentence. It doesn’t tell us if Joanie actually saw the truck hit George, does it? It uses the boring ‘was sitting’ and ‘looking’ verbs, too.
So—I’ll begin with what I’m trying to say. Here are the facts the author knows, but so far, the reader does not:
Joanie’s on a bus. What kind? School bus. Where is it? Boca Raton, Florida. Where was she seated? Second row behind the driver—window seat.
Who is she? A public school attendee. How old? Fourteen. Where is she going & why? She’s headed home after school, presumably to have a snack & do her homework.
Who is George? A young man from Texas. How old? Twenty-five. Was he in a car or in the street when he was hit? He was running and darted into the street. Does Joanie know him? No.
What kind of truck was it? An F150, black. Who was driving it? An old man. Did Joanie see the accident? Yes.
Where were they when the accident happened? On Palmetto Park Road heading west.
That’s enough facts to get me started with a better opening. I don’t have to use all those facts in the first sentence (or in the first paragraph), of course, but I do want to pique the reader’s interest.
So, second attempt:
Yawning, Joanie shifted in her seat as the school bus jolted over the train tracks and returned to staring out the window.
Okay, it’s better—way better—especially the verb choices, but is it compelling? Starting a book with a yawn may not be the best thing to do, either. Unless the sentence becomes overly long, the action involving George (and other details) now has to happen in subsequent sentences. And that’s okay. But if I want a power-packed first line, this won’t do it.
As Joanie relieved her boredom by staring out the school bus window, a dark-haired man ran from the sidewalk into oncoming traffic, and a huge black pick up slammed into him.
Still ‘eh’. Also starts with an ‘as’. And it sounds ‘passive’—like the storyteller is bored telling it. It doesn’t put the reader into the scene. The reader is merely watching from afar.
Stop for a moment and assess—what are the most important facts to establish?
Joanie’s young. George gets hit. Joanie witnesses it.
I’ll try again:
Bored and tired, Joanie switched her gaze from her phone to out the school bus window just as a dark-haired man darted from the sidewalk into traffic, and a huge black pick up slammed him into the air.
I’m getting close. We know Joanie’s a kid, because it’s a school bus. We know George gets hit. We know Joanie doesn’t know him, or the sentence would use his name—being in Joanie’s POV.
I’m going to add ‘screaming’ to George’s description—to show he wasn’t simply careless. Something was terribly wrong that made him think his only option was going into the street. I’m taking out ‘out’ because it’s an extra word that doesn’t need to be there. We can assume when she switches her gaze to the window that she’s looking out of it. I’m taking out ‘just.’ It’s a word that almost never needs to be there. ‘As’ tells us the action happens at that exact moment.
Bored and tired, Joanie switched her gaze from her phone to the school bus window as a screaming dark-haired man darted from the sidewalk into traffic, and a huge black pickup slammed him into the air.
This works for me. It tells me it’s a normal day. Whether Joanie’s either on her way to school or on the way back (morning or afternoon) will be established soon. She looks out the window in time to see a crazed man running into traffic and get hit by a truck.
To assess, we have to put ourselves in the reader’s head. What questions come to their mind immediately? What question comes first?
I think the first is—what was so wrong that a man would risk running in front of a truck? Then—because of the word ‘slammed’, not ‘hit’—oh, my God, where did he land? Is he alive? The reader is seeing the carnage in their head without my having written a word about it. What was he running from? Was someone/something chasing him?
Next is concern for Joanie, the school girl. No one ever wants a kid to witness that. Did any of the other kids see it? What about the driver? Does the driver stop the bus?
It’s safe to say by re-writing it the way I did, I’ve piqued the reader’s interest, yes? I’ve gotten them involved in the story from the first sentence.
Let’s look at the verb usage. Switched, darted, and slammed. No ‘was watching’, ‘ran’, ‘looked’, ‘changed’ or ‘sat.’ The verbs are dynamic, not boring.
Notice I didn’t say ‘up into the air?’ Directional words are extras that aren’t needed and slow down your writing. There is no other way but ‘up’ if you’re tossed into the air (from Earth, that is), so it’s not necessary.
I used ‘huge black pickup’ instead of F150 because we’re in Joanie’s POV, and most fourteen-year-old girls don’t know or care about truck models. (Your character might, but mine doesn’t.)
I didn’t use the word ‘crazed’ in the sentence, because that’s a judgment call on Joanie’s part, and that’s also telling, not showing. By saying a screaming man darted into traffic, I’m showing that he’s crazed.
Also notice I didn’t describe how anything looked, other than George’s dark hair and the fact the truck was black. We have to put tiny bits of detail into the sentence, or the reader can’t create as full a picture. I picked dark-haired, because Joanie’s fourteen, and she’d most likely notice his hair, as his face might have been a blur, since it happened so fast. The truck’s color is black, because it paints a more ominous picture than a red or white truck, or no color mentioned at all. We don’t really care what anyone’s wearing at that moment, or whether Joanie is black, white, purple, blonde, brunette, or a redhead. Keeping the description to a bare minimum keeps the action going. Details of all sorts can be added in subsequent sentences.
And voila! I have a first sentence. Next time, I’ll work on what comes after.
I believe the only way to get through the slings and arrows life throws at all of us is to find the humor.