Mornings in my house run a little bumpier than they used to now that there’s a child in the house. Whereas I used to be able to count on taking my hour to two hours to write before teaching or meetings started, now there is a tiny despot capable of reshaping the day’s opening based on what’s in her tummy, on her face, or in her diaper.
I had a particularly grouchy start (for baby, and therefore, dad and me) last week. The baby was slow to wake up, my husband hadn’t started breakfast while I was walking the dog, it was 7 am and we were already off track for the day.
Quickly, I started slipping into catastrophe mode—now I’ll never write today! Bah! I’ll never finish this article! The power of beginnings had snuck up on me.
In the field of literary studies, my institutional home, the wonderful scholar Peter Rabinowitz has this to say about the power of stories’ beginnings and endings:
“If you ask someone familiar with Pride and Prejudice to quote a line from the novel, the odds are that you will get the opening sentence. Similarly, most readers of The Great Gatsby have a stronger recollection of its final image than most of the others in the text. This is not because those passages are inherently more brilliant or polished or interesting than their companions. Rather, out of all the aphorisms and images that these novels contain, these gain special attention because of their placement.”
The same might be said about the stories we tell ourselves about each passing day. Which means, in turn, that our feelings about a given day may depend on how it starts and ends.
For me, and, I’d suggest, for most writers, creators, or really any one, this means it’s important to do some meaningful work on both ends of the workday.
Even on grumpy baby mornings, I find I’m typically pretty good at salvaging at least a half hour of good work at the start of the day. What’s harder, and I don’t think I’m alone here, is putting a good end cap on the day—the more workaday version of Fitzgerald’s lovely last lines ("So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."—pretty good, no?). Alas, I tend to spin out into email checking and social media goofing in the later hours of the workday.
But this is a real lost opportunity. Thinking in Rabinowitz’s terms of story, just a little quality writing or artistry in the afternoon (or whatever your meaningful labor of choice is can) means the difference between the story of day that just stops and one that concludes.