Tag Archive: lede

Forty-One False Starts and the Choice of Introductions

Introductions are difficult to write in part because of the possibilities. Do you begin with an anecdote, a question, a quote, or a startling fact? If you do choose an anecdote, which one works best?

One reason I enjoyed reading Janet Malcolm’s essay, “Forty-One False Starts,” is its structure as a series of strong introductions.

Malcolm had interviewed an artist, David Salle, multiple times in his New York City studio. The essay discusses him, his art and reputation, and avant-garde art more generally. Each “false start” is a wonderful way she could have started the piece about him.

That this essay is a series of introductions also resonates with the subject matter. Malcolm plays with the structure of the essay, and she plays off of her subject, Salle, who never stops to revise. Once he starts something a certain way, he pushes forward. As Malcolm writes in Intro #4:

During one of my visits to the studio of the artist David Salle, he told me that he never revises. Every brushstroke is irrevocable. He doesn’t correct or repaint, ever. He works under the dire conditions of performance. Everything counts, nothing may be taken back, everything must always go relentlessly forward, and a mistake may be fatal. One day, he showed me a sort of murdered painting. He had worked on it a little too long, taken a misstep, killed it.

In contrast, Malcolm has stopped and revised. She’s started over and over. (Or is each introduction is a ‘murdered essay’ that she abandoned? Is her whole essay a graveyard of murdered essays?)

“Forty-One False Starts” shows different facets of Salle and the NYC art scene. It’s also interesting to consider what a writer could do with each of the introductions (or ledes). If you were to choose one over the other, how would the tone of the piece change? What would be different about the details you focus on or the flow of the story?