I have a strategy as I draw my hand. I want to capture your interest right at the start, so my opening bid must be compelling. I also want to create a quick picture of the subject without giving too much away, so the cards I lay down must convey something of his character and accomplishments, of her time and place.
Sometimes luck is on my side, and I know right away where and how a biography will start. As soon as I read a small piece in E. E. Cummings's book 73 Poems, for example, I knew that my Cummings biography would lead off with some of its lines. Here was the poet writing late in life about being a child in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home. What a perfect way to enter his story, when and where it began:
who are you,little i
(five or six years old)
peering from some high
window;at the gold
of november sunset....
It can work well to start at the beginning, but at times I like to introduce readers to a subject at a later point in life. I had them meet the grown-up Sigmund Freud in his consulting room, analyzing a patient. The appearance of Freud's workplace--the antiquities lining his shelf and the heavy nineteenth-century decor--were clues to his character. Also, I hoped that his open-ended suggestion, "Say whatever goes through your mind," might appeal to readers' imaginations, causing them to think about how they might respond if they were reclining on the famous couch. It's part of the fun of reading about Freud.
It can happen that the ideal opening eludes me, and then trial and error can help, as it did when I was writing Walt Whitman. The first beginning that I wrote for this book had Whitman in Washington, D.C. The Civil War was raging, and he was nursing wounded soldiers in the city's makeshift hospitals. This was a fine opening, really. It showed Whitman involved in an activity for which he is famous and revealed his love for humanity and for America. Whitman's Civil War experiences inspired some of his most affecting poetry, so I had made a good start for this reason as well.
But then, if I listened carefully, I could hear Whitman's voice: "I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence...." Here was the poet speaking directly to me--and to my readers--from New York City in 1855. I knew immediately that this was how to begin, with Whitman composing the beautiful "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." So I scrapped my opening chapter and found the poet within the crowd on that ferry, dressed in his workman's clothes. I made the right choice.
To complete the card-playing analogy, I will say that I play to win. Yet I am anything but competitive, because the one I want most to win, throughout the whole game of writing, is the reader: you.