“[. . .] original work fashions a form the true shape of which it discovers only as it proceeds [. . .] Only when a paragraph’s role in the context of the whole work is clear can the envisioning writer direct its complexity of detail to strengthen the work’s ends.”
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, 17
I’ve found the task of fashioning a text about “fashioning a text” to be daunting. All that assembling of examples, all that composing and decomposing and recomposing of sentences and paragraphs, all that anxiety about when, or whether, a sense of structure would emerge on the computer screen. If you’d been looking over my shoulder, you would have had displayed before you the very challenge we’ve assembled here to discuss, the challenge of fashioning one particular text despite having fashioned (or stumbled through the construction of) any number of other texts in the past.
I agree that discovering a work’s shape is central to the drafting or composing process, that there is (I hope) an essential connection between my material and the forms it takes, yet I’m hard pressed to explain not only when and how I decided what those forms would be but also whether the decision was mine or was thrust on me by forces beyond my conscious control. Since you can’t hear italics, I’ll emphasize that the word “conscious” here is italicized.
I subscribe to ideas Christine White raised in her essay “Reflection Rag: Uncle Joe, Roberto Clemente, and I,” where she suggests that “synchronicity”—meaningful coincidences not obviously related—led her to write the essay. She relates how her uncle’s death brought her in touch with the composer of “Roberto Clemente,” a rag about the Pittsburgh baseball player who died on her birthday when she lived there. The composer tells her, “Synchronicity is built into our reality, and there may be no such thing as coincidence.” Christine refers to the musical term grace notes, which she calls, “unexpected blessings that pass by so quickly we take them for granted unless we listen very carefully to the music. Grace notes, like synchronicities, are really little miracles.” It’s a good point. Rather than a vision of structure, I think those barely noticed, subliminally acknowledged synchronicities or grace notes are what trigger our expeditions in search of whatever they connect us to, whatever is inside us that impels us toward this subject matter or that theme or that dilemma.
Many writers have reminded us how chaotic and unpredictable the composing process is: Joan Didion claims, “I don’t have an outline or a logical sense of where to begin. I just start and hope things will fall into place. It kind of emerges as you go along”; Arthur Miller finds writing “like being in a dark cave. You don’t know where the walls are [. . .] You have to sense the limits of where you are, what you’re doing and where you’re going.” Other writers assert that each work you create teaches you only how to write that work, not how to write any subsequent work. With some qualifications, that feels right to me. Whatever idiosyncratic forces inspire my need to write about certain subjects, most of my structures grow out of work in progress and vary with the material; they’ve also benefitted from literature I feel some affinity with.
What makes us choose to write about topics that no one else has any interest in writing about is something important to pursue, to hash out with the work in progress. The structure you end up with has to serve the needs of the material you’re working with; you can’t ask the material to serve the demands of a structure that isn’t in sympathy with it. Joan Didion says of work-in-progress, “Nota bene: It tells you. You don’t tell it.” William Stafford describes an artist as “someone who lets the material talk back.”
The synchronicities that ignite the scattered synapses in my brain very often link to my penchant for wandering outdoors, my reading of literary nonfiction about place, my curiosity about composing processes and craft issues, and my lifelong disability as an introvert who can’t stop writing. When those things meld, my writing steers me in particular directions and is liberated by intuiting affinities with other writers’ works. These works don’t exactly give me a template or a formula to follow, but they nudge me, sometimes firmly, in the direction of structures I might build on. For me, in writing about place, touchstone works have included Ivan Doig’s Winter Brothers, where he explores Puget Sound guided by a pioneer’s diary; Richard Holmes’s chapter in Footsteps about following Robert Louis Stevenson’s travels in the Cévennes; and Patricia Hampl’s Spillville, where she wanders Iowa in the path of Dvořák. Many of my own essays echo those kinds of writings, as I attempt to inhabit places made real to me in the texts of earlier writers like Thoreau, E. B. White, and Louis Bromfield. We all absorb something about how to write by reading the writing that fascinates us, that touches some instincts and impulses in us—the kind of synchronicity that is unknown to us until we feel the electric charge of something we’ve read. When that kind of charge leaps across a gap to meet the charge from something you’ve experienced, you may begin to intuit both subject and structure.
I’d found the 1848 journal of Ruth Edgerton Douglass in local archives and transcribed, annotated, and edited it to teach myself historical editing. By the time I published it, my level of commitment to it had far surpassed the limits my publisher imposed on my edition. Committed to a fuller accounting of Ruth’s life and times, I found myself writing my own book about what I discovered and what it meant to me. The structure of my book followed the chronology of her journal—she was in distinct places at specific times of the year—but I didn’t visit those specific sites in the order she wrote about them. I braided scenes from her 1848 narrative with scenes from mine in the 1990s and added historical and biographical background throughout as a third strand. Eventually I had to lead both of us to a finish beyond the last date in her journal—she died in childbirth a year and a half later—and here’s where Joan Didion’s claim, “It tells you,” seems so relevant. I had returned to Isle Royale, where her journal ends, to do some final scouting around and to give a public reading from her writing. Moved by the occasion, I wrote that night of “sending the last of her words into the evening air” and having “brought her back to the only place where I can fully imagine her being.” “Tomorrow, when I leave the island,” I wrote, “I will begin my voyage away from her.” That was a discovery for me, not only what I felt there, but also that the book would end on the island, which isn’t where she died or where I lived, and that I’d come as far as I could in my research and my wandering on her behalf.
When I wrote those words and had that epiphany, I was months away from writing the final chapter. I have no idea how the book would have ended if I had not had that epiphany on the island. Now I knew how the book would end, and once I knew that, I had to pay attention to how I led up to that chapter. The writing told me where it had to go, and I was duty bound to make sure it got there. When you reach a point where you sense that the writing will get you to a place you need to be, even if you have no idea where that will be, you have to keep on, trusting what the writing will tell you.
Let me take you through one more, somewhat more painful example. My recent memoir, Happenstance, began as a random cluster of radio essays about childhood that I wrote in the 1980s; they inspired the idea for a family memoir that I researched on sabbatical in the 1990s; by the early 2000s I had gathered a lot of genealogical and geological and historical material. I imagined that the structure would be based on the five levels of the Erie Canal Locks in Lockport, New York, where I grew up, and I loved the working title: Locks. I didn’t exactly know what would fill those five sections, and I was slowly coming to realize that none of my research had drawn on my life, in spite of this being a memoir.
Luckily, I’d felt that kind of electric charge I mentioned before while reading certain idiosyncratic memoirs: Volcano by Garrett Hongo, A Family of Strangers by Deborah Tall, Just Breathe Normally by Peggy Shumaker, The Meadow by James Galvin. All these books modeled, in various ways, structures built around short associative segments, and suggested a way to outwit the endless free association insisting that every single thing that ever happened in my life was too important to leave out of my memoir. Taking a cue from Carl Klaus’s daybooks, My Vegetable Love and Weathering Winter, in which he wrote an essay a day for a year, I decided to write a journal entry a day for a hundred days, each focused on some moment in my own memory. I started out well, surprised by what memories rose up to be written about, but on the eleventh day my father died. I stopped writing.
Seven years later, when I started teaching at Ashland University, I decided that I’d wimped out on the project and that, if I would be teaching other people to write memoirs, I ought to finish mine. I continued writing the Hundred Days entries, kept interrogating family photographs in short items I called Album Entries, and began a series of reflections about the chances and choices that had shaped my parents’ lives and my worldview. I abandoned the locks structure overtly and made choices about where things went on a chronological arc, with sections determined by stages in my parents’ marriages. I thought of the book in terms of a medieval altarpiece, a multi-paneled polyptych, relying on juxtaposition and association, resonance and reverberation, to move narrative and reflective strands forward. In a polyptych you have to pick and choose where you position each image and how it relates to other images. It’s like stonework, like building a wall by placing rocks by their shape and their size, by how steadily and smoothly they fit up against the other rocks around them. Those other writers—Hongo, Tall, Shumaker, Galvin—all implicitly sanctioned this kind of braiding of disparate strands. In the end I had a prologue-like section titled “Before”; five numbered sections braiding Hundred Days, Album, and Happenstance entries; and an epilogue-like section titled “Beyond,” vaguely honoring that old idea of building the book on the model of the Lockport Locks.
The book has been published now. Its title is Happenstance.
In retrospect, I might have chosen to call it Synchronicity.