Me, Myself, I: Idiosyncrasy and Structure in Nonfiction

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

To begin, a confession: structure baffles me. This confession proves as true for essays or books as for wood or brick. My hammer drives crooked nails; my Ikea furniture wobbles. Perhaps once in decades of writing have I found a structure in a first draft and stuck with it. Mozart, I’ve heard, could look skyward and see the construction of his scores unfold. When I look up, I see clouds—gray and indistinct.

Once, I asked a poet, a formalist, Do you take pencil in hand intending to write a sonnet—or whatever form? Do you say, “Today, I will write a sonnet”? No, he answered. He wrote his first lines without thought to form, then examined what had just arrived on his page. He studied the shape of the lines, their rhythms, the logic and argument of the subject, then decided what form those lines and subject evoked. If they looked like a sonnet, he tried a sonnet. If they looked mostly like rhyming couplets, he tried rhyming couplets. Those early lines and subject matter were only his material—the sculptor’s marble block—and that material suggested the shape the poem might take.

This essay deals with structure and literary nonfiction, but the poet’s answer suggests that no matter the art or genre, material plays a role in structure. For someone like me, who finds form befuddling, this leads to more questions. What is the nature of that role? What is its scope? How might it work? How might it work, especially, given that the material of nonfiction is some actual thing—a murder and a place, or five teenagers’ coming of age in a troubled city? This is real stuff. It has its own shape, the way everything—a shoehorn, a sunrise, a street protest—has a shape.

Bruno Schulz, a Polish-Jewish art teacher and writer murdered in 1942 by a Nazi, is best known for fiction. But he has this wonderful, Bruno-Schulzian thing to say about shapes and reality. It has to do with reality’s ever-changing form, and it helps explain what nonfiction writers face when considering the influence of material on structure. The material—reality (that shoehorn, the sunrise, the street protest)—isn’t static. Reality, as Schulz writes, “is in a state of constant fermentation, germination, hidden life. It contains no hard, dead, limited objects. Everything . . . remains in a given shape only momentarily, leaving this shape behind at the first opportunity.”[i]

Adding a Kafka reference to his vision of reality’s shape-shifting, Schultz goes on: “One person is a human, another is a cockroach, but shape does not penetrate essence, is only a role adopted for a moment, an outer skin soon to be shed.”

So, form or structure, like a snake’s skin or our own, is impermanent, but essence is always the same. Consider how the essence of a person remains unchanged whether that person is hammering a nail into a wall (one form) or feeding a child (another form). What is true of people is also true of things, processes, any reality at all. This understanding gives me, as a nonfiction writer, permission to consider a variety of shapes to explain whatever reality I see. Subject matter suggests a shape, yes, but shape matters less than essence. Shape is artifice, a way to get at essence. Shape can be a product of my mind at work.

This is not to say that shape is arbitrary or immaterial. It’s not. It matters how nonfiction writers arrange their subject matter, because that organization—that structure—is central to how we seek meaning in our subjects. Marion Winik, for example, in her tender work, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, organizes dozens of loved ones and acquaintances—all dead—into small, neat essays, a graveyard of people for whom she is often the only link, planting chrysanthemums over this plot, telling jokes at another. Winik does not arrange her dead chronologically by expiration date. Rather, brothers might lie side by side, or the memory of a friend who was an addict may remind her of  another.[ii]Glen Rock’s structure reveals Winik’s mind organizing her dead as if each is a question about living and dying, as if she might find meaning—even in her own death, whenever it comes—if she just arranges her dead in a proper order.

So, structure is artifice. In nonfiction, it’s how a writer seeks meaning through arrangement of a shape-shifting reality. These conclusions make sense, I think, because they mesh with what we know is a defining element of literary nonfiction: idiosyncrasy, those qualities that make us peculiar, eccentric, unique. What makes literary nonfiction literary nonfiction is individual sensibility.

To peruse a bookshelf, though, might leave an impression that idiosyncrasy in nonfiction has to do with voice. On my shelf, I find writers praised for voices that are “unflinchingly personal,” “quirky and delightful,” and “refreshing.” But isn’t structure idiosyncratic, too? Doesn’t each mind seek meaning in a different way, arrange the living room furniture—or an essay’s paragraphs—to suit personal needs, whims, tastes? Similar material suggests one arrangement to Marion Winik, while suggesting a radically different form to Joan Didion. Winik’s meditation on dying involves four dozen or so short essays about as many deaths; Didion’s, in The Year of Magical Thinking, focuses on one.

Combine these assertions, and we can argue that how we shape our material is a defining element of our work, maybe even the defining element.

But if structure arises out of our idiosyncratic selves, what benefit can one nonfiction writer gain by studying the oh-so-individual structures of others? If structure in your nonfiction is all about you, how can that help me? What will studying your thumbprint teach me about mine? Moreover, that material we’re arranging? In nonfiction, it’s often us: our thoughts, experiences, our journeys toward meaning, idiosyncratic subject matter piled atop idiosyncratic structure. Other writers’ works seem unlikely to be successful blueprints for our own.

An example: I love Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, D. J. Waldie’s lyrical study of the Los Angeles suburb where he grew up and where he lives. But the book is so idiosyncratic in structure and material, I’ll never write anything like it. Waldie, known for shunning cars and walking to his day job, built his book to replicate the pattern of houses that make up his neighborhood. Reading the short, numbered chapters—316 of them over 179 pages—mirrors the act of walking past address after address.[iii] Clearly, Waldie’s singular mind is at work seeking meaning through a structural arrangement suggested by his unique material and life. Would a writer who drives to work have translated that suburb the same way?

Nevertheless, I study Waldie and others, because their idiosyncrasies reveal an astonishing array of possibilities for arranging my own material, most of which I’d never otherwise consider. Some I might not use, but others might fit my purposes with slight alterations. Perhaps the more important benefit is the reminder that when the writer and material both exert influence on structure—when neither dominates the other—the work achieves a power and grace I want in my writing.

When I began what became House of Good Hope (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), I let the material dominate the structure. My subject was the coming of age of five friends from my hometown, young men who wanted to escape their grit-and-broken-glass neighborhoods for college, then return to help restore them. That’s what I wrote. Nothing about me. Just them, mostly chronologically. Though the friends proved interesting subjects, the manuscript’s structure was as unartful as the transcribed minutes of a city council meeting. Prodded by friendly readers, I added a section about me. That didn’t work, either, proving to be a sixty-page-long diversion from the book’s main focus. Not until I threaded my story through theirs did the book’s structure gel. Not coincidentally, that’s also when I realized that the five friends and I shared a quest. The book had found its form—and its meaning.

Other times I’m too much in control of structure, ignoring the needs of the material. I have a friend who crafts beautiful essays in which she braids disparate ideas with associative links or emotions, lovely stuff. Recently, inspired by her work, I attempted that structure. You will never, ever read that essay. My subject, an intense morning in my neighborhood involving federal gunmen and an innocent man, didn’t lend itself to the associative, diffused logic of a braided essay. The material, to my mind, wanted another form, which in my experiment I had ignored. During a second draft, I learned that the material wanted to stay focused and tight and tense, mostly chronological with a few flashbacks. I respected that suggestion, and I’m happier with the result, which I hope, like the best nonfiction, seeks and perhaps finds through its structure the essence of some shape-shifting reality; in this case, what happened that morning—not only in my neighborhood, but within me.

[i] Bruno Schulz, “An Essay for S. I. Witkiewicz,” in Polish Writers on Writing, ed. Adam Zagajewski (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2007), 33. (Essay translated by Walter Arndt and Victoria Nelson.)

[ii] Marion Winik, Glen Rock Book of the Dead (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2008).

[iii] D. J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: W. W. Norton), 1996.