The Life We Learn to Lead as Writers

After my last post, on the units of structure Shakespeare employed in his plays, scenes arranged as diptychs and triptychs, I thought I’d continue my thoughts on structure in writing by quoting a prose poem by the poet David Ignatow, titled “The Life They Lead”:

“I wonder whether two trees standing side by side really need each other. How then do they spring up so close together? Look how their branches touch and sway in each other’s path. Notice how at the very top, though, they keep the space between them clear, which is to say that each still does its thinking but there is the sun that warms them together.

“Do their roots entangle down there? Do they compete for nourishment in that fixed space they have to share between them, and if so, is it reflected in their stance towards one another, both standing straight and tall, touching only with their branches. Neither tree leans towards or away from the other. It could be a social device to keep decorum between them in public. Perhaps their culture requires it and perhaps also this touching of branches is to further deceive their friends and associates as to the relationship between them—while what goes on beneath the surface is dreadful, indeed, roots gnarled and twisted or cut off from their source by the other and shrunken into lifelessness, with new roots flung out desperately in a direction from the entanglement, seeking their own private, independent sources. As these two trees stand together, they present to the eye a picture of benign harmony, and that may be so, with both dedicated to the life they lead.”

What does this have to do with structure? This prose poem offers us visually two trees, standing side by side in a symmetrical arrangement, the view we have of trees day by day. But there is another symmetry, a secret diptych: the branching system above ground is echoed by the branching root system below ground. The two systems roughly mirror each other, and it is instructive to remember that every tree we see as we go about our daily lives is really only half that tree.

So, we have the benign pairing of trees above ground, the more fearful symmetry of the trees below ground, their roots competing for sustenance. Two seemingly peaceful and yet warring trees can of course be seen as a statement on the tug and pull of human relationships, on how psychological tension balances collaboration. But this seems to me to also be a good model for structure. Writers try to build, through chapters, stanzas, and sections of a short story or essay (every imaginable variation on Frost’s tennis net, really), something of tensile strength that will hold a work of the imagination together. But because it is a work of imagination, such an endeavor is not so simple. Held within the parts we fit together is a world of human ambiguity and conflict, a root system of potential chaos and entropy. The tension between the two is the life we learn to lead as writers.

We all know how messy writing can be, how guessing and chance, in addition to simple due diligence through an intractable problem, gets us to where we need to go. But through the mess of creation, structure somehow does get its say. Just as, in Ignatow’s prose poem, those chaotic, competing roots below the surface eventually grow a graceful tree. Patterns do begin to emerge. Yet the structures you choose should be as individual as your own creative vision. I’d like to emphasize this point by turning to our little friends, the ants.

There’s a myrmecologist named Walter Tschinkel of the University of Florida who has developed a peculiar specialty: He pours a gooey mixture that resembles dental plaster into ant nests; when the mixture fills all the passageways of the nest and then hardens, he digs away the surrounding dirt and is left with the architecture of the ant colony. It’s an ingenious way to study the structure of ant societies, though perhaps we shouldn’t dwell too much on all those drowned ants preserved within his plaster-like pastes.

What Tschinkel discovered is that every ant species builds a different shaped nest. They each have “a specific nest design, and each builds from a particular set of rules,” as Jack McClintock states in a Discover magazine article. A particular set of rules that build a specific design . . . sounds a lot like Shakespeare’s manipulation of scenes into combinations of diptychs and triptychs.

Each ant colony is a formal, planned shape, built to contain the teeming life within. This particular ant nest resembles an underground tornado, a seeming chaos of design slimming down to a narrow base:

This nest, in contrast, resembles a far more staid series of steps going down:

It reminds me of the chart Italo Calvino worked up for his novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler—but only after he had written the book.

All structure leans toward elegance, I believe, even when it might at first seem a little lop-sided. Examining closely a book’s architecture will reveal much of its meaning as well. One example is the structure of Yann Martel’s first novel, Self, which I mentioned in my previous post. Another example is the story collection A Song for Nettie Johnson, by Gloria Sawai (winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award), which is dominated by the novella-length title story (and by the way, how can anyone not love a book that ends with a story titled “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts”?).

Sawai’s novella that begins the collection (and clocking in at ninety pages it’s nearly a third of the entire book) is a tale of two damaged people who somehow manage to create a working relationship, as if their two separate internal limps balance each other out (two trees, anyone?). Religion and art and the imagination also figure largely in this title story, and it seems as if Sawai at first sets forth the grand themes of her work in this novella so that the eight shorter stories that follow become variations, as if we’ve left the larger lake and are now making our way through the winding tributaries.

We build our books in much the way different species of ants construct their underground homes, with an astonishing variety of invention. And so the shape of our stories and poems and essays become personal mirrors that reflect our secret selves.

 Go to post page

March 23rd, 2011 by admin

What’s Structure Got to Do with It?

More years ago than I like to count, when I was but a first year graduate student in creative writing, I came upon a slim volume in a bookstore titled Shakespearean Design, by Mark Rose. I pulled it off the shelf and gave it a glance, because I was taking a summer literature course on the Bard and soon found myself deep in a book that would influence me as a writer for the rest of my life.

Not many people know this, but Shakespeare never divided a single play into five acts. As Mark Rose notes, “In Shakespeare’s lifetime not one of his plays was published with any division of any kind.” And yet all his plays, as we know them today, go hummingly about their business from curtain rise and act one on through to act five and curtain close. These divisions were added to the plays many years after Shakespeare’s death.

So if our greatest playwright never tinkered with five acts (or any acts), what sort of structure did he use to shape his narratives—surely he didn’t simply scribble away?

It turns out he was influenced by late medieval and early renaissance diptych and triptych paintings. Think of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, as an example of a triptych (click to enlarge),

and here’s an example of a diptych painting, by Hans Memling:

In both forms, the individual painting can stand alone, but is given greater meaning and context when seen as part of a series. And in his plays, Shakespeare used the diptych and triptych as his basic units of structure. Here’s a diagram Mark Rose has worked up for the opening of King Lear:

Here’s a classic triptych structure, with the brief prologue and epilogue framing a much larger scene in the middle. Notice how the first and third scenes have very nearly the same number of lines, creating an elegant symmetry, while their very briefness is juxtaposed with the large court scene, the one where Lear has a fit and divides his kingdom. Also, the prologue and epilogue are private scenes, where characters gossip or conspire, in contrast to the grand public spectacle of the middle scene.

Shakespeare was never one for cookie-cutter regularity, and was more than capable of interesting change-up when it came to framing scenes. This next diagram is from Othello:

Here Shakespeare uses an arch form to shape the narrative, two framing diptychs that surround a central scene. Again, notice the elegance of how the paired scenes (Iago and Othello; Othello alone/Iago alone) are nearly the same length. And it’s the center scene, Iago’s discovery of the handkerchief, which sets off the drama, the single act around which these two characters’ fates will revolve.

Rose’s beautifully written analysis is filled with smart diagrams like the two above, and reading through the book one gets a sense of the infinite possibilities of structure, how manipulating the placement of small units can lead to a greater whole. And once you’re clued into these Lego-like building principles, you can find them in many different art forms. The Fourth String Quartet by the 20th century composer Bela Bartok, for example, has a structure nearly identical to the opening of Othello:

The first and fifth movements share musical themes and material, as do the second and fourth movements, and the middle movement stands apart, its eerie musical material particular to itself. One could see this as a kind of rhyme scheme: ABCBA.

This arch form was an influence on the structure of my second book, The Art of The Knock, though I built mine out of seven sections. David Mitchell’s magisterial Cloud Atlas employs a grand version of the arch structure, which can be read as: ABCDE F EDCBA, an arch, but also an elaborate triptych.

We structure our fictions, and we also structure our memories. Sven Birkerts, in his marvelous book The Art of Time in Memoir, describes the “time frame” of Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception. Wolff begins his memoir with the sudden announcement by phone, as he’s vacationing in Narragansett, of his father’s death, then employs the bulk of the book to tell the narrative of his life with his father, and then ends with a return to the site of Narragansett. Another triptych.

Yet must structure always aspire to symmetry? Yann Martel’s first novel, Self, serves as an effective counter argument. The novel is comprised of only two chapters. The first is 329 pages long. Chapter two is a single page. It’s hard to imagine a more lop-sided diptych than this, but that final second chapter more than holds its own with its bulkier companion.

Did any of these writers have their structure set in mind from the beginning? Maybe. I like to think, though, that these various shapings come about through the writing. If conceived of too soon, a structural plan could easily turn constricting. But if an architecture arises from the thicket of writing’s multiple discoveries, then it gives shape to what might otherwise remain amorphous.

 Go to post page

February 23rd, 2011 by admin