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Posts tagged "index cards"
You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.
I had done all the research I was going to do…. I had read all the books I was going to read, and scientific papers, and a doctoral dissertation. I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.
He likens the process to cooking:1
The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intent to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.
Pre-computer, McPhee started out by typing out all of his notes, leaving blank space after each one. After studying all of his notes, he’d write out elements of the story on index cards, each representing a component of the story.
All I had to do was put them in order. What order? An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood—thirty-two square feet—on two sawhorses. I strewed the cards face up on the plywood. The anchored segments would be easy to arrange, but the free-floating ones would make the piece.
And then it was time for the scissors:
After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size. If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders. One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladder line on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood. If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.
It’s interesting to note that McPhee usually has his beginning and ending in mind when he starts writing. How does he know when he’s done?
When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.
- How Rebecca Skloot built The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
- LOOPER’s borrowed story structure
- Lawrence Weschler’s building blocks
Funny to contrast McPhee’s cooking metaphor to David Rakoff’s: “Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.” ↩
This weekend my friend Austin and I were talking about writing, and I remembered an interview with Lawrence Weschler in The New New Journalism in which he talks about building with wooden blocks while he’s thinking about the structure of his articles or books. Here’s the passage, after he’s talked about his idea-gathering and information collecting:
Are there any activities that help at this point?
Two things. One is that I read a lot of novels. Writers like Larry McMurtry and Walter Mosley are especially good. I’m sort of like a bicyclist riding behind a truck: I want to get into the slipstream of that other narrator’s narrative. To get the feel of narrative, to be on the road, to remember what it feels like to tell a story.
The second thing I do is play with blocks. I have a very large collection of wooden blocks. Some of them are my own invention, and some of them are just rectangular.
These blocks belong to your daughter?
No, my daughter is not allowed to play with these blocks. They are mine.
And what do you do with these blocks?
Well, my wife, who is an important human rights monitor, and my daughter, who has been off at school, will come home and see the elaborate cathedral I’ve built on the kitchen table. And they’ll say, “We see you’ve been busy today.” And I have! Because although I’m not thinking about the material at all, I am thinking about structure and rhythm….
And how do these block structures get translated into writing?
I’ll be playing with my blocks and find myself thinking, “Hmm, I suppose if I put this part of the story in front of that rather than after it … That might be interesting.” And gradually I start to find formal issues of sequencing. Then I start to notice rhymes that I hadn’t noticed before.
For instance, when I was writing about Breytenbach there was a key moment in his story when he is being arrested at the airport and passes by a window in which he sees himself. I thought about what it might have been like to see himself at that moment. And then I remembered that in one of his poems he had a line about “South Africa is like the mirror at midnight when you looked in it and a train whistle blew in the distance, and your face was frozen there for all eternity, a horrible face but one’s own.” And I thought, hmm, if I put that quote next to that scene …
Now this gets really interesting. This is fun. And at a certain point everything flips around: I’m suddenly magnetized north rather than south, and everything else in the universe except the blank paper before me is north. I’m at my desk, and wouldn’t even notice if the house was burning down around me. And yet, I’m not interested in the material, I’m interested in the form. And the thing that is totally mind-blowing is that elements I put side by side for purely formal reasons turn out to be true about the real world. And this is because beauty is truth, and truth is beauty. It is the same kind of satisfaction that a mathematician gets out of an elegant proof.
Although the process sounds somewhat mysterious, and I’m not sure I would find it helpful in my writing, the important idea—that structuring writing is easier when you turn it into a physical activity—is undoubtedly true for me. I usually use index cards and shuffle them around, but using building blocks or Lego or even drawing a picture would probably work, too. The key is to get things out of your head and into your hands.
(All the interviews in that book are good, by the way, very focused on craft and would be of interest to any writer, not just journalists new new or old.)