Monday, March 14, 2011

Bones and Shooting Stars

The structure. The structure. The structure. I have the story, the characters, the themes, the whole all, but how to put it together? What is the shape, where are the bones?
This is something hard to teach and hard to find for oneself. It's a reason even great writing teachers can't quite pin down what to do. You can take a story handed into a workshop and, in the case of how I approach it, make a few chiropractic adjustments, but that doesn't change the basic structure. That's something that comes up from a writer's depths--be they the depths of intellect or of feeling. Finding a structure is crucial. When an author always uses borrowed structures, a book often founders--not in the reading, but in the writing. The writer needs to feel held in place by her own skeleton.
One of my most sobering writing books is The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and Practice of Writing. It really makes you laugh and cry to dip into this volume. The guy is scary smart, and very moving. Included in the book are prefaces to some of his novels and stories, which read like very sophisticated versions of "Hey, did you get how the house is supposed to look like a face?" He wants you to see what he did, and get how great it is. Sweet! The intros are deeply brilliant and illuminating, and they do add to the work, but they also make me laugh. For example, here are a couple of sentences to his introduction to What Maisie Knew.

Sketchily clustered even, these elements give out the vague pictorial glow which forms the first appeal of a living "subject" to the painter's consciousness; but the glimmer became intense as I proceeded to a further analysis. The further analysis is for that matter almost always the torch of rapture and victory, as the artist's firm hand grasps and plays it--I mean, naturally, {NATURALLY!} of the smothered rapture and the obscure victory, enjoyed and celebrated not in the street but before some innermost shrine; the odds being a hundred to one, in almost any connexion, that it doesn't arrive by any easy first process at the best residiuum of truth.

Okay! So it's not just me who finds this hard. That's a relief! I shouldn't settle for that first easy process--I knew it! Darn, back to the drawing board. I do want to find the best residiuum of truth--who doesn't? I'm tempted to copy out every word of this, because it's both wild and a great teaching tool, but because I can't type and for reasons of blog decency I'll skip down. Later in the essay James recalls his original idea for The Pupil. 

...I perfectly recall...every aspect of the original vision, which struck me as abounding in aspects.  It lives again for me, this vision, as it first alighted; though the prime inimitable flutter, the air as of an ineffable sign made by the immediate beat of the wings of the poised figure of fancy that has just settled, is one of the guarantees of value that can never be re-captured. The sign has been made to the seer only--it is his queer affair; of which any report to others, not as yet involved, has but the same effect of flatness as attends, amid a group fathered under the canopy of night, any stray allusion to a shooting star. The miracle, as miracle it seems, is all for the candid examiner.

This is why it's hard to teach. This vision of the whole, the structure, is queer and individual. Many people have the vision, but then there is the understanding of it, and its execution.  Not for the faint of heart, this writing stuff.

But oh, this Henry James is so so lovable! Having picked this book up again to refer to for this post, I am drawn in. He's so serious. Reading these introductions makes me think of the wonderful bit in one of Virginia Woolf's diaries where she says the problem with Lord Byron was that his wife didn't laugh at him enough, so he became Byronic. I laugh when I read this stuff, even though I am completely enthralled. What a little pumpkin pie, that Henry James.

The point being, the bones. Every work of fiction must have them, and so they must be searched for, excavated from below the themes. Or spotted as a shooting star. Whatever. I finally found the bones for my book, and pretty clever they are. Or so I thought until I mentioned it to someone who said the fatal 'have you read such and such?' That doesn't scare me like it used to. It's the marriage of structure and material that becomes an original piece. As long as its queer, it's going to be okay.


  1. Sigh. Love me some Henry James.

  2. I found that creating a structure for my memoir was a lot like pushing during birth--a stage I was wholly unprepared for since our doula focused on the importance of breathing during contractions. And so it was when I wrote the first draft of my memoir. I realized I had good scenes but virtually no structure at all and no idea how to solve my problem. I ended up copying the idea of fifteen robust sections from Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin and went from there. Thanks for this post, Alice, very valuable, although I had to read the Henry James excerpts five times to get a clue what he was talking about.

  3. Nancy, I have really come to believe in learning from others in the way you describe. I like the practice of literally copying, too, to understand what an author really did--understand it in the body. The Henry James essays are wild, nothing like them. You feel like you ran up and down a mountain when you finish one. Yes, these small quotes don't begin to say what he says, but his arguments are so long and tight they are difficult to excerpt. Thanks for getting in touch here.

  4. A glorious and useful blog post. I'm going to get that Henry James volume! Thank you.