“Structuring Our Work” by Louise DeSalvo
April 16, 2010
I had lunch with my writing partner Edvige Giunta today. Together, we edited The Milk of Almonds, which was more fun than I’ve ever had making a book. We’d gather in my kitchen, drink coffee, edit pieces, scribble towards the introduction. Often we got “drunk” – Edi’s word – not on alcohol but on the process of working together.
Edi is in the process of writing a memoir about the women in her Sicilian family. She has lots of pages of work – I’ve read some of them, she’s given readings from her work too – and what she’s written is magnificent. But during our conversation today, she and I talked about how she could take what she has, figure out how it fits together, and structure it in such a way that it becomes a book.
I shared with Edi my fetish – or maybe I shouldn’t describe it in such negative terms – about studying the structure of the books I read, whether they be memoir or fiction. Not every book, of course, but a fair number of them. I like to calculate the number of words in them; list the number of chapters or sections; figure out how many words are in each section or chapter; calculate the number of words for each chapter; get a sense of what happens where and why. I look at foreshadowing and repetitions. I study how time is handled and how flashbacks or flash-forwards are used. All this study through the years has served me well when I work with students. For I’ve found that thinking about structure is one of the hardest parts of turning our pages into a book.
Anyone can write pages, I’ve learned. But it takes a special skill – one we have to learn, or have to teach ourselves – to turn our pages into books. Unfortunately, not many MFA programs teach this skill. I believe it’s a process that can be taught, and can be learned. It’s amorphous, yes. There aren’t any hard and fast rules for sure (surely not the kinds of rules that those programs for writing screenplays tell you to use). But there are guidelines I’ve developed through the years that have helped me and that I shared, today, with Edi.
Some of this might seem simple-minded, so if you’re way beyond this, forgive me.
It’s important to accumulate a significant number of pages, I believe, before you start thinking like this about your work-in-progress lest it become stultified. (I’m not a real fan of outlines at the beginning, though I am an avid writer of lists of chunks, subjects, moments, etc.) For a book-length memoir, I start thinking like this when I have about 150 to 200 pages of typescript.
So, with each book I’ve written, when I get to a certain stage (when I think I’m just writing instead of writing a book), I stop and make some decisions. They’re not irrevocable, but they give me an anchor, which I desperately need when I’m at the point when I want to chuck the six revisions I have of the same scene out the window.
I think about the beginning, the middle, and the end. Sounds simple, right? But it’s not so easy.
In memoir, the beginning of the narrative isn’t the chronological beginning of the story, or rarely is. It’s that moment in the middle of the story that tells the reader everything he/she needs to know to land smack into the middle of the world of this narrative without saying to themselves, “Who are these people? What the hell is going on?” At the beginning of a memoir, the reader needs to know immediately who these people are and what’s going on. A reader needs to know this by the end of the first paragraph.
I’ve talked to writers who think the reader can wait to find this out on page four. Or five. The reader can’t. The reader will put down our work. The reader needs to know. Now.
I’ve never written what’s become the beginning of any memoir or memoir piece at the beginning of the project. Almost never, that is. Once in awhile it happens, as when I wrote a piece for Kathryn Harrison’s edition of Ploughshares. I heard the opening lines of that piece in my head, about seeing an old boyfriend walking past my parents’ house while I was outside fighting with my kids, and knew immediately that they would be the first lines of the piece. More often, though, that beginning is there somewhere in my jumble of pages. But sometimes it’s something that I feel compelled to write when I’m wondering how I’ll ever turn my pages into a book and I write it in the middle of the process. But when I start thinking “book, book, book,” I like to set myself the task of finding something that’s a little unexpected for the beginning of my narrative. (Think about it. Have you ever met someone, liked them immediately, started hearing them tell you something about their life? Where did they begin? In the beginning of their life story? “Well, I was born in the year….” Hell no. If someone started there, you’d excuse yourself, walk away, and never see them again. How do you become engaged in someone’s life story in conversation? When they land you right in the middle of something fascinating, something somewhat unexpected. So that’s what I like to find for the beginning of a memoir. And that’s what I suggest you find.)
When Edi and I were talking today, I suggested that a piece she wrote for The Milk of Almonds could be rewritten as the introduction of her book. That piece situated the reader in a moment of extreme significance in her family’s garden in Gela, Sicily. It told the reader about Sicily’s history, its relationship to Greece, about the changes that have come to Gela because of industrialization. We see Edi returning to the garden and thinking about her past; we see her thinking about what’s lost, and gained by expatriation. So much about that piece introduces the heart and soul of her book-in-progress about the history of the women in her family and their stories that I suggested she think about revising it. But because her grandmother is at the center of the new project, I suggested she think about a time when her grandmother was in the garden (she’s absent in the original piece called “The Giara of Memory”) and include that material in the prologue or introduction to the work.
So then we started thinking about how many words Edi’s book might be – 90,000, we figured, would do the trick. I suggested that we think about the book in thirds, each third being 30,000 words. I suggested that Edi figure out what would come in the first third; what would come in the second; what would come in the third; what would come last –Edi knew what chunk she’s already written would come at the end. And we both decided easily enough what would come in the middle: one of the key stories Edi’s grandmother told her. I suggested she calculate how many words she’d already written in each section so she knows how many more words she needs to write.
This is when Edi started becoming uneasy, though I didn’t know why.
So then I suggested that Edi take all the chunks of her book, and take them into her dining room table, and put all the chunks she thought would fit in the first third on one side of the table; all those that belonged with the scene we thought would work for the “turn” of the book in the middle; all those that moved towards the conclusion on the right. We weren’t talking chronology, here. We were talking about “circles of meaning,” for want of a better way of describing it.
At this point, Edi admitted she didn’t have “chunks.” She just had one very long document. And this was when I gave her some homework. (Edi and I love to give each other homework.)
I told her to go home, take her very long document, break it into chunks, make each chunk a separate document, give each chunk a “tag name” so she could refer to it and locate it. And print everything out. Then and only then could she set about sorting everything on her dining room table. Then she could see what she has. See what she needs. I guarantee that when she does this, she’ll have “the book” in her head, and that all she’ll need to do (ha!) is carry on until she finishes.
But she won’t be working blind; she won’t be working in circles. And she won’t be working in one very long document.
What I’m suggesting Edi do is how Eudora Welty worked when she reached just about the stage Edi’s at. She’d take her work (hard copy, of course). Spread her chunks out on a table. Move them around. See how they fit together. And when she cut and pasted, she really cut her pages and used dressmaker’s pins to pin them together (Woolf used them too).
So find a table. Get your work. Spread it out. Move it around. It’s a hell of a lot more fun than sitting at the keyboard. And who knows, you just might figure out how it all fits together.