Ordering Our Work

June 18, 2010

From my research into the creative process, I’ve learned that the most important information we can glean about how writer’s write is to gather information from a writer while s/he’s in the midst of the process.  Most people forget what they’ve been through after they finish an essay or a book unless they’ve kept copious notes in a process journal (which is why I’m such a fan of the process journal – it’s a record of how we’ve worked that we can review when we’re engaged in another project).

So I decided, for this post, to write about organizing a chapter – ordering a chapter – while I’m in right the midst of the process.

I have a twenty-seven-page draft of a piece I’m calling “On the Way to Nowhere, Moving Fast.”  It’s about the tenth draft of this material.

In re-reading yesterday, I realized that the order is wrong – the order is rarely right in my work until I stop, figure out what I have, and pay attention to order at the very end.

Ordering a chapter is something I do at the very end, when the language is polished, when I know that I have all the information in the narrative I want, all the backstory in place.  Ordering a chapter or an essay, for me, is its own separate task that requires me to stop, survey, think, understand, play, try alternatives, play, then plunge ahead and get the thing done.

I’ve learned that not many writers think about order in this way, as something to play with, something to decide upon late in the process.  Many writers settle on the order in which the piece was written, rearranging a few paragraphs perhaps, but not entertaining the possibility that you can pull the whole thing apart and put it back together.

I like to think of it as if I’m renovating an apartment or a house.  What’s there is nice; but I know I can make the space even better.

If you know my work, you know that the order in my chapters (and in my books) is often unexpected, that I use juxtaposition and circularity (breaking a narrative and returning to it later on) to get at my meanings.  Critics comment upon this aspect of my work often.  Some like these unexpected narratives; it drives others crazy, which is great.  An example is how, at the end of my biography of Virginia Woolf, I describe how she sat down down to write her first work after I describe her suicide.  Why?  I didn’t want to end my book with Woolf drowning; I wanted to end it with what she did for her whole life – write.

I’ll describe how I’m working right now so that perhaps you can use this as a model to play with ordering your own work.

Today, I’m in the middle of finishing the chapter in the book I’m writing about my father called “On the Way to Nowhere, Moving Fast.”  It’s about his first tour of duty in the Navy during the 30s, about his family’s life before his enlistment (necessary back story), about his hopes in joining the Navy, about the event that necessitates his leaving his household, about the state of the United States during the 30s, and Hitler’s rise to power in Europe.  There’s a lot more packed into this chapter – how his parents met, a few photographs from the time, a sea journey my father made.

As you can see, there are a lot of “moving pieces,” as I like to call the various chunks I’ve written.  I need, now, to think about how they can best be rearranged to make the biggest impact on the reader.

So….

This is a nearly complete draft that I’ve been working on for some time.  I’m calling it the tenth draft, though there may have been more.  It’s essential, when I’m thinking about order, to only think about order, not about phrasing, not about whether the work needs more backstory.  (One thing at a time.)  This is not something I do at the beginning of the process, though I might think about order every now and then throughout.

Earlier this morning, I outlined all the chunks in the narrative.  I read the piece through, from beginning to end, and listed what I have. I learned that I have thirty-four strands of meaning in a twenty-seven-page narrative.  That’s a lot, but they’re all necessary.  There’s not an enormous amount of “showing” in this particular chapter; there’s a great deal more artful “telling,” which is why there are so many strands of meaning.  That’s a choice I’ve already made.

Here are a few of the chunks I have:

1.  father enlists after family fight (p. 1)

2. he tells me about it when he’s old (p. 1)

….

23.  joining service unusual for someone from his background, suspicion of government (p. 14)

24.  his passionate love for sea, for ships (pp. 15-16)

….

33.  last visit to mother before he enters Navy (pp. 25-26)

34.  formal portrait in uniform taken in Newport and what mother does with it (pp. 26-27)

Okay.  So, now, my “Successful Outcome” for today’s work (and perhaps tomorrow’s and the day after’s) is:

“On the Road to Nowhere, Moving Fast” organized in a somewhat unpredictable way to allow the reader to understand why my father enlists in the Navy, its significance, what it means to him and to the family; chapter organized so that all of the meanings are not fully revealed when a strand of meaning is first taken up so that a deeper understanding of the players in the piece comes as the narrative progresses.

The few “Next To Dos” I’ll be undertaking are: 1) find a good beginning; a good ending; material that might go near the “turn” of the chapter – at about page 12 or 13; 2) find an alternative to the beginning, ending, “turn”; 3) freewrite about the effect of structure #1 and structure #2.

An aside: I always think very carefully about the beginning and end, yes.  But I think carefully, too, about the “turn” in the work – that place where the set of meanings in the work shifts.  This is one of my “secrets,” so to speak.  Use it.

I’ve learned that not many writers have learned to think about their work this way.  Instead, many write and write and write, and then kind of throw their pieces together, hoping for the best, often choosing the simplest structure – chronological – because they’ve not learned how to find a more complex structure for their work.  I think this is because of lots of bad teaching that misrepresents the process.  (Many writing teachers don’t write every day, which is the only way a writing teacher can stay honest.  Would you take painting lessons from a painter who doesn’t paint?)

Thinking about order is “meta” thinking; it’s thinking about our writing.  It calls upon a different set of skills than simply writing, a set of skills that can be taught.  When I’ve taught student writers to think in this way about their work, their chapters aren’t “lockstep.”  They don’t march from one event to another to another in chronological order (although there’s nothing wrong with such a structure if we choose it after thinking about what’s best for this particular work).  They weave in and out of strands of meaning that make their work, well, astonishing.

To astonish the reader.  To amaze the reader with the structure of the work.  To keep the reader slightly off guard so that s/he has to actively engage the work to make sense of what’s happening. That’s what I like to do, that’s what I hope my students will do, and playing with order is how to do it.

Now, back to my list, back to my chapter.  I’m curious about how it will turn out.  While I’m working, I’ll be thoughtful, yes, but at some point, I know I’ll start working intuitively.  I’m excited to see how this will turn out.  And if I’m excited, maybe the reader will be too.

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