Trajectory of the Narrative
August 24, 2010
Where the piece begins. Where the piece ends. The trajectory of the narrative.
I know I’ve talked about structure before, but I’ve just finished writing, revising (many times) a piece that, until I had two trusted readers take a look, I didn’t realize that what I had at the beginning pointed the reader in a direction I wasn’t going. And what I had at the end confused the reader completely.
Let me explain.
I’m talking about the piece about my father’s first tour of duty in the Navy, from 1935 to 1939, a tremendously important time for the development of naval aircraft and aircraft carriers. My father served on the first carrier built from the keel up, and so, in a small sense, his work was a part of naval history.
So, where did I start the narrative until my readers’ responses? Not with my father in the Navy; not with my father in basic training. I started it with me in high school asking my father a question about Pearl Harbor. My father is looking at TV news; it’s when Israel invades the Gaza strip. On and on I go about my father, his watching the news, him telling me that the first shots of World War II weren’t fired at Pearl Harbor, but earlier, in 1937.
Okay. A good story; pretty good, the way I told it. I get across my father’s obsession with the news; I get across that he’s dangerous; I get across that he was in the Pacific in 1937. But I wasn’t thinking about my poor reader.
And then, to compound the problem, I ended the piece with a pretty terrific vignette about my father in the nursing home thinking he didn’t contribute to the war effort and the aide working with him telling him he did. That’s nice. But I wasn’t thinking about my poor reader.
Beginning, end, trajectory of the narrative.
What I’d done was confuse my reader. I intimated that the piece was going to be about World War II or the beginning of World War II (I start there, I end there), when in fact the piece is not about World War II at all, but the build-up to World War II — a fascinating narrative — which I write about throughout the piece.
So there my reader is, hanging out with World War II in their heads, because of where I began, waiting, waiting, waiting for World War II (she has to be going there; that’s where she started). And because they’re waiting for World War II, I’ve invited them to ignore the heart and soul of the piece — my father’s role to the build-up of World War II.
Now, if I can get this tangled this far into a book, my umpteenth book, it’s worth reminding myself — and all of us — to look very carefully at the trajectory of the narrative.
Dear reader, I thought I was finished. But my readers didn’t. So I put the piece down, thought about it, then, all of a sudden, I realized what I’d done.
The beginning was a kind of smoking gun — start somewhere and never really get back to what you set up in the beginning of the narrative. The truth, too, is that I’d spent about a month researching the material I used for the beginning, and was married to it. (Remember that advice: Kill your darlings.) I reluctantly realized it had to go, or at least, it had to be pulled from the beginning.
Which I did. So I started, instead, in a far more — to me — pedestrian place, with some artful (I hope) telling, about my father’s basic training, and how he becomes a man-of-war’s man. (I’d tucked this essential-to-the-establishment-of-the-piece information in the middle of the version I sent to my readers.) And I pulled the ending out entirely — it’s sitting on my desk, waiting for the actual World War II chapter — I’ll use it, I know, just not now.
So what did I learn?
I learned that if you like tricky designs like I do, braids of meanings weaving in and out, you better help your reader figure out where you’re taking them. I hadn’t. Until my readers read, I was writing for myself. That’s fine, that’s great, that’s where we begin. But it took handing over my work to two brilliant readers to realize that my design was deeply flawed.
Realizing something is deeply flawed is good.
And here’s an anecdote from knitting to tell you why.
There’s a famous knitting designer — Sally Melville, I think it was, or it might have been Elizabeth Zimmerman — who talks about unraveling a mistake you’ve made. She says that lots of knitters let mistakes stay; but that you might as well pull it out and reknit. She says that what you like to do is knit, so pulling out a mistake simply means that you have more, not less, knitting to do!
What we do is write. Realizing that our work is deeply flawed is a good thing because it gives us more writing to do. What we don’t do is throw the whole thing away (what some knitters tend to do with projects with problems; what some writers tend to do with projects that readers suggest need work). What we don’t do is beat ourselves up for not getting it right. What we do is roll our sleeves up and get to work.
So now, my piece starts, I think, in the right place: with my father at basic training. And it ends, I think, in the right place: with a buddy telling my father not to reenlist but to go home, find a wife, have babies.
Is this trajectory right for the piece? I think so. But I’m waiting for my readers to get back to me.