Order and Meaning

December 10, 2011

Order and Meaning

When I’m dealing with a medical issue, I often let all the “shoulds” with which I usually bombard myself fall away – I should be reading this, or reading that – and I pick up books seemingly at random, rather than by plan, which permits me to get to works I’ve ignored or avoided or forgotten I’ve wanted to read. A writer friend wrote me that she was going to Venice soon. Could I suggest restaurants? Reading material? And I remembered that I’d always wanted to read Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark since I’d visited Venice, and that I never had. I found the book and began to read it lying on a sofa, instead of sitting attentively at a desk with pen in hand. This relaxed way of reading brings, into my life, certain bliss even in times of great stress and strain that I don’t seem to allow into my everyday life. And the obvious question is Why wait for illness? Why, indeed?

So I’ve been reading Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark, that idiosyncratic memoir of his yearly forays to Venice. The book is an arrangement of short meditations on his experience – not a “touristy” approach to Venice, by any means, but an experiential soulful work about the effect of Venice in the winter on a sometime traveler. It’s a seemingly random series of observations and thoughtful ramblings about, say, why he would never go to Venice in the summer; about why winter is so compelling; about how the fog in winter is often so thick that the only way to find your way back to your hotel after a brief errand is to hope that the path your body cut through the fog was still there; about what the inside of a certain palazzos really looks like – the rotting draperies, the corridors filled with middling paintings of ancestor, the smell of must. There is this insight: that in Venice a person “is more a silhouette than his unique features” because of the way the city is constructed, because another person is nearly always witnessed in a narrow passageway silhouetted against a building; the very meaning of personhood changes in such a setting.

In one section, Brodsky writes about his writing, about how, “by the cumulative effect of what I’ve been doing over the years, I am a writer; by trade however, I am an academic, a teacher.” He explains that he has a five-week winter break, and that he arranges his trips to Venice during that time. His interest in Venice was piqued years before when he read Provincial Entertainments, a short novel written by the French writer Henri di Regnier, translated into the Russian by Mikhail Kuzmin. Provincial Entertainments was set in Venice in winter. Venice in winter – “the sense of damp, cold, narrow streets through which one hurries” – sounded like the Petersburg of Brodsky’s youth, and impelled the first of Brodsky’s many wintry visits.

Still, what mattered most to Brodsky when he read Provincial Entertainments was what he learned about craft in reading the work. The novel taught him, he said, “the single most crucial lesson in composition; namely, that what makes a narrative good is not the story itself but what follows what.” Note Brodsky’s point: the single most crucial lesson in composition is not the story but what follows what, not a crucial lesson in composition.

Now Brodsky is a poet, of course, and the matter of what follows what lies at the heart and soul of poetry. But Brodsky’s insight is that what follows what is as important in prose composition too, even though many prose writers might initially believe that the story itself is central. I’ve argued for some time that memoir is more like poetry than like fiction in that memoir’s meanings – at least the memoirs I love – come at the reader by virtue of the what follow what. The writer has paid attention to juxtaposition, that great compositional tool of the memoirist that beginning writers often overlook in their zeal to write “and then this happened and then that happened and then that happened after this happened” instead of writing “and then this happened which reminded me of this other thing that happened long ago and have I ever told you about my very first love?” That is, the “what follows what” can work, for memoirists, by working with the association of memory, with patterns of events rather than sequence of events. This event made me think of this one, and I can’t figure out why, so let me tell them next to each other, and, oh yes, I think I see why that came to me, and I’ll puzzle about it with you, the reader. Not this event followed that one.

Arrangement, order, what follows what. The reason this is so important in memoir is that we live our lives, not only externally – walking down the street, say – but in our heads simultaneously. We are washing the dishes; we are dreaming of a lost love. If we write only, we washed the dishes, we saw a movie, we went to bed, we’re missing the story. We wash the dishes, we daydream of a lost love, we tell the lost love’s story, and when we get to bed, that bedtime scene is infinitely richer for it. The “and then and then and then” narrative would never get to the bittersweetness of making love to the person you’re with just after thinking about the person you’ll never see again.

And so. Brodsky lets us see why he’s arranged his Watermark in the way he has. He invites us to return to what we might have imagined as a random series of insights. He invites us to see what follows what and how it adds to the overall meaning of the work. And so we get Brodsky’s arrival in Venice on a winter wintry night, and he tells us that his first experience of Venice was “the smell of freezing seaweed.” We get this immediate, anti-touristy Venice experience early; we don’t know why Brodsky comes to Venice in winter, not yet; we don’t know what provoked Brodsky to come to Venice in winter at all. All these insights come to us later. Brodsky starts with a visit to Venice, his Venice, in winter, before we get the back-story. The work would have been completely different had it started, say, with his life as a Russian in St. Petersburg, with his reading Provincial Entertainments, with his decision to visit Venice in winter, then Venice in winter.

That would have emphasized the story itself, and not what follows what.

Think about it. The story itself is not the story in memoir, in telling a life, not ever. The story is in how the memoirist, the writer of a life, arranges the what that follows the what.


18 Responses to “Order and Meaning”

  1. Ann Says:

    Thank you for continuing to blog when you can. I look forward to each one. Keep reading on the sofa!

  2. Rosalyn Will Says:

    Hi, Louise,

    I hope you are mending well and are having the kind of deep rest that allows one to feel the vast difference between “being” and “doing.”

    Your current piece is so beautiful! And I remember experiencing a kind of poetic “yes!” sometimes when I was working on my memoir, and listening to those of others.

    My memoir group’s anthology is being printed next week. Thanks to your inspiring teaching, I’ve helped five women between 60 and 80 dare to put their varied and amazing life experiences on paper. As is often the case, I learned as much from them as they did from me.


  3. Julie Raynor Says:

    Dear Louise,
    The “what follows what”. Wow. The shape, the patterning, the arrangement, order, juxtaposition. Or as you so beautifully explain it “then this happened which reminded me and have I ever told you about my first love?” It is being inside the mind of the narrator that fascinates the reader most of all, not what happened to them, but what they thought and felt about it. I don’t think I’ve gotten this right yet. But oh, to understand it! Still learning so much from you. Always, Julie

  4. Hi Louise,
    Your blogs are so interesting, I can’t stop reading. While reading this blog there were many relatable things that I wanted to address. When I am in the process of doing something my mind is somewhere else. The current memoir I am working on is always on my mind no matter what I am doing. I have noticed while writing my memoir that the most interesting parts are when the narrator is talking. The narrator brings the whole piece together to make sense. Your blogs help me learn about my own memoir writing. Also now reading your blog I would love to go visit Venice in the winter. I hope your feeling better.

  5. Charles Says:

    Hi Ms. DeSalvo,
    You made a reference to Brodsky’s work where he’d leave his hotel on a brief errand, but hoped that the path his body cut through the fog were still there to make it back home. Reading this immediately brought to mind my experience with memoir writing and remembering events of the past. I’m in the final days of taking a memoir workshop, and the task of remembering feels like I’m traveling back through thick fog on a faint trail viewing and feeling scenes of my past. It’s been an emotional journey. Memory has taken me places I never wanted to visit again

    • Charles Says:

      (Continued) Memoir has taken me places in my memory I never wanted to go again, but under the guidance of an amazing Professor I’ve come out on the other side of the experience with a better understanding of my past, and a relationship with writing that was near non-existent before. I’m most grateful.

  6. Kimberly Sital Says:

    Hi Louise,
    Your blogs are very inspiring. You talk about missing the story. This is brought to my attention because I have been experiencing problems finding my actual story. I write about events and I associate it with other things that occur in my memoir, but actually finding my story is hold back my writing. Thank you for sharing your thought, I find you to be very insightful.

  7. Mary Ellen Says:

    Hi Louise,

    I am currently finishing up a memoir for a workshop I took this semester. As I am doing so, this piece really helped to add to many of the things we have learned in the class. I had been struggling with my natural tendency to tell a story in a linear fashion, and under the advice of my professor had recently begun rearranging the piece. When doing so, I discovered that I was now able to allow the memories to come together in more of an associative way. Your line – “The “and then and then and then” narrative would never get to the bittersweetness of making love to the person you’re with just after thinking about the person you’ll never see again.” is so perfect, and it is exactly what I have been feeling but couldn’t exactly put into words, that it is the reflection or the meaning of the memories to the memoirist that adds beauty to the story. The way I had been writing was way too “and then and then and then.” Thank you for sharing your insights with us.

    Mary Ellen

  8. Kimberly Bruining Says:

    This is a very interesting piece on how arrangement and order work in both our lives and in memoir. One detail I would like to point out from your blog is that the creation of happiness may be better when it is unplanned. For instance, you mention there were moments where you rather have read books on the sofa than annotating it on a desk. I have also found a similar method to be incredibly helpful for me when I wrote my first memoir this semester. My better pieces of work would appear when I have a cup of tea and sit on my bed. In addition, another striking fact you mention in your blog is the power of arrangement in memoir. For me, this was a struggling concept to grasp throughout my memoir class. It was very difficult to break out of the sequential, chronological order, but I realized how much more powerful “patterns of events” arrangement can have on memoir.

  9. Angelica Says:

    Dear Louise,

    You have such a beautiful way of making things clear for the reader and fellow memoirists out there. At first, when you mentioned the “what follows what” concept I was a little puzzled but the more I read, the more I understood. In my memoir workshop class I find that the order can be such an important thing to consider when writing. I can’t tell you how many times my classmates and I have written a small piece only to have someone suggest the order be arranged. Afterwards, the memoirs just seem to become that much more vivid.

    -Angelica R.

  10. walter Says:

    I find this post very helpful for me because I am struggling with my own memoir writing. Because I write a good deal of fiction and my love for a unique and interesting plot and concept, I find myself consumed and demoralized, trying to do the same using just my memories. Now that I know that this is not the ideal method, I have much confidence that my writing will improve expeditiously. I have you and your tremendously helpful to thank for this moment clarity and understanding of how to go about creating a successful and moving memoir piece, by both example and explanation.

    Walter Skinner

  11. Theodora Venizelos Says:

    Hello Louise,
    I am glad that I read your blog. I am currently writing a memoir for a class, and I find that I am plagued by the idea that everything in my memoir must be told as it happened. Reading your blog made me feel a wave of relief. It is true that our minds can take us back in time, to another place, miles and miles away. Telling the story as it happened is not for the memoirist for the memory does not work like that. We can be thinking of something that happened years ago, only to hear a song that will remind us of something we want to do tommorow. Our memory pays attention to what is important to us, and does not operate in a sequential manner. Memoir must reflect the memory’s attention to what is important to us.

  12. marcpollifrone Says:

    I feel this post. Lately my memoir writing has been associative in relation to my memories and not “the order of the story” so-to-speak. Like you said, you’re doing the dishes, and then you think of a long lost love. When I was sitting down writing my story I didn’t feel compelled, or that it was really even very important, to tell the story in order. I liked hopping around from different periods of time, drawing parallels in different ways.There’s something so boring about A-B-C… I mean, my mind and my memory don’t work in that orderly fashion, why should I try to force them into such a rigid timeline? It doesn’t feel like a very organic approach to me.

  13. Dear Ms. DeSalvo,

    Your entry has not only piqued my interest in reading Brodsky’s memoir but also reverberated a powerful lesson in writing. I’m guilty of piling pages and pages of events, an amateur move for sure, and missing that narrative reflective nuance that great writers execute flawlessly.

    I agree the beauty in memoir writing lies in the juxtaposition of events occurring actively and reflectively in the mind. Where something so seemingly simple, like washing dishes or looking at a painting on a wall can weave another memory, perhaps much more powerful than what’s actually occurring; an awakening moment of the sorts.

    I’ve always personally found the most moving memoirs have that simple profundity, to compel the reader to feel something visceral, to draw that connection.

    all the best,

  14. Peter Orozco Says:

    What an enlightening post. I’m glad I read this so early on in my writing career. I would have spent a long time wondering why my memoir was so bland, but now I realize that it isn’t just about the story, it is also about the arrangement. It makes sense that the order in which you construct your memoir shouldn’t necessarily follow chronologically because that isn’t how memory works. Instead, memory is fragmented and it is up to the one who remembers to make sense of the ordeal. Thank you for this post, it will help with my future memoirs.

  15. Melissa Sutaris Says:


    Arrangement is one of the things that I feel I have trouble with, but then as I read my piece after I write it, or ask others to write it, I notice that the structure isn’t as bad as I thought it was. I think that so many of us are obsessed with order that we forget about the meaning of the order. It’s not about moving chronologically in time, or just telling the story. It’s about how how the story jogs your memory, and HOW you tell the story.

    In the words of Edi Giunta, “it’s not the why, it’s the how.”

    Subconsciously, when we put a piece together, we know what we’re going for. We know what we want to convey to the reader. We may not always see it right in front of us, but as we move certain parts around we realize that they fit better at a different place of our stories. Everything is connected, we just have to do the weaving. And it can take much work!

    Thank you for your insight. Memory is fragmented, and our heads coincide with our lives. Both are always moving at the same time, but not the same pace.


  16. Tamara Gonzalez Says:

    “and then, and then, and then” is exactly how I wouldv’e told a story of my life prior to taking my memoir class. It is such an autobiographical habit to just tell a story rather than relive it. Plainly telling a story in a linear fashion leaves all of the beautiful details out of it that really recreate the memory for the listener/ reader as opposed to it creating just a story. I’m having a tough time now figuring out the order of my memoir. What should go first, last, did i leave something out? All of these thoughts running rampant in my mind and then I come across this post. Perfect timing for me to lay my memoir out like a sheet on a bed and create my vision of the memory i’m bringing to life. Thank you once again Mrs.DeSalvo.

  17. Nicole Leibowitz Says:


    What an insightful post! Thank you! Interestingly enough, we were discussing this concept in our last class. The shaping of a memoir is something to arrange at the end of the piece (or in the final stages). I spoke to Edi about the fragments of images–memories as they tend to flow. They read like a movie reel–a inconsistent flux of pictures that contain emotions that have morphed over time. It only makes sense to arrange these images once the writer can identify the pieces. This takes the pressure away from the structure, which can be liberating for any writer.


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