Structures and Techniques

Posted by Michael on May 14, 2013

By Helena Rho

Sometimes in life, you can’t fight your training. 

When I was a pediatric resident at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, I trained with infectious disease specialists, who insisted on referring to antibiotics by their simple, generic names not their flashy, trade names.  Cephalexin not Keflex.  Ceftriaxone not Rocephin.  It is the equivalent of saying Ibuprofen instead of Advil.  After all these years and even after leaving medicine, I still say Cetriaxone not Rocephin.

When I started my MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh, I “trained” with Lee.  Lee is a structure guy.  He even taught a class called “Structures and Techniques.”  And Lee loves John McPhee, the master of structure.  In talking about McPhee and structure in “Travels in Georgia,” Lee would say that McPhee liked to work in a backwards “E”:  Start the story somewhere in the middle or near the end and go back to the beginning before completing the narrative arc.  If you traced McPhee’s structure like a drawing, a lopsided, backwards letter “e” would emerge.  Lee demonstrated this phenomenon on the blackboard once in class.  After three years of listening to Lee talk about structure, I became a disciple of structure. 

I think about point of view, voice, character, language, scene and story when I write.  These are all important things for a writer.  It is Cheryl Strayed’s voice that carried me through Wild.  It is Tracy Kidder’s point of view that intrigued me in Mountains Beyond Mountains.  It is Joan Didion’s simplicity and elegance of language that I loved in The Year of Magical Thinking.

But it is structure that I obsess over.  I can’t begin to write a story until I know what the structure is.  For me, the beginning is key.  Where does the story start?  Where does the point of that backwards “e” begin?  Do I choose the chronological beginning?  Or do I start the story near the end?  Once I know where that backwards “e” begins, I can write my story.  Because I have structure. 

John McPhee wrote about his legendary structure in the January 14, 2013 issue of The New Yorker, suitably entitled, “Structure.”  He begins the piece with the image of himself lying on a picnic table almost paralyzed by fear in the summer of 1966 because he did not know how to start a piece for The New Yorker.  He writes, “I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.”  It gives me comfort to know that John McPhee struggled with writing, just like every other writer.  McPhee found his way out of his conundrum by following a “structural outline” he learned from his high school English teacher, Olive McKee:  “The idea was to build a form of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs.”

This is what McPhee has to say about structure and what he “hammers” into his Princeton writing students:  “You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure.  You can build a structure in such a way that causes people to want to keep turning pages.  A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.”  McPhee elaborates, “The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner.  You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.  If something is red and globular, you don’t call it a tomato if it’s a bell pepper.  To some extent, the structure of a composition dictates itself, and to some extent it does not.  Where you have a free hand, you can make interesting choices.”    

As writers, the choices we make with structure affects the whole piece.  Structure can determine where scenes go, where facts are placed, where characters are fleshed out.  Structure determines what is extraneous and what is necessary to the story.  Decisions about what is left out or what is left in are dictated by structure but they are also determined by the choices that the writer makes.

McPhee also talks about what I call the tyranny of chronology:  “Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins.  The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected.  They want to draw themselves together in a single body, the way that salt does underground.  But chronology usually dominates.” 

McPhee talks about structure based on chronology and structure based on themes.  “Travels in Georgia” is an example of structure based on chronology.  McPhee writes, “As a nonfiction writer, you could not change the facts of the chronology, but with verb tenses and other forms of clear guidance to the reader you were free to do a flashback if you thought one made sense in presenting the story.”  His illustration of that particular structure looks like a perfect spiral—I like the lopsided backwards “e” better.

According to McPhee, “A Fleet of One” is an example of structure based on themes.  Until 2002, this is what he believed to be axiomatic:  “journeys demand chronological structures.” But in trying to write about Don Ainsworth and a cross country journey in a sixty-five-foot chemical tanker, McPhee says he reversed “a prejudice”:  “In telling this story, the chronology of the trip would not only be awkward but would also be a liability.”  So he wrote “A Fleet of One,” using a structure based on seven thematic sections. 

But he still used chronology in his structure based on themes.  McPhee writes, “The lead would be chronological (rolling westward), and after the random collection of themes the final segment would pick up where the first one left off and roll on through the last miles to the destination.  Thus two chronological drawstrings—one at the beginning of the piece, the other at the end—would pull tight the sackful of themes.” Perhaps McPhee can’t fight his training either. 

The very structure of McPhee’s “Structure” is based on the theme of different structures that he uses in his writing.  But it is also chronological.  He begins the piece on the picnic table in 1966 when he was in his second year as a staff writer at The New Yorker and then flashes back to his high school years before proceeding chronologically through his most iconic pieces of writing.  McPhee ends his piece with how he ends his writing pieces:  “When am I done?  I just know.  I’m lucky that way.  What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”  In between the picnic table and “done” are interesting facts about McPhee and his organizational writing process—how he started with an Underwood typewriter, typing and copying his notes and then cutting them into slivers that he organized into piles.  Eventually, when he started using a computer, he used it primarily to sort his notes.  McPhee calls his first computer “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”  There are unforgettable characters in the piece—like Howard J. Strauss, the “polar opposite of Bill Gates,” and Kevin Kearney, the software programmer of Kedit, a text editor that McPhee still uses, which is sadly becoming obsolete.  I would argue that the structure of “Structure,” in its most simple and pared down form, is really a backwards “e” but McPhee may have a problem with that.  And I would have to respectfully disagree with the master of structure about his own piece of writing, even as I remain indebted to him for the lessons he taught me about structure.   

I am grateful for structure.  I rely on structure when I despair that I don’t know what the hell I’m writing.  Structure guides my story and shapes it—it gives me a blueprint when I get lost.  I return to structure to make sense of my writing.

You really can’t fight your training.  Especially if it makes sense to you.