Structure Discovered

The structure of a creative work is discovered, not imposed.  Consider the architect’s mantra, “Form follows function.”  A skyscraper exists because of land limitations, population density, and the nature of business relations; its inherent qualities (its purpose, its limitations) distinguish it from a bungalow or a Carnegie library.  Likewise each piece of prose has a unique being—a focus, an exploration, a heartbeat.  We don’t know when we start if our subject has sharp corners or curves, if it’s solid or fluid, if it needs many compartments or just one.  We discover the container that will hold our material as we discover the material.

How distressing!  Particularly when writers set out on longer projects, they want—even need—a structure to help them get going.  But nothing is more deadly to creativity than a strict plan.  An outline, a story-board or any scheme will only serve a creative writer so long as he or she holds it lightly and is willing to let it go at the first inspiration.  Once again revision becomes a conversation with the story’s will:  You hypothesize a shape for your story, write a draft, and then respond to the shape that has emerged.  “I have become very worshipful of the writing voice and suspicious of all plans and intents,” my mentor Larry Sutin said at the beginning of a lecture on structure.  Here’s Dan Kennedy’s take on it:A lot of people make the mistake of thinking it’s all up to them.  The work itself will start to take on shape and structure as it becomes its own thing…  The whole thing’s bigger than you, you know, so you can relieve yourself of the burden of thinking you’re in control of it.  If you think you’re driving, you’re wrong.  You’re the passenger.  As a matter of fact, you’re not even riding shotgun—you’re in the back seat, man.  Come to think of it, you don’t get to decide if the windows are up or the air conditioning’s on, that’s how much of a passenger you are in this thing.  That’s a truth and a trick.

In my experience most new writers fret about structure too much and too early.  A tentative structure may get us writing, and an undeveloped skeletal structure resides in an idea before we’ve even put pen to page, but generally a piece’s structure manifests itself quite late in the project.  We’re well-served by patience.    –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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