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The Tribal Knot

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The Best Shape and Form for Your Writing


“I’ve just exposed the skeleton of a big squid-like essay I’ve been working on,” my friend Cecile Goding said in a recent letter. I love Cecile’s metaphor. I imagine her struggling to hold a slippery, many-legged creature over a photographer’s light table, or cutting it open to search for its vestigial shell.

Most pieces you write have an innate structure, but the structure may not be visible at first. If you’re struggling to expose the skeleton of a piece, try visualizing a physical shape the piece seems to resemble. For example, a poem that starts with a specific incident or anecdote, then moves to a general idea, is shaped like a triangle; if it starts wide, with a general idea, and then tapers to a specific point, it’s an inverted triangle. An essay with two time periods running side by side is like the parallel tracks of a railroad. A story with three separate segments can be seen as blocks stacked on each other, while a story with three interwoven strands more closely resembles a braid.

You can also expose the structure of a piece by imagining its movement. Does it meander like a river, moving swiftly from one idea to the next? Does it gather weight, like a snowball rolling down a hill, as it tumbles toward its conclusion? Does it keeping circling the subject, coming at it from different angles like a hawk circling its prey?

Once you visualize the structure of a piece, you can often revise it so that its natural shape is enhanced. If you discover that a piece has no innate structure or movement, try to find a ready-made form that’s compatible with the work, then reshape the piece to fit that structure. Though some writers find formal structures restricting, others find them freeing. Maxine Kumin says of traditional poetry form that “in a paradoxical way, it liberates me to say the hardest truth.” Howard Nemerov, in a lighter vein, suggests that the use of forms “keeps us from being stupider than the law allows.”

Writing or rewriting a piece to fit a particular form can also rekindle your interest in a subject and renew your energy for a writing project. As Richard Hugo says in The Triggering Town, “To change what’s there is difficult because it is boring. To find the right other is exciting.” The “right other” may well be a new form for your work. Maybe the story you’ve been struggling with should really be a one act play—or a meditation, letter, profile, sermon, screenplay, or song. There are dozens of forms to choose from.

Finding the right form can also help you complete unfinished work and discover connections among the pieces you’ve already written. Several years ago, I found I’d accumulated several short, unfinished pieces which seemed to be part of a larger whole. But I couldn’t imagine what that whole might be. Rereading the pieces, I noticed certain images recurring: chickens, eggs, cherries, babies. I remembered a folk song I used to sing to my youngest sister which contained these same images. The song had three stanzas, and each stanza had four lines. I wrote the first line on a sheet of paper: “I gave my love a cherry that had no stone.” Then I searched through the unfinished pieces and found one that seemed to echo this theme. I wrote the next line on another sheet of paper, and continued the process until I began to see that the song’s lyrics could provide the form I needed to tie the pieces together. It wasn’t an easy process; it took several months to shape the twelve sections into a whole. But when I was done, I had a finished piece to show for my labor. The song had provided the structure I needed to complete the work I’d started.

 Form also provides an external standard to push against. It’s easy to get stuck in ruts, to keep writing the same old thing in the same old way. Form can help you get out of writing ruts. It can raise your writing to new levels, invigorate stale poetry or prose. Borges’s maxim, “Poetry is made out of algebra and fire,” applies to other forms of writing as well. Fire is the passion you bring to your writing; algebra is the form, the craft that helps you shape that passion into a work of art.  As writer and critic Jeanette Winterson says, “It is through the form, not in spite of, or accidental to it, that the most powerful emotions are let loose over the greatest number of people.”

As readers, we respond not only to the emotion beneath a piece of writing but also to its shape. Reading Nancy Mairs’ Remembering the Bone House, I’m first moved by the intensity of her feeling but am doubly moved when I discover the shapeliness of the book: Each section focuses on a different place she lived. A piece of writing that’s found its proper form is a delight to the reader. It says, in effect, “I’m prepared to meet you.” It says that the author has done her work, not only the work of feeling and imagining but also the work of shaping that feeling into an effective form.


Excerpted from Write Your Heart Out