The Shape Of The Story


I love the phrase ‘the arc of the story’.  I see an arrow in true flight, rising high and piercing the target.  A single, loud note sounds (middle C) as arrow and target become one.

Sorting out my story’s arc is not so direct.

I begin with the form I learned in high school, the arc of arrow to target.  For three years and two drafts, I attempt to fit my story into this shape.  It’s a struggle, and I think the problem is me.  A first attempt at writing a book—what do I know?

More than I think I do.  I know it isn’t working.

And less.  I don’t know there are other shapes for a story, and I don’t know I am free to invent a shape.

The name of a book falls into my lap.  Austin Kleon, in his weekly Friday eletter, talks of reading Draft No. 4 by John McPhee.  He talks of how John diagrams the shapes of his stories.

I am a visual thinker. I need this book.

Here is a revelation.  John’s stories are shaped like algebra equations, like maps, like an uncooperative graph line.  Whatever shape fits the story is what he imagines, and then writes to.

Here is freedom.

I go back to my draft.  I picture the story in my mind’s eye.  All the pieces.  All the experiences.  I see how my writing keeps circling a set of themes.  With each circle, I learn something, and carry that knowledge into the next question and the next circle.  A bird rising on the thermals of a summer day.

My story is not the arc of an arrow.  It’s the circling rise of a spiral.

This I understand.  I know the feel of a spiral.  My life moves in exactly this shape, and has always done so.  Of course the story I am writing does the same.

I see how my story builds upon itself, how it begins, moves, and completes.

Again I see the bird rising on the warm summer air.

The view from here is exactly right.

______________________

In this post:

Austin Kleon’s new book is out!Keep Going, Workman Publishing, NY, 2019.  https://austinkleon.com/

John McPhee, bookDraft No. 4: On the Writing Process, Farrar Straus and Giroux, NY, 2017. 

Yesterday I discovered ‘Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide’, by Tim Bascom, on the Creative Nonfiction website.  https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-reading/picturing-personal-essay-visual-guide

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