Dani Shapiro on Letting Structure Reveal Itself
“You don’t know—you can’t know—whether the bricks you’ve laid on top will be supported by the bricks at the bottom.”
I recently had a long phone conversation with a writer working on a first novel. This writer, a former journalist and television producer, had reached a low point. She was intensely frustrated by her lack of progress. I could hear it in her voice. She sounded strained, confused, almost angry at her book, as if it were a truculent child. Why wouldn’t it behave?Structure was her problem, she told me. She had characters she loved and felt she knew well. She was halfway through the manuscript, and had outlined the rest of it, but now she found herself stuck.
At the word outline, I began to see a red flag waving. I had a feeling that I knew the problem. It is common among writers who have been journalists, reporters, editors, business owners, attorneys, or pretty much any career that rewards concise and ordered thinking. It stands to reason, of course, that we ought to know where we’re going before we set out—doesn’t it? The outline serves as a literary form of a GPS. We wouldn’t get into our car and head to an unfamiliar destination without plugging the address into our GPS, would we? We are comforted by that electronic voice—mine is a British woman who always sounds slightly miffed—telling us that our destination is ahead on the right.
Except that when it comes to creative writing—by which I mean the kind of work that the artist Anne Truitt describes as “the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity”—outlines are not necessarily helpful. We need Doctorow’s fog. If we know too much about where we’re going, the work will suffer along the way. It will convulse and die before our eyes. We’ll end up dragging along a corpse until finally, exhausted, we just give up.If we know too much about where we’re going, the work will suffer along the way.
Outlines offer us an illusion that we are in control, that we know where we’re going. And while this may be comforting, it is also antithetical to the process of making work that lives and breathes. If we are painting by numbers, how can we give birth to something new? Jorie Graham also describes Mark Strand’s poems on canvas in this way: “The columns swerve, making these abstract paintings, as in: what makes the shape move is the mind making mistakes, or taking change on, or trying out variations until the right one appears and stills the mind.”
The mind making mistakes. This is what makes the shape move. Such a magnificent idea, and one to hold on to, that the mistakes themselves are what make the work alive. Structure may emerge in the middle, even may announce itself once we’re in over our heads, in the thick of it, having relinquished control. Then, then, the architecture begins to whisper to us. We may have thought we were building a Gothic cathedral, only to find that the shape is an adobe. We may realize that our beginning is not the beginning at all, and that where we are, on page 165, is actually the starting point. We may realize that a minor character has taken over. That the book needs a prologue set 50 years before the story begins. It isn’t always pleasant, when the true structure reveals itself, because it often means a lot more work. You may need to shore up the foundation, or perhaps you’ll have to build an entirely new one.
My husband has a recurring fantasy in which he’s a brick-layer. He finds something immensely satisfying in the idea of laying one brick at a time, not moving forward until that brick is cemented in place. He returns to this fantasy because it’s the opposite of the writing process, which he likens to building a skyscraper in a swamp. You don’t know—you can’t know—whether the bricks you’ve laid on top will be supported by the bricks at the bottom. There’s only one way to find out, and that is to build the thing, regardless.
“Maybe I should just throw my outline out the window,” the fledgling novelist half-joked. I leapt. “Yes!” I nearly shouted into the phone, probably scaring her half to death. But then what, she wondered. Working with no signposts, no game plan is so frightening, is anathema to most of us.
“Do you feel connected to your main characters?” I asked. Yes, she told me. These characters were her whole reason for wanting to write the book. She was deeply invested in them and felt she had to tell their story.
I gave her, then, one of my favorite pieces of writing advice, from Aristotle’s Poetics: “Action is not plot,” wrote Aristotle, “but merely the result of pathos.”
This is not just advice about writing, but about life itself, the whole megillah, the human catastrophe. If you have people, you will have pathos. We are incited by our feelings—by the love, rage, envy, sorrow, joy, longing, fear, passion—that lead us to action. Plot is really just a fancy word for whatever happens, and structure is a fancy word for how it happens. Plot can be as intricate as a whodunit, or as simple as a character experiencing a small but significant shift in perspective. But invariably it comes from the people we create on the page.
If you are creating something real, structure will reveal itself to you eventually. Look—there’s the vista. You lay the bricks. Moments connect. History and heritage ripple through the present. A voice emerges like a strain of music. And then—through the fog—a shape. It may not be what you expected. It may not even be what you hoped for. But it will be yours.
Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing is out now from Grove Atlantic.