At the end of summer in 1996, the celebrated essayist John McPhee lay on a picnic table outside his back door for almost two weeks trying to begin a piece of writing for the New Yorker Magazine. As he writes in the January 14th edition of the magazine, he had never before been faced with writing a piece that had so many components: “characters, description, dialogue, narrative, set pieces, humor, history, science and so forth.”
This article that McPhee calls “Structure,” is a useful one to read for anyone faced with pulling it all together whether it all is an essay of the sort McPhee writes or something longer or even something fictional.
McPhee, who is renowned for pioneering creative nonfiction, writes that he was finally able to get off the picnic table when it occurred to him to begin his piece about New Jersey’s Pine Barrens with the first greeting of a man who lived there and took him on a tour of the forest. The tour then allowed McPhee to touch on all the other Barrens related topics he wanted to include.
So, it took him two weeks flat out on a picnic table to figure out he should begin his piece at what seems like an obvious beginning. But anybody who has ever had to write anything knows how complex these organizational questions can be.
McPhee says each of his pieces is a balancing act between chronology and theme. Time usually wins out so that most of his pieces – but not all – are related in sequence. In the article, he shows (complete with diagrams) how he organized some of his essays. In one, time runs backwards. In another, he uses a tour of a room in an art gallery to upend time all together and write about a man as if parts of his life are hung there but in no particular order.
Before a friend devised a computer program for him, McPhee structured his pieces manually. In one case, he spread thirty-six three-by-five cards out on a makeshift plywood table and left them there for two weeks until they more or less jumped into order for him. Another of his methods involved typing up all his notes for an essay, then cutting them into strips and arranging the strips in folders. Each folder represented a section of his piece so he could open the appropriate folder when he got to that part and write to the enclosed notes.
McPhee’s subject matter has been eclectic, including: the Alaskan wilderness, freight transportation, geology, profiles of well-known people and even, oranges. In his long career, he says he never developed the confidence that he could pull the next piece together: “To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.”
Whether you lie on your table or spread it with note cards, structuring is an important process. There are lots of ways to tell a story and they can make a huge difference to the story being told.