John McPhee discusses chronological structure

Chronology is useful but hostile to thematic content, the writer says.

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You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.—John McPhee, in The New Yorker

“There’s nothing wrong with a chronological structure,” McPhee explains in a recent New Yorker essay. “On tablets in Babylonia, most pieces were written that way, and nearly all pieces are written that way now.”

And yet, after ten years of chronology at Time and The New Yorker, McPhee, who is famous for his intricate structures and says he is obsessed with structure, yearned for a thematically dominated piece. In his new essay, “Structure” (Jan. 14, 2013), he says almost always there is “considerable tension” between chronology and theme, and chronology wins. “The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected.”

You must, he says, find some way to “tuck them in.” In the case of his 1969 profile of an art historian, he was frustrated by how hostile chronology was to content, or what McPhee calls themes: “the theme of forgery was scattered all over the chronology of his life.” McPhee realized something: “A piece of writing about a single person could be presented as any number of discrete portraits, each distinct from the others and thematic in character, leaving the chronology of the subject’s life to look after itself.”

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McPhee’s drawing of the structure of “Travels in Georgia”

McPhee returned to chronology, more or less, for his famous 1973 article “Travels in Georgia,” about a team of biologists collecting road-killed animals and sometimes eating them. It opens with scene not on day one but later, and after that proceeds chronologically: “There are structural alternatives, but for the story of a journey they can be unpromising and confusing when compared with a structure that is chronologically controlled.”

I remember “Travels” also employing a huge flashback section later on that supplies background on its subjects at one’s Atlanta redoubt. But I may be wrong, from faulty memory or because, if you try to trace the biologists’ route across Georgia as presented in the story, it moves confusingly. They ping-pong from one corner of the state to another and—if you are trying to pinpoint their location—seem to make puzzling jumps. Once, about two years ago, after I thought I had its structure figured out, I tried to lead a class through it using a Georgia map and McPhee’s pretty but odd drawing, and we all became perplexed.

McPhee always lets the reader know where the actors are in “Travels in Georgia” but does not ensure the reader knows how they got there, which maybe isn’t important. Most readers go with the flow and aren’t ex-Georgians like me. Yet anyone trying to follow McPhee’s structural diagram while reading the piece may conclude its structure is too clever by half, however great the article—and it is wonderful.

There’s more on structure, a lot more, in McPhee’s chatty “Structure,” another of a series of valedictory essays the octogenarian immersion journalist and (of late) essayist has been publishing in The New Yorker. They’ve made me glad I’m a subscriber even if reading a writer on his structure tends to be only slightly more comprehensible than hearing a politician explain the fiscal cliff.

Still, having written a memoir that’s chronologically structured I rejoice to hear McPhee speak candidly about what a hard mistress chronology can be. We live our lives chronologically, of course, so it’s an easy structure for readers to grasp. But human memory doesn’t work that way—it’s a jumble from which images arise—and neither does our understanding.

In memoir, I realized several years ago, chronology is somewhat hostile to reflection. To say a memoir is chronological is to say, in effect, that it is driven by events; the person experiencing the events is, by definition, comparatively clueless. The tension between chronology and reflection accounts for why so many writers and critics are forever seeking a memoir that can escape the trap of chronology and ignorance and, instead, emphasize meaning (conveyed by a wiser, distanced narrator). And do this while preserving some sort of timeline. That is, to have a modicum of plot.

Bestselling memoirs tend to be plot-driven, while those that achieve the most literary respect tend to be reflective. Trying to bridge this chasm seems cruelly difficult, though it may be more wholesome to view it as a glorious challenge.

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27 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, essay-narrative, journalism, memoir, narrative, NOTED, plotting vs. pantsing, structure, theme

27 responses to “John McPhee discusses chronological structure

  1. Your last paragraph in particular sums it up nicely, but I think it would be fair to say that bestselling books in general are plot-driven, and more reflective ones garner a larger share of literary respect, so I’m not sure that memoir/nonfiction and fiction are all that different in that way….

  2. Your last paragraph said it well–indeed, always a challenge though not always glorious! I have not read McPhee’s original article but will. Thanks.

  3. You’ve certainly tackled a tough subject here, which is why I enjoy McPhee’s pieces, too. I knew co-writing a memoir would uncover difficulties, and chronological structure was the most unexpected and toughest challenge. We had a clear vision from beginning to end, our plot was laid out, yet structure threw many stumbling blocks along the way.

    • Fascinating, Darrelyn. I hope you will write about this if you haven’t yet. It sounds as if you wrestled directly with what McPhee is talking about, or at least the version I mention that’s so challenging in memoir: how to step outside, or aside, from chronology for a moment to muse on the meaning of the events—or sometimes even to just work in background information.

      • Yes, it was the most difficult part. We had to step aside often and move things around, reflect, freak out, and then figure it out. It may be why many writers don’t outline. It’s like making future plans. Joke’s often on us. It’s difficult to explain (and I imagine to teach) because it can be like chasing a moving spotlight.

  4. Hi, Richard, I have to take issue with your statement about a narrator experiencing events chronologically in a memoir as being clueless — because aren’t (almost) all memoirs told from a present perspective looking back? Especially childhood ones or ones removed in time from the events recounted. The narrator is narrating from the wisdom and understanding of the present, not just recounting what happened. And the voice of that narrator can move in and out of the experiential (such as capturing what it felt like to be a child or someone going through the experience) to relate what the writer/narrator knows now. I see that all the time in memoirs. Granted, some are more novelistic than others, but so many memoirs, it seems to me, establish from the get-go that the perspective is the “now,” not simply the “then” of the past experience recounted. The experience is captured, but reflected on to whatever degree from the now not-clueless present, it seems to me. It’s all the internal processing of the experience that comes out in the reflection and makes the memoir worthwhile.

    • I think we’re in agreement, Paulette! I just meant that working out that distanced narrator can be challenging and that strongly event-based chronological memoirs make reflection harder.

      Also, I was just reading an essay in a forthcoming CNF craft book where the writer was saying that trade publishers will not publish memoirs unless they are chronological. Seems an overstatement, but then I tried to recall a New York memoir with a really challenging or unique structure, at least compared with those published by small trade and university presses. Certainly the big bestsellers are strongly chronological and event-based, though the best manage to pull off reflection too.

  5. Hi Richard: I love stopping her to reconsider important elements of craft in memoir. I just finished reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a novel which uses the chronology of a long walk as an opportunity for reflection, so that the larger story is told very slowly, through memories and revelations. Initially it felt a bit forced, but I thought it nonetheless earned its emotional punch in the end when it suddenly rose above the point A to point B structure.
    We writers need structure, and yet in memoir in particular it seems to have little to do with memory. In my own writing, I’m always worrying about readers getting lost in the timeline, but maybe I just shouldn’t care. Maybe I should trust them to sort things out on their own.

    • Some will, Mandy. But I have found that most readers want always to know where they are in time and space, and some demand it and will become furious when it’s unclear. Working in a timeline they can follow without it being obtrusive can be difficult, at least for me.

  6. Great post. I adore looking at, figuring out, and reading about, structure. Love, love, love it.

  7. It is hard to wrap your mind around a story that doesn’t use chronology. Even stories that zoom between past and present, such as Stephen King’s IT, The Grudge, or the first season of American Horror Story, eventually return to a sequence of events that flow in a linear fashion.

  8. Jeez, and to think that McPhee can jump around in time while writing in complete sentences. Pretty amazing. Huh? At least from the couple of dozen McPhee books I’ve read over the years he appears to be in command of his facts; i.e. he doesn’t just make up quotes from famous people. The New Yorker must be inordinately proud of ol’ John McPhee about now.

  9. Reblogged this on thewordpressghost and commented:
    Friends,

    What is more important?

    Plot (structure) or Characters to a story?

    McPhee tells us about the importance of chronological structure.

    I hope you enjoy.

    Ghost.

  10. This is truly fascinating. I just slipped into memoir accidentally (I usually write fiction) and all of this rang true for me. I’m writing about my body as a device/excuse to write about my life, and it’s all coming out in a very organic, nonlinear structure. I may have to mull over and reference what you said in your last three paragraphs, especially. Thanks for this.

  11. loved it! This is so true – The tension between chronology and reflection…
    thanks for your insight!

  12. Life and stories are interwoven with sub-stories. These sub stories wind in and out of the chronoloyg and flow of the tale. We always hope that these stories converege to finish the tale.

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  15. A great challenge of writing is to begin at the beginning, go through the middle, and then finish at the end. A beginning and an end are a nearly arbitrary point. There are story arcs that overlap with story arcs within our lives, that tie into a jumbled mess. Even in my fiction, I find myself expanding both the beginning and the end within my mind, and attempt to focus on a single section.

  16. I remember John McPhee from two of his books – The Curve of Binding Energy and Assembling California. Your post has intrigued me and I am now on a search for his New Yorker essays.

    I particularly like your phrase “the tension between chronology and reflection.” I would think that this phrase applies both to memoirs and to historical fiction.

    • I think the tension does apply to historical fiction, Curmudgeon. And to literary fiction as well; in fact, literary fiction seems defined in large part by its ability and interest in dwelling on meaning.

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