On Structure


So thinking about writing structure, what is the best way to visualize it? This train of thought arose because of a revisit to John McPhee’s “Structure.

Impressive: he had the luxury of spending two weeks lying on a picnic table to visualize a single article.

The most helpful parts of the article are the diagrams in which in he illustrates the organizational methods and hence his writing process. Of course the structure in each fits the subject matter: “A Roomful of Hovings,” about the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, resembles a stroll through a room at the museum with signposts on the wall.

The map for “Travels in Georgia” resembles either a coiled snake or a snail, appropriate for an essay about his trip in around the state. Perfect for the subject matter.

The one that continues to puzzle is “A Fleet of One.” (He never mentions the title in the essay on structure.) It’s the account of a cross-country trip in a big rig. McPhee provides a geographic map captioned “Truck Stops Generally” with little red dots in Georgia, Tennessee/Kentucky, Wyoming, and Oregon.

The structure map includes “OWL,” “SP SD TTS.” McPhee explains the former as “Oregon Washington Lead” and SP, etc., as “Snoqualmie Pass to Tacoma Truck Stop” as the ending. In other words, he began and ended the narrative in the same place. I assume he placed the ending notation next to the opening because of geographical proximity. Or maybe not. I was Alice at the bottom of the rabbit hole – running fast just to stay in place. I still haven’t figured what some of those other words and abbreviations mean. “Bioperse” does not appear in the text. Why do four abbreviations have “+” next to them, while the others don’t? Plus it’s not clear how this structure suits the narrative.

Despite the mysteries, or maybe because of them, I find this article inspiring and worth re-reading.

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