Around the Candy Bowl

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

I think most writers will agree that in its most basic form, structure is about how a piece of writing is put together and which parts go where. And while that sounds fairly simple, we all know that how a piece of writing is assembled can actually be quite complicated. “It’s all in the telling,” we say of a story, particularly a good one. Thus, structure is not just about placement, but about how the telling of that story is conceived of in the first place. And the key to unlocking that telling starts with a vision.

When I set out to write my book Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, which tells the story of a murder that took place in an abandoned colonial settlement in Gloucester, Massachusetts, I had no idea I was going to write about a murder. All I knew was that the early modernist painter Marsden Hartley claimed that Dogtown had changed his life, and that I wanted to use this story to illustrate the power of place. In short, I had a vision of the book I wanted to write and no idea of how to write it.

Dogtown is no ordinary setting. The area and its four-hundred-year history are full of chaos and complexity. Once a thriving colonial settlement, Dogtown became home to some destitute witches and former slaves after the Revolution. By the early 1800s, it was abandoned; it has remained a ruin ever since. The land is strewn with glacial erratics or large boulders that have drawn comparisons to Easter Island and Stonehenge. Like Hartley, the poet Charles Olson was profoundly influenced by it and based his epic Maximus Poems on Dogtown’s two principal colonial roads. Other people also claimed that Dogtown had a major effect upon their lives. Most recently, Peter Hodgkins, a troubled local outcast, claimed that Dogtown was the one place where he felt safe until he brutally murdered an innocent woman as she was walking through Dogtown’s woods one rainy Monday morning.

This was not only unusual, disparate material—and I’m only scratching the surface here—there was a lot of it. The more I learned about Dogtown, the more I became overwhelmed by the question of how to pull all these bits and pieces together into a book. So I experimented. I tried to center my story on the painter. Then the poet. I tried writing about myself, then from the point of view of the rocks. When a potential agent suggested that I move to Gloucester for a year and join a coven of witches and write about my experience, I politely declined. I thought about giving up, but I’m stubborn. I pressed on.

Part of my challenge with finding the book’s structure was that all this material was subject, not story. The story was in this material somewhere, though; I just had to get out of its way. To complicate matters, I also could not let go of my original vision of the painter and his stark images, which had started me down this dark and mysterious path.

The relationship between the vision we have of the book we want to write and the material that comes to make up one’s book is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Jane Smiley once wrote, “If you want to become a writer you must become teachable, that is, to become receptive to the work itself. Your own writing can teach you all you need to know if you do not resist it.” Similarly, your material can teach you the book’s structure if you remain open to what it contains. You must analyze it for relationships and connecting points. If you find none, you must press harder with more research or move on. Along the way, you must continue to trust your original vision and find the points where it can flex because, to paraphrase Smiley, this vision contains more ideas about the story than you have consciously realized.

I eventually devised an A/B/A/B structure, alternating between the murder and the chapters in which I, on Hartley’s trail, carried the lead. But like my pat definition of structure at the beginning of this essay, this is akin to describing a house by its exterior and excluding any mention of its interior details. Even after I came up with this form, I still didn’t know how to fold into my book that four-hundred-year history with its witches, pirates, Indians, former slaves, and ghostly visions that were part of Dogtown’s warp and weft.

Here I may embarrass myself, but I’ll tell the story nonetheless. One day I was banging my head on a table at my writing space over my struggle to find this interior architecture, when a candy bowl full of cheap Starburst knock-offs was sitting in front of me. I reached for the candy and started assigning a theme to each color. I chose red for the murder; purple for the painter and similar characters, such as the poet; green for the landscape; orange for the witches and other lore; and yellow for contemporary characters. I tagged each piece of candy with a Post-it page marker upon which I wrote an element of story, and began moving these pieces of candy around, much in the way that my toddler plays with his blocks. 

Something clicked in that moment around the candy bowl. I was no longer worrying about sinking time into changing a chapter draft again, or overly anxious about rewriting another painstakingly difficult paragraph. Because I was not writing, but was free to move things around with no negative repercussions whatsoever, interesting things started to happen; new connections opened up. This was utterly, wildly idiosyncratic, but it freed me.

I continued experimenting with arranging this candy across the table until an obvious, workable structure formed. The relationships and parallels between the various strands in my story that were part of that amorphous original vision began to take on clarity and shape. All it took to get there was changing my medium to something I could manipulate with my hands and finding a way to think not in words, but in colors and form. Perhaps because my book was inspired by certain paintings, finding my structure this way was a deeply intuitive accident waiting to happen all along.

I made notes on my candy arrangement and transferred them into a spreadsheet where I outlined each chapter in great detail. With the spreadsheet I was again free to move things around without any harsh consequences. Eventually, it became a blueprint for the writing, which, after years of frustration, suddenly flowed fairly easy.

Structure is both abstract and concrete, form and content, surface and depth. The art of finding it lies in staying true to your vision, and in being receptive to your material with a bowl of candy, or whatever allows you to get out of the way of your subconscious. Your subconscious will then teach you what you didn’t realize you already know, and surprise you with additional things that it’s waiting for you to learn.  No matter how you get there, the results will be pretty sweet.