We shape [a piece of writing] in order to let it go; the process of crafting the [work], of trying to get everything from line to sonic texture to each individual word just right involves standing back and gaining a greater degree of distance from what we’ve said. [The work] may begin in self-expression, but it ends as art, which means it isn’t really for the writer anymore but for the reader who steps into and makes the experience . . . her or his own. Therein lies the marvel: The [writer’s] . . . limited life becomes larger because readers enter into it.
When I talk shop with other writers, especially about works in progress—be it a personal essay collection, a book-length manuscript of literary or investigative journalism, or a memoir—the conversation invariably turns to matters of structure and shape. Which, to my mind, is the writer’s most essential challenge.
No matter what we’re writing—a narrative, a lyric, or a hybrid of one sort or another—at some point in the drafting process, we know that the manuscript’s success or failure depends upon whether or not we find the shape—that is, the containing structure that best suits the particular work we’re trying to develop.
When I read manuscripts in progress written by my MFA students or by inexperienced writers whose work has been turned down by the good literary journals, I find that many of those pieces have in common one of two problems—each bearing on structure. Either the writer hasn’t yet found the controlling shape or form, or just the opposite—the writer has shaped the work too soon. In the latter case, the writer has already imposed a structure on the work before he or she has discovered its structural and, I’d add, its emotional heart.
It’s a dilemma, I’ve found, that’s common to experienced and inexperienced writers alike. I say this with some authority because in composing the early drafts of what eventually became my memoir Still Pitching, I encountered both problems.
Still Pitching began its life as a collection of personal essay/memoirs loosely connected by the adult narrator’s youthful obsession with the game of baseball. But apart from that obsession, I (the writer) couldn’t find a common thread that would connect all those stand-alone essays into a coherent narrative. So, after about twelve months of work, I decided to scrap the project.
The next version was a chronological story that spanned some forty years, a narrative that grew out of a nagging mid-life desire to go back into the past and speculate on what might have been the most important decisions, people, events, and influences that shaped my present self. I wanted to see if I could explain how a teenage baseball fanatic turned out to be a writing teacher and then a mid-life writer and not, let’s say, a traveling salesman like his father or a pharmacist like his grandfather.
About three-quarters of the way into a working draft, I could sense that the narrative was becoming way too long and diffuse. I didn’t understand it at the time, but by tracking that single, predetermined idea, I’d locked myself into a “this happened and then this and then this,” structure. Something, I know, we’ve all seen (or written) before.
That began to change when, at a manuscript meeting, my editor said, “You’re trying to cover too much ground.” She pulled out a chapter and walked me through a particularly dramatic scene, one in which the adolescent narrator is describing what it felt like to be humiliated by his high school baseball coach.
“Write the whole book,” she told me, “with the same focus, intensity, and feeling as this scene has. Do what you tell your students to do: ‘Write vertically.’”
The scene she was referring to came from the early part of the manuscript, where the young narrator is reflecting on his struggles with a cruel, gate-keeping baseball coach.
As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. After getting over the shock of realizing that once again I’d have to start over again, I began to think about other ways of shaping this narrative.
If I were to title this next segment, it would be “After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?” I say this because after meeting with my editor, I realized that of the 300-plus pages I’d written, only 50 were about childhood and adolescence.
“You claim to be a memoirist, right?” I chided myself. “How can you even begin to tackle the question of how you became the person you are now without going a lot deeper into that material?”
Right. What adult person hasn’t been shaped by his/her childhood and adolescence? My editor’s advice and that late-arriving recognition were the catalysts that led me to re-examine what I was doing.
In less than two months, I’d cut the original 100,000-word draft down to about 25,000 words, all of which roughly covered the adolescent narrator’s struggles with his hard-ass coach. Once I sensed what the memoir was about (and, more important, what it wasn’t about), I could begin to focus on finding a shape that was the right fit—in other words, a structure that would allow me to dig deeper into the narrator’s childhood and adolescence.
“Writing vertically,” as my editor had said, was precisely the advice I’d routinely be giving to my students. So why, then, did it take so long to give it to myself?
That’s when the memoir began to take what eventually became its final shape. It’s also when I started to rely a lot more on my instincts than on my logical mind. I set the body of the memoir from 1947 to 1957, a time period that spanned two major events in the history of baseball. In 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first black player to break the major-league color barrier, and in 1957, two of New York City’s three teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, left New York to form franchises in California. The departure of those two teams not only marked the end of the young narrator’s childhood/adolescence but also heightened his developing awareness of changes taking place in the larger culture.
In addition, those ten tears were also the setting and backdrop for the young narrator’s coming of age. Like so many adolescents, he yearned to fit in, to find a place where he belonged, while at the same time, he wanted to do something he could excel at. As it turns out, becoming a baseball pitcher was that something. And so, the eventual title, Still Pitching.
As I was winding the book down, I thought about the time a long while back when a colleague warned me not to allow a central idea or set of events to predetermine the narrative’s shape. “It’ll shut down your thinking,” he said, “and inhibit the unbidden associations and discoveries you might stumble across along the way.”
He too was right. For all that time, I’d been imposing a template on the book’s design. By shifting the structure from a pre-set chronology of events to a more focused, internal exploration, I finished the memoir in six months, an anomaly for someone like me who normally writes at glacial speed. Funny, isn’t it, how much faster things move when you know what you’re doing.
Perhaps my most important discovery was the realization that before I (the writer) could fashion an adult memoir, I needed to more fully imagine as well as to better understand who that confused kid (the young narrator) was back then. What were his hopes and dreams? What were his deepest yearnings? How, in the larger sense, did his experiences shape the adult writer he eventually became? And what part did baseball play in all this? All of these are questions I would never have considered had I held onto the book’s original structure.
The answer, as it turns out, was that the young narrator’s obsession with becoming a pitcher dominated his childhood and adolescent years. And so, by necessity, baseball became the lens for the adult narrator’s subsequent examination of who he was back then and who, over time, he would eventually become
As I look through this short essay, it’s pretty clear that I’ve written it as a chronological narrative. While chronology might have been the wrong choice for the memoir, it seems to be the right fit here.
And learning to recognize those kinds of distinctions, I believe, makes all the difference.