Monday 25 February 2013

Escaping Chronology in Non-Fiction Writing

Some years ago I was teaching a high-school English course to Grade 12 students and the program required that they complete an independent research project. Traditionally, the assignment was to analyze a work or works of fiction of the student’s choice. I asked the students what they thought of the idea of reading a literary autobiography (written by fiction writers, playwrights, screenwriters) and analyzing it as if it were a work of fiction. The idea was met with enthusiasm and the students eagerly sought out autobiographies of their favorite writers, read them and started writing. I was very clear about the assignment, which went something like this: “Choose two or three themes in the person’s life and discuss the way those themes are explored. The themes can be those identified and discussed by the author of the autobiography or that you have identified but the author did not highlight.”
            The task proved nearly impossible for a number of these students, though they were some of the brightest teenagers I had taught. I sat after school with student after student reading and rereading stylistically and grammatically excellent draft after draft, trying to say the magic words that would allow them to release themselves from the grip of the chronological. Perhaps it was the non-fictional status of the events represented in the narrative, or the strong chronological tendency of almost all autobiographies whether literary or not, or perhaps a human cognitive developmental limitation at this age that was impeding them; the more I guided them toward thematic and linguistic concerns, the stronger they embraced the chronological.  
            In an intriguing pair of essays on structure in the writing of non-fiction published in The New Yorker (2011; 2013), Pulitzer-prize winning writer John McPhee explains that battling chronology is the fate of any writer of non-fiction, and especially those who profile individuals. He reveals his words of encouragement to his Princeton students: “A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction” (2013, p. 48). But first one must take on the challenge of the chronology. Even fictional accounts do not present each event in the order that it happens. He argues not only that countering chronology can and should be undertaken, but gives very clear instructions on different ways in which he accomplished just that over the decades in his writing and particularly in non-fiction pieces published in Time and The New Yorker
          In the earlier essay, “The Writing Life: Progression: How and What?” McPhee discusses the idea explored over 160 years ago by Edgar Allan Poe in recounting his beliefs concerning how he came to write “The Raven.” Poe structured the poem not by a concatenation of images, logical argument, or plot, but following an abstract formula. He started with a tone: melancholy. He wanted a refrain of only one word. He wanted a particular vowel-to-consonant combination in that refrain. “Nevermore” was apparently the first word that came to mind to fit his very abstract bill.
            McPhee claims that in two of his biographical pieces he tried something similar. He calls these “abstract expressions in search of subject matter” (2011, p. 39): his “double profile” project simultaneously profiled two American tennis champions the week of their U.S. Open finals match. As McPhee puts it, such a structure allows 1 plus 1 to equal more than 2. It also breaks the dominant chronology of one life through the juxtaposition of two lives within the stricture of the narrative of the match itself.  Another project employed his “ABC/D” structure, in which he profiled an ardent environmentalist, “D” from the perspectives of a dam builder, a mining geologist, and a resort developer, even shooting the rapids on the Colorado River with his subjects to see how they interacted. The multiplicity of perspectives may not definitively prevent chronological presentation of events, but the abstract plan prevents a chronological presentation from being an easy undertaking at the very least.
            The abstract plan allows the writer to explore the very images and suggestiveness that drew him to the project in the first place, while freeing him from the need to include details whose interest lies only in their cognitive bridging for the reader. Indeed it is the writer’s belief in the necessity of that cognitive bridging that must go, according to McPhee. The writer can successfully avoid chronology in profiling an individual just by presenting “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” (2013, p. 50). McPhee’s commitment to trusting the reader to make those connections is expressed forcefully in an interview in The Paris Review in 2010: “You look for good juxtapositions. If you’ve got good juxtapositions, you don’t have to worry about what I regard as idiotic things, like a composed transition. If your structure really makes sense, you can make some jumps and your reader is going to go right with you. You don’t need to build all these bridges and ropes between the two parts” (2010). One of the ways he enhanced his chances of creating such juxtapositions earlier in his career was by grouping his notes on each event into a separate file folder. Each folder was represented by an index card which was then arranged and re-arranged on a large sheet of plywood. Such a system would make it more work to order the events chronologically than to group them in other more aesthetically interesting amalgams.
          Another way in which the chronology syndrome may be evaded is to pick a story in which the notion of chronology is meaningless. In the colorfully entitled article “Tight-Assed River,” McPhee chronicled the towboats, the boats they tow, and their pilots as they make endless loops up and down the Illinois River. They leave from no notable city and arrive at no notable city, performing an “endless yo-yo” (2013, p. 55) that is quite unlike a journey from point A to point B. But how often does such a strange writing project come along? 
          Perhaps McPhee’s greatest antidote for dealing with chronology when exploring a life in a written profile, though one which he himself does not identify as such, is strongly recommending that the writer choose a topic which deeply interests him or her. It sounds almost too simple. And yet, if the writer is deeply interested in the material, a chronological rendering of the material should perhaps more often than not impose itself as a kind of inauthentic embodiment of what was integrally compelling about the topic. (How often do we hear ourselves telling a friend “Oh, the order of events in that film was simply breathtaking!”) And where, according to McPhee, does that deep interest come from? McPhee notes, “I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than ninety per cent” (2013, pgs. 39-40). 
          In retrospect, perhaps I should not have asked my earnest and hard-working students to choose a literary autobiography of a current favorite writer. Perhaps I should have asked them to seek out such a work of an author whom they adored as children or early adolescents. Could it be that the complexity and authenticity of the emotional network surrounding the topic would have shielded them from the vortex of chronology in their own writing?

Hessler, P. (2010). Interview with John McPhee.  The Paris Review, Issue 192.       
McPhee, J. (2011). “The Writing Life – Progression: How and what?” The New Yorker, 14 November 2011: 36- 42.

McPhee, J. (2013). “The Writing Life – Structure: Beyond the picnic-table crisis.” The New Yorker, 14 January 2013: 46-55.

Image: John McPhee Wikipedia

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