|Matanuska River Viewpoint|
In a New Yorker article, Structure, Beyond the Picnic-table Crisis, John McPhee wrote about his struggles over decades to break away from writing about events in the order that they occurred. McPhee explained:
“Developing a structure is seldom . . . simple. Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally 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. . . . But chronology usually dominates. . . .”
McPhee explained that once, when he was struggling with chronology, he spent two weeks lying on a picnic table because the structure wasn't evident for the article he was writing.
I wish I had that kind of time, and the luxury, to spend weeks without interruption or the need for multitasking.
What did McPhee think about for two weeks lying on a picnic table? Did boredom set in? Was he procrastinating?
Would I last for two weeks reclining on a picnic table? I imagine after even a couple hours that the ravens would appear and if this table was in the western U.S., soon the vultures would show up, one or two or a whole flock circling overhead, staring down, calculatingly. In Alaska, within a couple minutes or before you even climbed onto the picnic table, the mosquitoes would assemble, humming en masse, preparing to bite. I also think spiders would drop from an overhanging branch.
I’m not sure that lying flat on a picnic table would help me work out the difficulty with a writing-chronology but the experience would certainly be sensory, and perhaps productive if I carried on with a mental cataloging of my surroundings. I assume the prone position would be on one’s back which introduces some writing difficulties (bring a pencil or an astronaut’s space pen). In any event, with the prolonged exposure to nature, this would be a chance to notice sounds and scents, colors, weather, heat and cold, breezes and winds. Moisture. Fog or rain. Need for gear. Rain coat or tent. Food. What about the food? Is there a cabin nearby? Why the picnic table? Once camping in northeastern Oregon, with family and friends, we settled into a campsite in the forest—pines probably. In the afternoon, we threw our camping pads onto the sandy ground and lay there, studying the sky that held a hint of forest fire smoke, as did the air, until I fell asleep, until my husband Chuck woke me, saying “there’s a scorpion on your shoulder.”
It heartens me to know John McPhee struggled with structure and that he is intent on writing in a less linear fashion.
The chronology can be messed with (as McPhee says) with flashbacks and flash-forwards but to really cast a wider net, risking that readers might become disoriented, means letting a thematic structure be anchored by ideas, or even the wind.
February 23, 2003. Chuck and I walked along the old rail bed above the Matanuska River north of Palmer. We had parked on a gravel street that I had driven hundreds of times back and forth to Swanson and Sherrod Elementary Schools, taking the kids to school or picking them up. The walking was easy because there was no snow but the day was overcast so the photos I took had a pervasive gloominess. The trail was relatively level, crossing between a subdivision and a hay field. We were surprised to see rails still embedded in the dirt, protruding from the grass in places, appearing and disappearing. About the time we began to wonder whether there were also railroad ties buried in decades of windblown silt, we left the flat hay field (all tawny bleached grasses) and came to the bluff beside the Matanuska River. Entering a ‘tunnel’ of alders, we stepped on worn railroad ties. Some of the steel rails were missing, like they’d been pilfered, although in spots the spikes were still embedded in the ties. Silt. Gray. Multiples of gray along this abandoned railroad above the river where wind tosses the river-channel glacial-silt, even up the bluff, to be scraped from the air by any obstacle.
The last time I stopped at the Matanuska River overlook, along the Glenn Highway north of Palmer, the chain link fence at the top of the bluff had nearly vanished beneath a dune. Windblown silt had filled in what had been a paved path and it was an odd sensation to walk beside an ankle-high fence at the edge of a bluff as high as a thirty-story building.
Like memory, wind resists a precise chronology. A researcher might pore through data on wind speed, direction, and duration and perhaps measure layers of silt carried and dropped by wind, and so the researcher builds a model of how wind augments or erases terrain, but wind through lives and across time is anything but linear, because of how we remember—like the old computer term RAM—random access memory—which is exactly what our minds are good at—grabbing memories and certainly without regard to chronology.
Writers who have struggled with organizing complicated topics into a publishable form will find John McPhee’s article interesting and possibly helpful. The article includes diagrams and discussion of several structures as well as descriptions of changes in writing technology. See Structure, Beyond the Picnic-table Crisis, “The New Yorker” (1/14/2013).
Katie Eberhart's chapbook 'Unbound: Alaska Poems' was published in 2013 by Uttered Chaos Press. Her poems have appeared in Cirque Journal, Sand - Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Elohi Gadugi Journal, Crab Creek Review, and other places. Katie has an MFA in Creative Writing. She currently lives in Central Oregon where she blogs about nature and literature at http://solsticelight.wordpress.com/