Still looking for that perfect structure for you book?
Still looking for the right framework for the way your mind works?
I want to share a few books with structures I admire and some of the stories behind them.
Warning: this post is a little longer than usual. So you might decide to skip the whole thing and file it under TLDR (too long didn’t read) or print it out for later.
Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
Chances are if you’re reading this newsletter, you’ve already read Bones and you may even know the story of its structure as Goldberg recounts in another book, Thunder and Lightning.
In a nutshell, shortly after a friend suggested she revisit her idea to write a book about writing practice, the idea popped into her mind that she could borrow the format of Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, by Suzuki Roshi.
Small chapters that can be read in any order. The book’s structure would reflect the mind of its author (not linear) AND work for the subject matter. The individual chapters would demonstrate the organic nature of writing practice.
If you are writing a spiritual how-to that is more than an instruction book, if you have a way of being in the world that you want to share, you might want to look at both of these books again.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Skloot’s book about the cells of a Black woman, harvested without her permission and used to advance science, includes multiple stories and timelines that were challenging for the author to organize.
She tells the story of visiting a local bookstore and asking the owner to order her every braided novel with multiple characters, viewpoints, and timelines she could think of.
A few of the books Skloot lists as helpful were Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, by Fannie Flagg; Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich; As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner; Home at the End of the World and The Hours, by Michael Cunningham.
One night, while watching the movie Hurricane with her boyfriend, Skloot saw how she could map the three strands of her story onto the structure of the movie.
She storyboarded the film on different colored index cards and set similar cards based on her own story on top of it.
If you are considering a braided structure, you could start by reading Skloot’s book and/or any of the novels that she studied.
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson
I don’t know the story behind this structue, although I have an inkling of how she figured it out.
Bluets is a meditation on the color blue and its associations, as well as an elegy for a romance.
I read the book with a client, who admired it and wanted to write something in in a similar vein. She had a spiritual concept she wanted to look at from different angles
This client had a “learning disability,” by the way, by which I mean her brain processed words differently that a neuro-typical brain. She needed a structure that would work with the mind she was born with.
She wasn’t wired for, or frankly, interested in a chronological accounting.
Bluets is built with numbered paragraphs. Often, one paragraph follows naturally from the other, as it would in a traditionally told story.
But it also jumps around from research about the color, to remembrances of the relationship, to sightings of blue in her everyday life.
While I was reading, I noticed a reference to the modern linguistic philosopher, Ludwig Wittgentstein. I had read Wiggentstein’s Tractate in graduate school and remembered he used numbered sentences to lay out his ideas.
Later, I looked up other philosophical treatises and realized that many were titled, “Meditations” and also organized in numbered sentences or paragraphs.
When I shared my findings with my client, she looked downhearted. She didn’t know anything about western philosophy.
“That’s not the point,” I said. “All you need to know is that she stole a structure that suited her project.”
And that’s all you need to know as well.
Keep reading and noticing how your favorite books are put together.
Also, read interviews with the authors to see if they discuss the structures of their books and/or why they made decisions about order.
I’ll share a few more fun structures down the line. This is a good start, however.