Playing with Story Structure

By Nancy McCabe, Creative Nonfiction and Fiction Faculty, Spalding’s School of Creative & Professional Writing

My forthcoming book, Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir, took me thirty years to write. I’m not kidding. It’s not like I was working on it every day for thirty years; I put it aside for long periods. But it didn’t fully take off for me until I embraced approaches I had long resisted, playing with extended metaphors and borrowed forms as shaping devices.

The writing process really started way back when, at the age of nineteen and engaged, I wrote a short story about a young woman’s marital ambivalence. My own fiancé was a sweet persistent guy who’d pressured me to date him, then got it in his head that he wanted to marry me, and though I had none of the requisite romantic feelings, I agreed. Marriage seemed like a chance to reinvent my life, to find safety in a dangerous world, to find certainty in an uncertain one.

It turns out that you can leave a marriage you’ve entered into foolishly at a young age, but the questions that take hold of you as a result of it may never let go. I was twenty-five when my husband and I split up. By then I was writing in earnest about that part of my life, both trying to make sense of it and resisting the notion that such a formative experience should be written off as a shameful mistake, best forgotten. I finished my MFA and started writing a novel about a youthful marriage.

My early writing mentors had been traditionalists who raised their eyebrows at experimental work, pounding into me the importance of keeping the story, not tricks or gimmicks or cleverness or pretty language, at the forefront—and no more than three metaphors to a page, roared one professor. Most of that grounding has been valuable to me throughout my writing career. It ignited my own passion for storytelling and taught me about the power of the narrative arc. But it also made me wary about the fine line between structural experimentation and sloppiness for the sake of novelty. And as a reader, I’m still often drawn to straightforward, chronological structures, appreciating their ability to emotionally engage me and take me along on their journey.

The marriage novel I wrote never quite gelled. And eventually, lessons about the power of storytelling to move and engage readers led me to creative nonfiction; I discovered that the most straightforward and powerful way to tell some stories was to acknowledge that they’d really happened. Some stories didn’t need embellishment. By then, the marriage material was feeling like someone else’s life. I felt increasingly detached from it. But I thought that parts of it were funny, and parts had some wisdom, and I liked some of the sentences, and I thought some of the decisions I’d made were worth examining, and so, after I had shifted to writing creative nonfiction, the novel evolved into a memoir.

I understood the story’s overall arc, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to make it work as a book, to carve out the smaller arcs within the larger one. Then an editor invited me to submit to a special do-it-yourself issue of a magazine, and on an impulse, I took my entire memoir and boiled it down to a sixteen-page women’s magazine quiz. At first, the whole project seemed ridiculous, but I kept going, interested in the way such an approach emphasized the struggle to understand cause and effect, to pin answers that were, at best, elusive.

The editor who’d solicited the essay turned it down—what women’s magazine quiz is sixteen pages long? Well, none, but it wasn’t really a women’s magazine quiz so much as a commentary on how such conventions have shaped women’s notions of our lives. I filed the essay away, writing it off as a fun experiment. But then I reread it a few months later, and I thought it was interesting, so I sent it off. After it appeared in Bellingham Review, Chelsea Biondolillo described my use of the multiple-choice format in a Brevity craft essay as “an excellent container to render the messy and often contradictory thought process of a person considering divorce.”

The process of cutting an entire book down to sixteen pages with what were then eleven questions and answers gave me further insight about how episodes could be fleshed out to become stories and about the meaning of those stories. Ultimately, the experience of trying out a new form opened up new possibilities for my material, though I had no intention of doing anything further with it.

* * *

For a long time, I’d been equally drawn to and skeptical of what are known in creative nonfiction as “hermit crab” forms. Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola coined this term in their book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction to describe pieces that use non-literary texts as “shells” to protect their soft, vulnerable underbelly. The ‘shells’ come from wherever you can find them, anywhere in the world. They may borrow from fiction or poetry, but they also don’t hesitate to armor themselves in more mundane structures: the descriptions of a mail order catalogue, for example, or the entries in a checkbook register.

Before I wrote my essay in the form of a quiz, it had been gradually dawning on me that many of my favorite pieces embodied this concept in some way. Lorrie Moore’s story collection Self-Help contains short fiction written in the form of instruction manuals—“How to Become a Writer,” “How to be an Other Woman,” “A Kid’s Guide to Divorce.” Michele Morano’s essay “In the Subjunctive Mood” poses as a grammar lesson on the subjunctive in Spanish. Joan Wickersham’s book The Suicide Index uses an index format to reflect on the impact of her father’s death. Lauren Slater begins her essay “Three Spheres” with hospital intake notes. W.S. Merwin’s “Unchopping a Tree” makes an environmental statement through a series of mock instructions for putting a tree back together after you’ve cut it down. Lars Eighner employs process analysis in his essay/chapter “On Dumpster Diving,” from his book Travels with Lizabeth; this chapter purports to teach us how to go about living on what we can find in a dumpster. While the essay contains a wealth of practical information—for instance, I have never, since reading it, hesitated to eat yogurt past its expiration date—its real impact is in the window that it gives us into homelessness.

Such approaches always take the risk of form calling attention to itself, of cleverness overriding story. But every one of these pieces works because of the way it skillfully mitigates that risk, the form worked to the point that it feels not imposed but organic, necessary, even urgent. Often it’s the contrast between the detachment of such forms and the deep emotion that each piece plumbs that creates this effect, allowing for a distance that lends poignancy to that emotion and keeps it from overwhelming the piece. But I would argue that this impact would have less force if the writers didn’t demonstrate a clear grasp of the fundamentals of story structure. Beneath unusual surfaces, hidden inside these shells, there is still clear conflict, complication, climax, denouement.

Over the years, Spalding students have inspired me with their experiments. Graduate Karyl Anne Fischer, who refers to these as “appropriated forms,” produced a thesis containing pieces in the form of a job ad, an outline, an instruction booklet, a quiz. Scott Wilson wrote an essay in the form of an auto repair manual complete with footnotes, and Liza Mattison wrote a story in the form of a camera instruction booklet.

While I admired these efforts, for a long time after I wrote my quiz essay, I told myself that I was done with the marriage material. I’d consolidated it all into sixteen pages, and what more was there to say? But the book still nagged at me, and my friend Anna urged me to write some essays, re-examining my material a piece at a time.

I tackled this slowly, writing an essay every year in between other projects, playing with controlling metaphors and alternate forms. Metaphors that spun off of recurring images, like the moon, cockroaches, or electric shocks, would have created an unfocused mishmash in a continuous memoir but could be guiding forces in individual pieces. I tried out forms like a curriculum guide to write about a school-centered childhood, Bible Study notes to explore my shifting attitudes toward religion and spirituality, a scrapbook to tell the story of my wedding. Though the latter piece later evolved out of that form, it became the catalyst for including photographs throughout the book. And late in the process, I decided to break up the women’s magazine quiz so that its questions introduced each new section.

So while thirty years is a long time to take to write a book, I’m not sure that I’d be as happy with any of these pieces if I hadn’t experienced so many false starts and detours that helped me thoroughly think through structural issues, the important interplay between form and content, the ways that even in the most experimental piece I still had to account for conflict, turning points, and change.

Students I’ve mentored have often expressed an interest in playing with alternative forms, with telling stories in ways other than chronologically. It’s true that I borrow extensively from my fiction background in the ways that I conceive of stories, and that there are creative nonfiction forms like the lyric essay and such subcategories as the collage that take their cues from poetry—but I’m intrigued by the structural connections, the ways in which poetry also relies on tension and turns. I’ve come to encourage experimentation, while also still urging that form be allowed to evolve organically through discovery drafts designed to understand the underlying elements that create maximum emotional impact for readers.


Nancy McCabe’s new book Can This Marriage be Saved? A Memoir, is due out in September from the University of Missouri Press. She will be presenting Playing with Story Structures at the SpaldingCon Virtual Workshops on November 18-20.


One thought on “Playing with Story Structure

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s