Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hooked on Form

I've noticed lately that a lot of my writing is falling into forms with relatively fixed structures: a how-to, a braided essay ("Faith and Reason"), two micro-essays, a collage ("Pictures of You"), a list ("Catch and Release"), and a chronology ("A Brief History of My Hair and What Was Said About It," just accepted for publication in Sycamore Review).

I tend to decide on the structure of a piece early. When I don't, or when I've got a structure that I haven't yet recognized, I struggle a lot more with both content and organization. Settling on a form, whenever I manage to do it, gives me a road map for completing the piece.

A well-defined structure dictates a lot of choices for the writer—particularly choices about what must be left out. If a paragraph or section or detail doesn't fit in the structure—it disrupts the timeline of a chronology, it can't gracefully be expressed in as an instruction, it's too long-winded for the target word-count—then it must go. No stays of execution on compassionate grounds. Throw in additional restrictions, like second- or third-person narration or limiting the piece to the present tense, and if the essay doesn't exactly write itself, nevertheless the way forward is both clear and narrow.

Formal constraints make explicit the kinds of choices writers make all the time. For newer writers especially this helps us understand what those choices are, gives us an understanding of the effects they produce, and gets us in the habit of making them consciously. I think that in order to grow as a writer I will have to venture beyond my road maps, but for now I'm satisfied that experimenting with form is a valuable learning experience and my time as a structure junkie will not be wasted.

1 comment:

Michelle Pressma said...

Wonderful news on the latest acceptance! I'm eager to read it.