Tortoise Tuesday: Structure in Creative Non-fiction…and Beyond

As a sophomore at Princeton I took a seminar called “Creative Non-fiction” with Pulitzer prize-winning professor John McPhee. His advice still resonates for me in my writing, whatever the genre. One point that particularly stands out in my memory is McPhee’s emphasis on structure. Structure was the subject of our first seminar, and for every piece that we wrote, we had to include some kind of structural outline—a tidy Roman numeral list, or perhaps a more abstract doodle.

I’ve been thinking a lot about structure in creative non-fiction lately. My thesis examines the legacy of the picaresque in the non-fiction of Mark Twain, who, at least by his own declaration, despised formal structure. There’s a persistent myth that he wrote as if in a dream-like state with no plan and scarcely any revision. Really, he was much less graceful and far more capricious in his writing and revising. At one point, he even wanted to toss the incomplete manuscript of his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, into the furnace because he couldn’t get the structure of the plot right.

My own research delves into the first work that won him national acclaim, Innocents Abroad, which details Twain’s real-life trip to Europe and the Middle East—in short, a work of creative non-fiction. I find myself in the situation of a detective as I attempt to retroactively piece together the structure of the whole. In one way, the structure is deceptively simple because it is strictly chronological. And yet, in another way, it is much more complex. Time compacts when Twain writes about places that hold scanty interest for him, and he often departs from the chronological structure to draw from memories or histories in the recent and distant past. To make the task of determining structure easier for myself, I’ve started to map out some of the most complicated chapters. As a sample, let me give one passage as an example. In Chapter 26, when Twain is in Rome, he expresses his exasperation at the oldness of it all:

What is it that confers the noblest delight? What is that which swells a man’s breast with pride above that which any other experience can bring to him? Discovery! To know that you are walking where none others have walked; that you are beholding what human eye has not seen before; that you are breathing a virgin atmosphere…What is there in Rome for me to see that others have not seen before me? What is there for me to touch that others have not touched? What is there for me to feel, to learn, to hear, to know, that shall thrill me before it pass to others? What can I discover? – Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. (169-170)

The chapter begins in this bitter tone but finds release in an elaborate game of make-believe. Twain imagines if he were a scientist or inventor or explorer discovering new things—if he were the first European to sail to the Americas, for instance, or even if he were a Roman in his own era traveling for the first time to America. Then, as if feeling guilty for developing these counterfactual digressions in such detail, he returns to his duty, duly reporting on St. Peter’s Basilica and the Coliseum (though he slips in many a snide remark along the way). He can’t seem to stay reigned in for long, because he soon lapses into another counterfactual, claiming that he has found a bill of advertisement and newspaper from ancient times in the Coliseum. The chapter as a whole, in only twelve pages, develops a multi-layered structure. We have the immediacy of Twain taking stock of what he encounters as a traveler in Rome, but we also have several counterfactual digressions, “quoted” at length: the imaginative accounts of 1) a Roman traveler to the U.S. in the present day 2) an ancient advertisement for the gladiator battles at the Roman coliseum, and 3) an issue of the Roman Daily Battle-Axe with an article on the opening season of the coliseum.

If I had to outline the structure of this chapter, what would it look like? To be sure, there is no single possibility. I’ve found that, much like outlining and reverse outlining in my own writing, the structure might take time to materialize, and often times the process is just as beneficial as the final product. In terms of this chapter of Twain’s, after a few tries, I arrived at this outline:

It’s a kind of narrative ecosystem. The soil of snarky questions fosters the development of deep counterfactual roots, which in turn supply the necessary materials for the more conventional travelogue observations in the present. Far from being unnecessary (though entertaining) digressions, as I initially supposed, those counterfactuals comprise the foundation beneath the present observations.

If you’re stuck wondering at the rationale behind an author’s argument, you might try reverse-engineering the structure. This tactic works beautifully for creative non-fiction or, really, any type of writing. Whatever the genre, structure undergirds it. The crucial thing to remember about structure, McPhee taught me, is that it shouldn’t be cutesy and clever just for show. The structure has to really work for the material. Indeed, the ideal structure arises directly from the material.

— Myrial Holbrook ’19

Quotations from Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain are drawn from the Wordsworth Classics edition published in 2010.

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