How Graphic Memoir Can Demystify Structure

I am currently working on a short memoir essay titled “Blue Lollipop” about my first trip to a hair salon at age six, and the ensuing haircut, which was my mom’s idea, not mine. But the essay’s deeper truth charts the arc of a self—the “emotional” arc—by juxtaposing key scenes, or turning points, from childhood, young adulthood, and middle age. Once I had determined which key scenes would in fact work together to tell this deeper story, I faced the inevitable structure hurdle: How to tell it? I had the scenes, yes, but I was without a structure that would enable the scenes to play off each other to deliver the emotional truth, the “punch.” And an essay without a structure is, well, not an essay. It’s more like a puddle of words.

 

At its most basic level, structure imposes order. Order has never come easy for me, in writing or in life. In my pantry, for example, the paper towels are stacked on top of the drop cloths on top of the dogs’ crate. My purse houses receipts tangled with hair ties that trail strands of hair stuck to wads of chewed blue gum wrapped in corners of envelopes. My writing desk on any given day looks like it was caught in the eye of a post-It storm, ideas for writing projects jotted everywhere: a puddle of words. Endearing as this trait is in the pockets of my life, a well-executed piece of writing cannot bear such chaos. Writing demands a structure that supports a narrative much the way a skeleton supports a body, providing an intrinsic shape without drawing attention to itself. Indeed, its very invisibility can make learning the craft of structure a challenge: at its best structure in a piece of writing is hard to “see.”

 

I had the material for “Blue Lollipop” but no definitive structure when I happened upon Maggie McKnight’s “France 1993,” a graphic memoir essay that appears in Dinty Moore’s The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. A graphic memoir combines images—graphics—and words to tell a story, much like a comic strip. “France 1993” juxtaposes its narrator’s present-time situation—a woman in a committed relationship with her female partner—with the development of her sexual identity as a teen/young adult. The essay begins and ends with the present-time narrative, indicated by a graphic of the narrator and her partner sitting on a futon. This visual cue—the futon—locates us in time and provides the essay with its frame, or structure. And because graphics are a visual medium, the futon renders the structure of the essay visible. And because I was in search of a structure for “Blue Lollipop” while reading “France 1993,” I had an “aha” structural moment: I could break up the midlife narrative of  “Blue Lollipop” and use it as a frame. For the first time in my writing life, structure seemed straightforward, readily accessible. Dare I say: easy.

 

This happy structural accident—or synchronicity, as the case may be—led the teacher in me to think about the graphic memoir as a tool that might help demystify the nuts and bolts of structure. With its visual cues, structure in a graphic memoir offers the opportunity to more readily “see” an underlying, albeit seamless, structure. By reading graphic memoir with an eye toward structure, a writer might begin to grasp structure in a more visual light.

 

Next time you find yourself with a puddle of words in need of a structure, try immersing yourself in graphic memoir. Look at the visual details, such as McKnight’s futon, that appear repeatedly from the beginning to the end of the story. What pattern does this graphic detail create? How does it orient the reader? Is it being used as an organizing principle for the entire essay? With these questions in mind, “see” if the graphics don’t offer you a structural “aha” moment that makes structure, dare I say it again, easy.

 

To the magic of structure,

 

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8 comments

  • Tania January 25, 2013   Reply →

    Marilyn…a lovely post, I’ve only recently started devouring graphic novels, starting with Blankets and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds. My daughter has A Wrinkle in Time, which I’ll be reading when she is done. I too love the way the images propel the narrative, and love the way structure is bared, as you delineate here in your post. Going to check out France 1993.

    I’m also interested in movies…scene sequence, I feel I only just starting to get a handle on the internal workings there, too. maybe a screenwriting class would help my longer prose pieces graduate from poetry’s overly associative grip.

    • Marilyn Bousquin January 25, 2013   Reply →

      Hi, Tania. Yes, the scene sequence in movies is such a great visual for structure. An excellent book for screenwriters that I find incredibly useful for memoir writers is Dara Marks’s Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc. She shows how the interior of the character drives the emotional or transformational arc, a term I love. Have you read Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? Another graphic winner! Thanks so much for posting your comments. Best, Marilyn

  • Ginny January 25, 2013   Reply →

    What a brilliant idea, to look at the structure of a graphic memoir in order to help with one’s own non-graphic writing. I have Dinty Moore’s book, so will definitely check out France 1993 to see this at work. Looking forward to reading Blue Lollipop.

    • Marilyn Bousquin January 26, 2013   Reply →

      Hi, Ginny. Can’t wait to talk graphic memoir with you. Check out Kristen Radke’s “Perdition” in Brevity 40. Powerful.

  • Adrienne Ross Scanlan January 26, 2013   Reply →

    Interesting technique. I’ve downloaded your page (I hope you don’t mind) to place it in my craft folder and review it in greater depth later.

    Adrienne Ross Scanlan
    Nonfiction editor, Blue Lyra Review (which looks for narrative-driven work, by the way).

    • Marilyn Bousquin January 26, 2013   Reply →

      Hi, Adrienne. I love the idea of this page being in your craft folder! And now I’m heading over to Blue Lyra Review, so perhaps will see you there.

  • Maggie McKnight April 16, 2013   Reply →

    Hi Marilyn–I’m so glad my graphic essay helped prompt some structural epiphanies for you. I hope to get the chance to read “Blue Lollipop” eventually!
    Best,
    Maggie

    • Marilyn Bousquin April 17, 2013   Reply →

      Hi, Maggie. I’m so glad you found this blog. I owe you such a debt of gratitude for your craft piece “Building a Frame” in Flash Nonfiction. As I mention in the blog, it clarified structure for me and really gave the piece I was working on, well, a shape! In the end its title was shortened to “Blue,” and it’s now out there finding a home. I will be teaching a Brief Memoir Essay class beginning later in May, and I plan to use “Building a Frame” with my students. See how far reaching your work is going? Thank you many times over. All best, Marilyn

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