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,