Eccentric Structures

Your writing must be unusually good to succeed with one of the slightly off-center, eccentric structures that follow. Your style, the vividness of your writing, must be of such high quality that your reader will happily (or tolerantly) put up with some vagueness of direction. Your writing must be so enjoyable that the enthralled reader goes along for the ride, figuring you'll end up at a destination at least as interesting as each of the intervening ports-of-call. Not that all writing must be fun, fun, fun; you could be writing about some very serious matters, yet your comments, your imagery, your accurate language, your insights are so interestingly presented that the reader will know you're going to end up at a very interesting, even important, destination—the reader has faith enough to overlook the lack of some more logical, more linear, more expected, more usual structure.


Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez, provides us with much information about arctic regions, and the author presents it with authority and attractive images. Lopez celebrates the arctic flora, fauna, and peoples, but under it all lie three thematic questions: How does the arctic landscape (and perhaps any landscape) influence human imagination? When we desire to put a landscape to human use, does that desire affect how we evaluate the environment? And what does it mean to "grow rich"—are we here on Earth to lay up treasures, to hunger, instead, after what is truly worthy, or to live at moral peace with our natural world?

Those questions give us significant themes to ponder in a book. Some authors might have structured such a book in a formal way (to match the important themes), but not Barry Lopez. Perhaps it's reasonable to expect that a book with a title involving dreams should use a structure that mimics the way the brain processes thought—by associational chaining from thought to thought, and indeed, that's what Lopez does in this book.

One theory of brain processing says that all our thoughts are stored in some unknown type of files according to what memories are associated with which other memories—from a lifetime. The theory also says that we can think only by associating new information coming into our brains by taking from our brain files memories of any kind of previous experiences that just might be similar enough to help us understand this new experience.

Our language and our thinking seem dependent upon the way our evolutionary ancestors created metaphors from their associated memories. Through metaphors we can move more easily from the thought of the moment to relevant, associated memories. Metaphors are shorthand equations to help us quickly locate in the brain the associated memories needed to understand the moment.

Casual conversation between intelligent, articulate people will proceed from associated thought to connected thought. This process frequently manifests itself in a conversation when one participant says, "Speaking of that, did you hear about...?" A good writer like Barry Lopez would not use that as a transition, but he does, in effect, do just that. He moves from one topic to the next by association—one thing makes him think of the next.

In Chapter 1 of Arctic Dreams, for example, his associated chaining runs something like this: Standing under the moon of an arctic winter afternoon, Lopez reflects on the fact that the bright moon allows no depth to the sky, but that the stars shine brightly. This thought about stars, associated in his mind (and ours) with the moon, leads him to a description of the stars in the arctic sky; this leads him after a while to another natural association, the North Star (Polaris), which leads him, logically enough, to another associated thought— the North Pole itself; once into that, it's natural enough to go into a scientific review for us of the meaning behind the five different North Poles; and writing about the migration of one of those poles, the North Magnetic Pole, leads him into a discussion of an early scientific expedition that tracked that migration from the year 1600 to modern times. Before long, he's talking about the Sun and its seasonal migrations across the meridians. Through that discussion we learn about the "meaning" of the Arctic Circle, the winter and summer solstices, and even something about the Dutch explorer, Willem Barents, and his icebound (and finally wrecked) ship in 1597.

As he takes us on a hypothetical trip from the North Pole south along the hundredth meridian, he soon associates the variations of Sun positions and its length of stay anywhere with how the various ecosystems have adapted to the seasons—everything from the stunted growth of the subarctic's trees to the retarded development of the region's soils. These are all associated in nature (and in his mind) with rainfall, which gives him a logical opportunity to bring up the fact that the Arctic receives no more precipitation per year than the Mojave Desert—and so the associational chaining goes. Each leap across an associational synapse is logical enough that the reader accepts each of these mini-structures and stays with the writer despite an apparent lack of overall structure—but only, I think, because Lopez writes so well every word, every sentence, every image.

Because associational thinking is so central to all thought, I've decided not to label this variety of eccentric structure "associational" but "spiral." I call it spiral because the writer, like a hunting hawk, spirals around and around the topic, viewing it from different altitudes and distances, different angles, different perspectives. Once certain that the truth or the goal has been spotted and identified, the writer/hawk swoops in and makes the point. During the long, looping, spiraling descent, it may not have been apparent where the hawk might finally strike (or what his prey might be), but the aerial views were attractive all along the way—and we went along for the ride. We had ridden on the hawk's back before, so we knew we'd find the truth down there somewhere and with greater clarity as we swooped down in such dignified swirls. As a hawk has an identifiable shriek while searching, a writer like Lopez has a voice we can hear. This kind of eccentric structure allows the writer's voice to be heard.

Again, my warning—if you have reason to believe that you have not yet achieved an identifiable voice, you'd best stick for the time being with one of the less eccentric, more formal structures discussed earlier in this chapter.


We can certainly hear Annie Dillard's voice when she writes in her wonderful, sometimes off-center way. Although she uses associational, highly metaphoric writing that swoops slowly in on the subject, I'll not put it in the spiral category. In her chapter "Seeing," as in many of the other chapters in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, James Moffett said she "orchestrated" the piece. In a very instructive book, Points of Departure: An Anthology of Nonfiction, James Moffett, its editor, writes:

Instead of telling several incidents that show the same thing, Dillard accumulates various firsthand experiences that show different things about the same basic phenomenon. The title indicates the theme, which Dillard develops gradually from differing starting points—old memories, recent observations, passages in books.

Her essay advances in a circular way, like a musical composition in which motifs once sounded are picked up and developed further later, each motif giving new meaning to the others as the whole fills out. She tightly alternates the particular and the general, instance and idea, playing freely up and down the abstraction scale. This draws the reader into the very inductive process of generalizing. No doubt the practice of calling student essays "themes" recognizes that the traditional essay has from its inception with Montaigne—through Hazlitt and Lamb, Emerson and Thoreau—tended toward this musical structure rather than toward either chronology or logical organization.


Writers use this eccentric structure, mosaic structure, in several ways. When an article has many quotes from a number of people, often with varied, even conflicting views, it may not be clear at first just where the writer is heading or what his or her overall views will be. Each tile of this mosaic may not make total sense, but after more and more tiles are laid and grouted by the writer's narrative skills, we see the pattern emerge, perhaps a pattern we would never have expected by extrapolating from the first few tiles.

This structure is seen very often in articles about a catastrophic event. The writer interviews the survivors; talks with the victims' relatives; interviews the police, the Coast Guard pilot, etc. When all the tiles are put together by the writer, there's a cumulative effect that influences our emotions and improves our comprehension of the event.

Another situation also suggests the possible use of mosaic structure—multiple scenes. In The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer structures it first into two equal halves; then, within each half, he uses a mosaic structure. His tiles are scenes. In filmic terms, he cuts rapidly among scenes, each scene short, sometimes only several lines long. Where a filmmaker might dissolve, or even fade to black between scenes, Mailer accomplishes the same effect typographically by simply using extra white space after each short scene. This structural technique to create for us the character of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore is dramatically, cumulatively effective.


Not to be confused with diaries, which I've placed under chronologic structure, memoirs do not necessarily follow a strict, linear chronology, the way a diary typically does. They generally proceed from youth to old age, but a lot of jumping around through time may happen in a memoir. Tradition allows a memoirist to follow his or her own eccentric route down through the halls of time. Russell Baker's well-received memoir, Growing Up, for example, reads almost like a novel except that all the characters are real and made real for us by Russell Baker's narrative ability. He takes us from his youth (and a little bit before) up until his mother, the main character in this story, dies in 1981. Baker's voice is heard throughout the book, as exemplified by the following paragraphs that open Chapter 3.

My mother's efforts to turn poor specimens of manhood into glittering prizes began long before she became my mother. As the older daughter in a family of nine children, she had tried it on her younger brothers without much success. When she married she had tried it on my father with no success at all.

Her attitudes toward men were a strange blend of twentieth-century feminism and Victorian romance. The feminism filled her with anger against men and a rage against the unfair advantages that came with the right to wear trousers. "Just because you wear pants doesn't mean you're God's gift to creation, sonny boy," she shouted at me one day when I said something about the helplessness of women. Of a man vain about his charm with women: "Just because he wears pants he thinks he can get through life with half a brain."

Some memoirs read almost like a diary expanded by later thoughts. Others are more like a historic narrative, one that draws on several sources. Those Days, by Richard Critchfield, carries the interestingly descriptive subtitle, An American Album. This chronicle of three generations (his own, his parents', and their parents') resembles an old family album in that it includes photographs, diary entries, old newspaper clippings, and letters. It differs from the ordinary family album in that it also includes narrative by the memoirist, interviews by him, and even internal monologs created by the memoirist to bring alive long-dead relatives. This latter album element removes Those Days from the category of history or biography and makes it an excellent example of responsibly written creative nonfiction. The chapter "Anne" even ends with a few lines from a familiar song of the day:

They'll never want to see rake or plow And who the deuce can parley-vous a cow? How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm After they've seen Paree?

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