ORgAnic Structure

Most of the structures so far discussed follow human logic. An organic structure is an even more natural one, one that's somehow inherent in the subject, and one that grows out of it. An organic structure could be called "natural structure," but I don't want to imply that all the other structures are unnatural.

In my book Getting the Words Right, I wrote about the various "logics" a writer can use to promote unity and coherence. My example there was of a glaciologist wanting to describe the surface features of a valley glacier. He or she could, of course, use a "chrono-logic" to describe these features on the basis of when they form. But the features could instead be described more organically by following the flow established by the natural downhill direction of the ice's flow. The glaciologist could begin at sea level, where the ice falls into the water as icebergs, and then talk about the glacial forms all the way back up to the glacier's mountain origins. That would be logical, not organic. The organic way would take into account the direction the glacier flows and comes down from the high-altitude snow fields above. It might begin with the wind-blown sastrugi forms; proceed downhill with the glacier's flow, describing ice falls and the chaotic crevasses where the glacier fractures as it bends around corners; describe the moraine-forming materials created where tributary glaciers coalesce; and end where the sea cuts a notch in the ice front, giving birth to great icebergs as the giant blocks "calve" into the sea.

To tie this in with structure by function, a glaciologist might in some cases need to describe how a glacier came to be and how it works. In that event he or she might write first about the origin and morphology of the snowflakes that fall high in the mountains; then about how they are gradually converted into ice; then about how the pressure of thousands of feet of ice and snow on top combine with gravity to give the ice its initial shove downhill; and then how that motion causes friction, which causes melting, which provides lubrication that promotes more rapid movement downhill, which causes more melting, more lubrication, more movement, and so on, inexorably to the sea.

John McPhee seems to enjoy finding the possibility of an organic structure in his research materials, but he wants us not to use it too compulsively. If it works, it works; we should not become slaves to it. He works within a form that's logical, yet unobtrusive. Even when we do elect to use an organic structure, we should allow ourselves some flexibility within it when something unexpected pops up.

After Richard West published "Richard West's Texas," he wrote about a completely different but powerful "state"—New York City's restaurant "21"—and published it in New York magazine as "The Power of '21.'" He structured this study of a world-class restaurant organically, using the same system as the restaurant's maître d' in seating guests. Depending on your "status," you are seated on a particular floor, in a particular section, and at a numbered table. The table also bears a name: Maxwell's Table of Happy Memories; New Yorker Table; Richard Milhous Nixon President's Table.

Although the hosts like to say, over and over again, "The man makes the table, not the table the man," not everyone believes that wholeheartedly. West moves his "21" story from floor to floor and table to table, spinning fascinating anecdotes about people who have occupied each table at various times during the restaurant's past fifty years. Because this restaurant is hierarchy conscious and seats patrons accordingly, it was natural for West to structure the story by locations that reflect the elitist, hierarchical system. Had he written about a fast-food eatery, hierarchy would have played no role and the structure would have been different. If nothing else, fast-food places treat us all—prince and pauper—alike.

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