Every story, every essay we write is a journey. It starts here, goes along for a while, and ends where we say it ends. But what if we start this journey with no idea where it’s going? What if we arrive at our destination, and instead of a warm welcome-home feeling, we feel only emptiness, as a cool breeze propels tumbleweeds across the landscape surrounding us? Instead of a sense of completion, we feel betrayed by our own lack of planning and foresight, and all we hear is the sound of crickets…What if where we start is really the middle, as it turns out, and there doesn’t seem to be a beginning or an end? And ultimately, can we arrive at our destination feeling as though we have seen something no one has seen before? If every journey starts with a single step, what will that step be?
When we start writing a new piece, it helps if we have a sense of where we’d like to go, and possibly pinpoint where we’d like to end up. But do we need a packing list and a full itinerary before we sit down and string words and sentences together? Or should we figure we probably have what we need and head on down the road, hoping inspiration and serendipity will guide us? Solid preparation, or seat of the pants? It takes time and many trials to figure out what feels most comfortable to us as writers.
Some writers like to start with an outline, or create a “mind map” to kick start the process. Are these “maps” essentia? The reality is that a road map may not be 100% accurate. (And who among us has not been led astray by MapQuest or Google Maps? Even the soothing voice of our GPS may not always keep us going in the right direction.) We may discover unexpected detours or roadside attractions that cause us to stray from the straight and narrow and create unplanned diversions, which could be the best thing that happens to us as we write. Think about Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting,” and imagine how different it would be if she’d mapped out her journey with the shortest route to the place where she finally found her pencil! In this piece, Woolf captures the utter delight and wonder of losing herself in a simple adventure. All her senses are on high alert, and the errand all but forgotten as she peeks in shop windows and lets her imagination soar.
How often do we need to be reminded that the journey, and not the destination, is more important? But how best to convey that journey to readers in such a way that they are eager to see it through to the end? We need to make it clear how we got from here to there and why we took the journey in the first place. And we really do need a destination, or what’s the point of the journey?
Years ago, I took a writing class from Jane Anne Staw, the author of a book about overcoming writer’s block (Unstuck). Jane introduced the idea of writing as a practice, and instructed us to choose an activity we did daily, and to write about what we did and thought every day as we did that activity. She broke out of her blocked period by focusing on the time she spent walking her dog in the mornings, and writing about every thought and memory that came to her on this daily routine. Writing about something—anything—that popped into her mind ultimately unleashed her imagination and freed her to write again.
For the class, I chose my half-hour drive to work as my activity, and trained myself to use all my senses during that period— later writing about what I saw, heard, and thought during that daily drive. Luckily for me, this was a scenic journey, through the local village and then along a windy road that curved through redwood trees and shaded valleys, emerging at the grassy hills of the town where I worked. Every day I would write about what went through my mind on my journey, listing songs I’d heard on the radio, the variety of critters I’d spotted, and the memories stirred up by one thing or another along the way. It may have been my most productive period of writing. I began looking forward to getting behind the wheel every day, eager and excited to see where my thought journey would take me. The pieces I wrote followed a chronological structure, and only later would I see the themes that emerged and repeated themselves over time.
In the January 14, 2013 issue of The New Yorker, John McPhee writes at length and in impressive detail about his methods of creating structure in his work. I came away from this article in awe of many things, but mainly how McPhee uses different ways to structure the long articles he’s written over the years. He walks through a number of them, showing how he arrived at a strategy for structure, with charts and maps to go along with them. He also describes some of his early training as a writer, received from a high school English teacher who insisted that students start each composition they wrote with a structural outline: “The idea was to build some sort of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs.” Nearly fifty years ago, McPhee spent close to two weeks staring into space trying to make order out of the volumes of notes he’d taken for a New Yorker article. He says, “Structure has preoccupied me in every project I have undertaken since….”
Many of the pieces McPhee discusses in this article are based on road trips he’s taken, and how he chose to organize his notes in preparation for writing. For years, he says, he insisted that stories about journeys demanded chronological structures. It’s something he taught his students at Princeton. But when he began to write “Travels in Georgia,” about his cross-country road trip on a sixty-five foot chemical tanker, he tossed out that notion and began looking for themes that he could organize and pull together. In another piece, “Tight-Assed River,” McPhee wrote about riding on a towboat up and down the Illinois River. He described the journey as an “endless yo-yo,” with “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect for an end.” In this case, a chronological structure would be “pointless and misleading. Things happened, that’s all—anywhere and everywhere.”
With a journey like this one, deciding where to end it could be problematic. But not for McPhee, who states that he always settles on an ending “before going back to the beginning.” He usually knows “from the outset” what line will end the piece. Oh, how I wish…
At journey’s end in writing, no matter how you structure your piece, you must find an ending that satisfies you, the writer. If you’ve come to the end and don’t feel as though you’ve really arrived, McPhee suggests looking back at the last page you wrote and searching for it there: “You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were.”
As you begin your next journey on the page, consider structure and theme. Play around with the notion of organizing your writing around theme versus chronology. What makes the story more compelling? What makes your readers eager to find out what happens next? Figure out the best way to make your story leap off the page and into the hearts and minds of your readers, and imagine what their journey will be like as they accompany you.
And your reward at the end? The perfect ending. It was there all along.
Risa Nye is a San Francisco Bay Area native. Her essays, stories, and articles have appeared in a variety of publications. She continues to mine her vast experience for more things to write about. She has an MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College in California. She co-edited the anthology Writin' on Empty.She writes about food, drink and films at EatDrinkFilms.com. Her memoir, There Was a Fire Here, was published by She Writes Press in 2016. Find her writing, including her forays into the world of mixology as Ms.Barstool (published on www.berkeleyside.com), and her blog at www.risanye.com.
On staff since 2011
Risa has also written for our craft column.