The Structure Of Relevance

In bringing stories of community, collaboration and conservation to these pages, we try to rhyme as much as we try to reason.  The rhyme can come in visual format, for example with photos like these, or like these; combinations of photos and video like these and like these.  We also share plenty of rhythmically-accompanied visuals as well as links out to items that seem to be in the general spirit of what we do when we are not contributing here.

But writing about our activities with meaning, in words, is what we hope to do best on this site. Writing (and reading) are just as important as the visual and aural cues we bring attention to, and our Contributors are committed to writing as an art form.  So it is worth noting the master of long form journalism on some fundamental ground rules of telling a story well.  John McPhee interviewed in The Paris Review:

Structure is not a template. It’s not a cookie cutter. It’s something that arises organically from the material once you have it. In “The Encircled River” I go to Alaska, and make that trip, and soak up that world. And when you’re up there, the most impressive thing is the cycles of that world.

There aren’t any people up there in that Salmon River valley, not even Eskimos. Cycles of one year, five years, a thousand years: all these different cycles spinning around. The cycles of the wildlife, the different species and how they come and go. This sort of gets into your head and keeps going on and on.

But once I started writing, I had to tell a story. It’s the story of a journey. Within that journey certain things happened, such as an encounter with a big grizzly. That grizzly encounter was a pretty exciting thing, and it happened near the beginning of the trip. That was somewhat inconvenient structurally, because it’s such a climactic event. But you can’t move that bear, because this is a piece of nonfiction writing.

But what if you started telling the piece of writing further down the river, I wondered. That way, when you get to the end of the trip, you’re really only halfway through the story. What you do then is switch to the past tense, creating a flashback, and you back up and start your trip over again. By the time you get to that bear, that bear is at the perfect place for a climax. That’s what’s exciting about nonfiction writing. In this case it’s a simple flashback, but it also echoes all these cycles of the present and the past.

4 thoughts on “The Structure Of Relevance

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