Those notecards? My book, in sum. On each ruled side [not pictured], the first and last sentence of a piece of Critique of Pure Reason. On the other, unruly side, the title of the story in question. Why bother? Mostly for you, or rather, those of you out there who will perhaps read the book. (And thanks, by the way. Thanks even for reading this.)
Which is to say that order always has something to tell us. Viz. the Kuleshov effect, here explained by Alfred Hitchcock:
No babies, no bikinis — no Hitch, sadly — not in this book, but still the principle will have its say. To put things in order is to assign importance to them (think of a Top 10), but also to give meaning to them (think of a plot, any plot). In a book, you can’t not have order. Even the most unruly book has a first page and a last, and, because no one — not Cortazar or Nabokov or Wallace or anyone else — can tell us how to read it, it’ll get read, almost always, first to last. That’s as good an order as any other. But still not any order is as good as any other.
Having laid my cards on the table (or on the shelf, really), I’ll lay my cards on the table: I struggled with order, with putting this book together. When I thought I had finished with it, which is to say before I had finished with it, I had a definite idea of the book’s sections and no idea how those sections should be assembled. I had four loose groupings, the same that our existences do: The Other (the ground situation, really), Birth, Complication, and Death. A slightly abbreviated Freytag’s pyramid, in other words.
(There are no second acts in American lives, remember? Forget about “Denouement” and where that arrow is pointing.) So, great, I’ve got four broad categories, plenty of stuff to stuff into them, but still no idea about how to order them or how to order within them. Where do I turn? The internet, naturally.
Where I find exactly nothing of value. The internet is often an empty place, a place for nothing, it seems to me. I am aware that I do not help that with this post, with any of my posts, but here we are. Everywhere on the internet, there is nothing. No, I’m being unfair. This is all good advice, but I couldn’t seem to apply it to my own book. My first (and worst) question: what is my “strongest” story? Not even my editor knew. Did I, in the end, choose correctly? My suspicion is that the first story, provided it is “good” (another questionable qualifier) will be judged “strongest” merely by its placement. We expect the “strongest” story to be first because of, well, because of advice like “put your strongest story first.” So, even if it isn’t the strongest story (and who, really, is the best judge of that?), it is the strongest story, or will be. And then it gets worse: follow that up with another strong story, they say. And end the collection with a strong story. What I’m getting from such advice is a throwing up of hands, an “I don’t know,” delivered counter-Socratically. Poets have whole books on the subject of order, lexica of sequence. Short story writers have structural integrity surveys.
So, I was dissatisfied. What was I really expecting, I wonder? A recipe? Isn’t that what order, ultimately, is? A recipe? Was I asking a question, or was the question asking me? I’m not trying to be “deep” here, I was honestly confused. How many times, in how many different ways, could I possibly be expected to read this manuscript?
Because I had my categories, my particular pyramid, I think I was a bit further into the process than I thought I was. Really, for me, it was first a process of ordering those sections, and then of giving the sections order. Once I had done the first — which, again, was largely dictated by biology, an order we merely observe and obey — it was then a question of the second. Going from a world atlas to a state map. Now that I knew the borders, what were the right roads to get from origin to end? I have heard poets talk about conversation between poems, and I believe that I know what it is that they mean when they say it. A short story, an essay, a piece of prose has something very different to say though. There is still the language, but we might as well look at montage, at layout. Different discipline, different concerns.
And so I hit upon the idea of these notecards. The first sentence and the last sentence — I was familiar with what came between; the order was not chosen so blindly as all that. In some way, they acted as shorthand for the entirety of the story, but, having coasts, were just detailed enough to ensure tight fit. I had discovered a kind of continental drift in my thinking, and these notecards were just zoomed out enough that I was not lost in the thicket of their fractal edges when it came time to place them side-by-side. Plus, I could shuffle them easily, see how each worked against the other coastlines before I locked them into place. Finally, a technology! Still not a recipe, but at least the right tool for the job, right? I don’t know. It worked for me.
My hope is that you, too, dear reader, have something to offer on the subject of order, even if you can only guarantee that it’s worked for you (or even if you can’t). A description. A plan. Even just a set of questions. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts, please get in touch: Gabriel [@] gabrielblackwell dot com. The next post in this series will be from Matt Dube, on Thursday.