When the Arc is Too Small

A somewhat blurry image of a lit-up carnival ride called The Shaker in motion. Overlayed are semi-transparent purple spirals in an indistinguishable pattern.

Finding a Structural Shape in Narrative Nonfiction

We all know the shape: introduction, rising action, climax, denouement. The story arc. You may still be beholden to it. In Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison encourages us to break away: “But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no?” The reader can keep reading with other motivations than the climax and release. Karen Babine has outlined these motivations nicely in “A Taxonomy of Nonfiction: Or The Pleasures of Precision” on LitHub. She explains that Mode is “what creates the energy or engine in the piece.” An arc lends itself to when a story creates the energy, when the Mode is Narrative. But there have to be other ways of telling stories. 

I’m not here to hate on arcs (or having sex like a man, which I have been accused of). Some stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Stories where the actual story is what motivates the reader to keep going. Stories that lead to a single moment of exciting action, and then follow the fallout. My first book Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Edelweiss Pirates, Teenagers Who Resisted the Nazis is a class arc: kids hate Nazis, kids mess with Nazis, Nazis start going after kids, kids are arrested and executed just before the war ends, and afterwards they are deemed bad kids. You keep reading because you want to know what happens to said kids. 

I knew an arc wasn’t going to work for my second book Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History. More than a history of the banjo’s early origins, Well of Souls reveals a landscape of African American cultural practices and spiritual beliefs stretching from South America to New England, of which the banjo was born as a spiritual device. It’s a book about the banjo that is about slavery, the myth of white supremacy, and suppressed history. No narrative arc could contain 200 years of history, especially when each chapter centered a new main character and scenes in multiple countries and continents. 

Maggie Nelson might ask what having sex like a man really means. In the first crot of The Argonauts she writes: “Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad” (3). But at that point, Nelson isn’t even sure which pronouns her sexual partner Harry uses. And while her relationship with Harry is woven throughout the book, it’s not what the book is about. 

You might argue that about is the wrong preposition to use with The Argonauts. It begins with Nelson meeting Harry, and moves through crots that explore queerness, happiness, motherhood, pregnancy, feminism, sexuality, heternomativity, masculinity, and identity. There are beginnings, middles, and ends, but they aren’t at the beginning, middle, or end of the book. In fact, they appear multiple times throughout the course of the narrative. 

Elissa Washuta might not want us to think of a book as sex. In White Magic, she begins with telling us about a mood ring she had in school and mall witches; her desire to become a witch; her ancestry; her learning to have relationships with spirits and ancestors; her rape; and her PTSD. Can these amount to a narrative, something that “has a beginning, middle, and end,” (25), she asks. She crafts narratives to make sense of what happened to her, she writes, but she has been trapped in a loop. “If I don’t exit these time loops, these men echoing men, their cause, my effect, I’ll meet my tragic end,” she writes (26). 

She needs an end.

The book is separated into three acts, and each act begins with the description of three tarot cards and an essay about where we are in the book. The first one begins with describing the traditional arc, the second with the idea that in the middle,” The protagonist should try to solve the initial problem but just make things worse” (145), While the third act is “for crisis, climax, resolution, and dénouement, meaning unknotting” (263). A collection of essays can have a beginning, middle, and end, but across pieces that can also stand alone, do you need an arc for an end?

An arc is full of tension. A wave that builds until it breaks, and you hope you are not the surfer crushed beneath it. Not many of us surf. We bob up and down as far as we can stand; we dip our toes in and let little waves crash against our ankles; we take a walk down the shoreline instead, avoiding the water altogether. We explore. “A meander begins at one point and moves toward a final one, but with digressive loops,” writes Alison (117), and in this meandering, “there’s a deliberate slowness, a delight in curving this way or that, luxuriating in diversions, carving slow labyrinths of time” (118). 

To create structure for Well of Souls, I made an outline that served as questions and answers, because that was fundamentally what the book was. I wasn’t telling the story of the banjo’s history, but instead trying to lay out what we knew about its earliest history and what we didn’t, and answer as many questions as I could along the way. Babine might say this type of story is more akin to Assay Mode, when the mind creates the energy, when the writer is testing ideas, tracking consciousness. We might have an idea, move towards it, and then need to walk it back. We are discovering something, and it leads us farther and farther down a rabbit hole. We are learning things as each part becomes something of a whole, bigger than what we could have imagined at the beginning. 

The questions I asked in my original outline were tied to what I academically called “markers of cultural continuity”–things that I saw repeated over those 200 years and multiple continents: songs, specific roles and movements in ritual dances, and instruments. This first structure was a meander, a guided tour through history where things were connected, and I pointed them out along the way.

A meander doesn’t need to follow a timeline, though. In The Argonauts, Nelson begins with meeting her future partner Harry. Then she reflects on domesticity when she lived in New York City, years before Harry. We jump forward to almost the present, when a friend sees a coffee mug at Nelson’s house. On it is a photo from 2012 where Nelson is “seven months pregnant with what will become Iggy, wearing a high ponytail and leopard print dress; Harry and his son are wearing matching dark suits, looking dashing. We’re standing in front of the mantel at my mother’s house, which has monogrammed stockings hanging from it. We look happy.” Her friend’s thought: “I’ve never seen anything so heteronormative in my life” (12-13). And this is all within the first thirteen pages. 

Her book is not about queerness, happiness, motherhood, pregnancy, feminism, sexuality, heteronormativity, masculinity, or identity. Instead, she moves through these concepts, building on them and leaving parts behind using both her own experiences and the language of theorists, scientists and other writers. It is as if she is the Argo, adding new ideas, experiences and feelings to the building blocks of her, replacing her own parts, but in the end, she will still be called the Argo. She has digressive loops, but they are assembling something (or someone) larger. 

Elissa Washuta doesn’t want to delay an ending; she doesn’t want White Magic to wander. She’s been in the loops and wants out. She admits in the Act II essay that she hasn’t arrived at the complication, the rising action of the arc yet. But there is a complication: she isn’t really moving on the arc. “I haven’t made a mess yet. This is the part where I circle the shore of a lake and walk the riverbank. Where I keep leaving and then become a dry place all my own. This part is a map, and I lose it” (146). In the first three essays, she explores her ancestry, her need for alcohol, her need for her boyfriend Carl, her entrance to the world and a doorway out, growing up in a haunted place and being in danger. Like Nelson, it isn’t time-linear, but we feel a beginning. 

She also introduces us to the loops. In the first essay of Act II, she admits that she has seen her future self and in the last essay, that her ex-boyfriend has seen her past self. And throughout the three essays, she writes about the colonization of land and water, the colonization of Native womens’ bodies, and the spirits all around her. Going through the loops is what will get her out. 

Something happens with a meander when those digressions and curves move in the same direction. Alison writes, “A spiral begins at a point and moves onward, not extravagant or lackadaisical like a meander, but smooth and steady, spinning around and around that central point or single axis” (143). She uses Jamaica Kincaid’s Mr. Potter as an example, writing, “A preoccupied (haunted?) narrator turns around and around in her hands the most potent moments of her past, gazing at repeating patterns and shapes as she spins” (156). 

In creating the structure of questions and answers, I was haunted by three questions: What was the instrument’s physical structure?; What was the dance it was a part of?; and Where did the name banjo come from?. Each chapter was trying to answer one of these questions, but they were all circling around a bigger question: how were these questions all connected? The single point or axis I was circling around was the realization that the banjo was a ritual device (instrument) used during religious ceremonies (dance), and that the word banjo comes from that dance (name).

All the themes in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts are related. The beginning of the book begins early in Nelson and Harry’s relationship, and she also recounts how they will grow into a family and Nelson will give birth to Iggy. As she revolves through happiness (meeting Harry, become a couple), queerness (understanding what that means in the context of their relationship and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition of queerness), sexuality (where we find pleasure), parenting (her discussion of Donald Winnicott combined with step-parting Harry’s son), identity (Harry’s first talk of surgery), motherhood (Iggy being born and her return to work), and freedom, there is no timeline. She jumps back and forth between 2007 when she meets Harry to the period she is working on the book (published in 2015). 

Halfway through The Argonauts, Nelson decides to stay in the year 2011. “Me, four months pregnant, you six months on T. We pitched out, in our inscrutable hormonal soup, for Fort Lauderdale, to stay for a week at the beachside Sheraton in monsoon season, so that you could have top surgery by a good surgeon and recover,” she writes (79). From this point until twenty-four hours after Iggy’s birth (108), Nelson remains in her pregnancy. She doesn’t jump forward or backward in time. The reader is in the eye of the hurricane, where all those themes that have been spinning around finally stop: she is going to become a mother, Harry will get the freedom of surgery and being on T, and they will be a family (sometimes even mistaken for a heteronormative family). 

Then, after Iggy’s birth, the narrative spins outward again. But added to the themes now is fear: right before Iggy’s conception, she was harassed by a stalker; she divulges Harry’s having been gay-bashed; she is afraid of a postpartum crash; her mom tells her about the dead babies in the killing fields of Cambodia; she goes into detail about Harry’s mom’s cancer; she reveals Iggy’s illness after birth. That seeming calm of happiness has never really been there, it has always been clouded by these fears. And yet, when she exits the spiral, the happiness is there. Her time with Iggy “has been the happiest time of my life,” she writes. “Its happiness has been of a more palpable and undeniable and unmitigated quality than any I’ve ever known. For it isn’t just moments of happiness, which is all I thought we got. It’s a happiness that spreads” (141). 

White Magic also has a center. Right before Act III, Elissa Washuta tells us that “traveling along my research questions, I went off course and ended up in no-place, a hole, right where I needed to be” (259). A hole is the opposite on an arc, she is at the lowest point now, but in the opening essay to Act III, she writes that as she was working to complete the book, she felt herself “traveling toward the final time loop’s exit, or close to solving a riddle” (264). The time loops are all moving in the direction. 

In the first essay of Act III, “My Heartbreak Workbook,” she decolonizes her body. She tells the “softboys of Tinder” and “men of my history… I do not want you badly enough to let you grip the rim of the hole, climb in, and leave it full of emojis and cum. The hole is perfect and you cannot touch it” (278). In “The Spirit Cabinet,” she writes that “the time loops are tightening” (282) and moves from January to December, jumping between things that happened in her life in 2016, 2017, and 2018, quotes about magic, and parts of Twin Peaks, “a show about the unexplained, the mystical, and the cycles of violence and neglect to which women find themselves tethered” (283). Books, movies, and experiences that have appeared in the preceding essays appear again; all of it is here. And so, “The year ends. I exit the timeline,” (388) she concludes. In the final essay, “In Him We Have Redemption Through His Blood,” Washuta becomes obsessed with the video game Red Dead Redemption 2, where she gallops on an imaginary horse in an imagined American West in 1899. Here, she can exit the loop and restart the game when she wants. These narratives are pleasing, real life is not: “Living inside narratives means becoming an insight machine, and I am tired of realizing–that word is a lie. Conjuring up epiphanies doesn’t make anything real” (400). Trying to make a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end doesn’t make sense, because she can always begin again: “I restart again and again because the worst part of the story is the end” (402).

The novels that Alison discusses in Meander, Spiral, Explode “have dealt powerfully with core human matters,” both large, like the “transtlatic slave trade” or “the toxic history of whites and Native Americans,” and personal, “issues of sexual identity, love, despair, guilt” (247). The structure they chose was “the pattern the material needed,” she writes. 

I think you can see an echo of structure in subject. Or subject lends itself to structure, consciously or subconsciously. 

But spirals can do other things, too. “People have been painting, drawing, carving spirals since the Neolithic period, when the spiral might have been a symbol of life cycles, childbirth, and female reproduction” (160), Alison writes. The Argonauts, Nelson almost tells us plainly with the title, is about transformation, that which comes from pregnancy and motherhood, with identifying as queer, with finding a partner and creating a family. She partially does arrive at that transformation through the parts (mostly figurative) of herself being replaced, through the blocks of crots that make up the text, through the meanders of so many ideas. But she also does it through introspection, the internal examinations that fit spiral narratives so well. 

“As a symbol indicating the voyage into one’s inner self, the spiral is a favorite (I hear) in witchcraft,” Alison writes (162). Washuta has tried to tell us that White Magic has an arc, that it has a beginning, middle, and end. But at the end, she wants to begin again. We can journey through ourselves again; we can cast spells again. She can exit the time loop and re-enter it, she can break the cycles of violence and colonization and still be aware of them. And she can have an arc and a spiral, tension in a circle leading to a hole or apex, and then spinning out again.

I didn’t go looking to create a spiral narrative in Well of Souls; it was just the structure that worked. “A spiral narrative could be a helix winding downward…deep into the past,” (143), Alison writes, and can be useful for digging into our expectations about ourselves or the world.  Well of Souls has to be a spiral. It bounds across music (where themes are repeated and circle back), dance (where the same gestures repeated can create the literal movement of the piece), and religion, spirituality, and what some would consider magic (where the repetition of rites can create new reality). Sometimes a few chapters stall on a question and sometimes they’ve been re-arranged. This isn’t the perfect spiral of an artist, but of a child’s shaky hand. 

Kristina Gaddy is one of the editors of true and the author of Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Edelweiss Pirates, Teenagers Who Resisted the Nazis and Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History. She loves thinking and talking about nonfiction structure.


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