On Searching for a Book’s Structure

July 30, 2018 § 15 Comments

rae_pBy Rae Pagliarulo

I’ve been trying to find a structure for my book. You know, the book that doesn’t exist. The one I haven’t written yet.

It’s like building a house when you don’t have any furniture yet. Wait, no – that’s a totally normal thing to do. Nobody builds a house based on what furniture they have. What a crappy metaphor.

Okay – trying to build a structure for a book you haven’t written yet is like opening a restaurant before you have any recipes. Or plates. Or silverware. Or money. I think that works. Does that work?


I have a folder in my Google Drive where I collect all the new things I’m writing. Not the long, meandering documents where I braindump about how I’m talentless and unmotivated and will never achieve the literary greatness I know I am destined for. No, I just put in the essay starts. The intriguing sentences. The snippets of dialogue. The scenes I can’t stop replaying in my head. The stuff that will probably turn into something.

Some of them turn into flash pieces, brief and bursting with detail and images. Some of them are long, drawn-out stories with background and context and reflection. Some are about the central narrative in my life – my relationship with my father. Some are totally unrelated – stories about my first love, jobs I’ve had, minor disasters. (Although – are they unrelated? That’s a different conversation.)

When I look at them all together, mismatched shreds of stories clashing, I wonder – how can I somehow create a cohesive thing, in which all of these pieces make sense?


A mosaic is defined as “a combination of diverse elements forming a more or less coherent whole.” Also, as a verb – “to combine distinct or disparate elements to form a picture or pattern.” Disparate. Diverse. Distinct. Coming together to create a pattern. More or less. Maybe that could work as an extended metaphor. I like that.*


Sometimes I feel like I can’t write another thing until I know what my structure is. Am I writing super-short essays with an overarching metaphor connecting them, like Beth Ann Fennelly did in Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs? Am I creating a braided narrative with four or five (or ten) distinct story lines, all with their own themes and recurring images, like Maggie Nelson did in Bluets? Am I manipulating an established form to illustrate my story through content and context like Joan Wickersham did with The Suicide Index? Or am I writing in-depth, longer essays that seamlessly merge research, personal narrative, and cultural context like Meghan Daum did in The Unspeakable? Maybe I’m meditating deeply on one core idea and creating surprising connections through a wide variety of stories from my life like Megan Stielstra did in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life.


Sometimes I feel like I’ll never know what structure will work for me unless I keep writing, keep telling stories, keep getting it all out of me and working on it and manipulating it and rewriting it and rewriting it again. The stories will tell me what kind of house they want to live in, maybe. Are they in charge? Or am I? Who is our real estate agent? Do we want a condo or a split level?

This metaphor is not working.


I envy writers who can see the skeleton of their story before they’ve written it. A colleague of mine is teaching a class next semester on planning and outlining your novel. That stuns me. Is it possible for nonfiction writers to do the same thing with their essay collections and memoirs? Yes, it is. Just not for me.


So, I keep searching, questioning – and yes, essaying – towards a form, while trying to be comfortable with the journey. I know that, based on the way I work, and the discovery that occurs while I am working through an essay, I won’t be able to frame out the house before I’ve bought the furniture. I’ll have to keep collecting chaises and end tables, filing away scraps of vivid wallpaper and lush fabric, and I’ll have to believe that the pieces I’m compiling will eventually tell the story of a three-story townhouse near the water, with a screened-in back deck and bay windows in the front. I’ll have to keep the faith, as the dining chairs and throw pillows continue to pile up, that once I find that townhouse and fill it with all my treasures, the lot of it will make sense. Not just a house, but a home.

Huh. I guess the metaphor works after all.

Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and r.kv.r.y. quarterly, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.


Author and editor Steven Church also tackles finding a structure for a book of essays in his 2015 Brevity Blog post “How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book.


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