The Shapes of Things: Letting Content Determine Form

When I worked with my father on our farm, I often found myself frustrated with a task I couldn’t perform—a rusted nut that couldn’t be turned, a grease zerk that was hard to reach, a saw blade that kept catching. When I’d say I couldn’t do something, my father would say, “Can’t never did nothing.” Then, he’d set about coming up with a workaround. A pipe slipped over a wrench handle to give us more leverage, a flexible hose for the grease gun to ease our way to that tricky zerk, motor oil poured over the saw blade to keep it from sticking. Farming was my father’s passion. He always saw a way to accomplish a chore. If one effort wouldn’t do the trick, he found a way to modify his method.

I often tell the story of how I wrote two hundred pages of my novel, The Bright Forever, before I realized what it was about the story that really interested me. I wasn’t so much interested in the crime at the heart of that novel as I was its effects on various populations in my fictional Indiana small town. I tossed those two hundred pages and started over. “Dude, are you okay?” a concerned high school student in Nebraska asked me when I told that story. I doubt that he could imagine ever writing two hundred pages, and to throw them away? To his way of thinking, I must have been mad. I told him that was the best day because that was the day I finally knew why I was writing that novel.

So it is with everything we write. The question of how to shape something comes from the reason you’re writing it. What is it about the material that matters deeply to you? What are you trying to explore? What mystifies you? What are you curious about? What shape best allows the full exploration of the beating heart of your work? Sometimes we have to write a lot of pages before we know the answers to these questions. At some point, though, our intentions become clear to us. At that point, we can re-evaluate our form to see whether a modification might better allow the full expression of what we’ve come to the page to do. To my way of thinking, content always dictates form. Sometimes, though, we have to live with what we’ve first set down so we can better know it. Once we know why we’re writing what we’re writing, we can better know the shape it has to take.

I remember all the trials and errors my father and I went through to accomplish a task. If one workaround proved to be ineffective, my father thought of another one. We were as far apart as a father and son could be when it came to our interests, but eventually the writer I became would understand we shared a faith that if we worked long enough and hard enough, we’d get where we wanted to go. Such is the case with rusted nuts, stubborn zerks, and cantankerous sawblades. Sooner or later, the nut turns, the zerk gets greased, the sawblade glides. And such is the case for our writing. Sooner or later, the content yields the form. We know where we are in the material and why we’re there. The writing is easier after that.






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