In our features department, our writers use storytelling to explore the people and places of the Lower Midwest. But as Jane Alison wrote recently in the Paris Review, not all stories have the same shape. It all depends. A linear narrative, chronological and tidy, can flatten the richness of scenes worth dwelling on and revisiting. John McPhee diagrammed some of the tales he’s told and found an array of structures, none of them the standard climb-up-the-mountain sequence of conflict, climax, and resolution. In the five features we’re sharing with you in Issue 08: Endurance, our writers have created a diversity of narrative forms. Here’s an exploration of those forms from our bird’s eye view as editors.
When the title of a feature has the word “trails” in it, mapping out its narrative path and structure is a journey already begun. Jacqueline Alnes’s essay on ultra-marathoner Allyson Geschwentner traces Allyson for 100 miles and more as she completes the Hawk Hundred, weaving in memories on the runner’s veganism, childhood in Kansas and relationship to the sport. It doesn’t hurt when the writer of a piece on running is a decorated runner herself: Jacqueline’s essay on illness, memory and running (naturally) is featured in Guernica, and she’s working on a memoir about running and neurological issues.
Like a long-distance race, this piece has a clear destination in mind, a finish line of sorts, which turns out to be the literal finish line of the Hawk Hundred. While the essay’s structure drives forward, Alnes has a wonderful habit of looping back into Allyson’s past, meandering on moments and memories that allowed her to compete come race day, only to lead us fluidly back to a crystalline image of Allyson as she crests a hill at mile 25. Alnes navigates this by inserting herself ever so slightly into the piece as a cheerleader, a confidante with whom to share rawnola and watermelon at an aid station, a fellow runner who understands the urgency to finish and the pain that is a rock in the road.
My favorite image proves Alnes is a great interviewer — and that ultra-marathons are insane. Late in the race, in the middle of the night, Allyson’s mind tricks her into seeing “bugs crawl[ing] across the maze of roots on the trail,” with dawn the only thing to burn the hallucination away. Alnes’s wordsmithing sheds light and brings life to Allyson’s recollections, never overstepping into pure fictionalization nor leaving images barren where the soil is rich.
Both Feet on the Floor, Two Hands on the Wheel
Andy’s reflective and tender essay on growing up with music and watching his kids grow up to some of the same is arranged in chronological order, but don’t miss how he’s playing with time. It’s not as simple as events ticked off one after the other. Instead, there are two time-jumps in the piece: one from adolescence to parenthood and another looking ahead to the future. Picture a timeline crumpled and pushed together at two points, like a map with two creases in it. Yet the two transitions are so subtly handled that the reader doesn’t notice that years have passed yet suddenly finds themself looking from a different perspective. A young man growing up in Indiana, the first person in the story of his life, suddenly finds himself as a supporting character in the unfolding narrative of his two children.
The smoothness of this leap through time reflects something essential about memory and the passage of years. One can feel like one’s own adolescence just happened, in a way still exists internally, and yet through the accretion of unnoticed steps through time, suddenly the teenager has become the adult seeing young people from the outside. What Andy does in his essay is both an elegy to growing up and an act of empathy to those currently doing so, a balancing between perspectives that demands heavy lifting from the writer’s imagination.
Wild Winds on the Grand
My writing instructor Toby Lester talked about features as if they were trains, with different scenes acting as the cars and the intro propelling all the cars onward. This seems like the best metaphor for the interlocking architecture of George Frazier’s feature. It moves between the vivid immediacy of a canoe ride on Missouri’s Grand River — full of fast currents, log-jams, and sandbars — and a lucid historical exploration of that same river. Though the reader travels back and forth in time, George ensures it all feels bolted together. It’s a structure that’s built for heavy cargo, giving weighty historical issues momentum and propelling them forward. In George’s captivating introduction, where he first puts his canoe in the water full of excitement and trepidation for the journey to come, you can hear the revving engine that will carry the rest of the train along with it. Suddenly the train is in motion, and it would be challenging — perhaps even unsafe — for the reader to try to hop off.
A Deer For Today, A Deer For Tomorrow
Sarah Hoffman’s photo essay isn’t primarily a prose narrative like our other features, but look closely and it too has its own storytelling logic. We begin in medias res with a young hunter in a field taking on the traditions of her mentors. But the straightforward chronology one expects from that scene, the young learning from the old, is complicated by the scenes placed around this central image. Sarah builds out and around the idea of hunting traditions, in a way using the logic of a spiral to complicate our assumptions. It’s not just about learning from what came before but also about change and adaptation. The best way to represent this kind of change is not a chart with a trendline but a spread of images, each commenting diagonally on the other. Rather than one photo replacing the truth of the one before it, they are in dynamic balance with each other. It’s a natural form that tolerates contradiction, and it complements the issues of conservation and land stewardship explored by the piece.
The Word Collector
There are some structures that are used and re-used for a reason: the 12-bar blues song, the sequence of chords from I, IV, and V. Avery’s piece takes on the magazine world’s version of the 12-bar blues. John McPhee represents this shape as a short coil in which you begin in the future, go back to the past, return to that first scene, and then go beyond it. My writing instructors in grad school represented it as a lowercase “e,” in which you start out with the flat line, draw an arc backwards, and pass by where you started as you finish the bottom tail. In other words: start with a gripping scene, then explain how you got there, then go past it. The simplicity of the form can obscure the demands it places on the writer: you need material that fits this shape. You need a gripping scene, a surprising narrative of how one arrived there and a conclusion that takes us somewhere we didn’t expect. From a reporting perspective, those things don’t come easily. But Avery has those crucial materials and deploys them effectively.
The piece begins by introducing us to Ray Young Bear, a writer who lives in Meskwaki Tribal Settlement in Iowa. “Ray Young Bear was waiting for me before happy hour began, sitting in the corner of the bar behind a stack of papers.” It’s immediately clear that Young Bear is someone with a story to tell but that it’s not one that can be unrolled all at once. Avery’s profile shows not all writers do their pinnacle in their 30s. The way Young Bear sees it, he’s in his 60s and is just now doing his best work. The story complicates our expectations for the chronology of a writer’s life, and it celebrates how Young Bear makes use of a medley of voices to tell complicated stories. The stories within the story in Avery’s piece enrich its classic three-chord structure. What at first appeared to be one story, when you look closer, has a fractal, branching geometry.
That branching structure is one way of explaining what happens whenever you take a look at a person or a place in the Lower Midwest: you start out with one story in your head, and then you begin seeing many, many more.