(Note from Team OTB: This review/meditation on Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode is the work of Allie Tunstall, our MFA-in-Residence from George Mason University. Watch this space for more blog posts from Allie to come! Happy reading, and hope to see you in the shop soon!)
Jane Alison, author of Meander, Spiral, Explore: Design and Patterns in Narrative, is confidently deconstructing the traditional arch found in many narratives today, and I am sitting on a wooden bench, her book in my hands, and thinking about the dozens of drafts of essays on my computer told in the same structure.
It’s a Thursday night in Alexandria at Old Town Books, and Alison is doing a reading from her newest book that explores structures and patterns in stories that deviate from the traditional storytelling many of us read on a daily basis. She asserts that far too often the climatic arc has been the go-to technique to tell a story, a technique that has made stories structured and predictable. Her voice is confident, but is a little mischievous as well, her voice rising and falling with the questions she is reading from her text. It’s as if she is inviting the audience to not only ponder the very questions she is asking, but also to ponder the very person reading it.
Alison was born in Australia but traveled the world her entire life with her father, who was in the foreign service, and her family. In Meander, Spiral, Explore, Alison quickly touches on a story from her youth. Her parents and another couple switched partners for a period of time, an interesting event that continued to lead her around the world. It took her to D.C., to Princeton, to different programs she has taught in, to Germany, and everywhere under the sun. She has published six books in her career, including a memoir and four novels. It is a life that does not have a traditional pattern. It is a life that meanders, spirals, and explodes.
I admit that I never read really thought about these other structures. I loved to read growing up and spent any available time reading a book. Even if I didn’t have any available time, I was still reading. I remember sitting in my math class when I was a sophomore in high school, a stack of textbooks on the left corner of my desk that concealed the novel I had open next to them. The person in front of me acted as barrier as well. I read about 30 books a year (I wasn’t exactly a fast reader.) I absorbed novels my entire adolescence. From Harry Potter to Nora Roberts romance novels, I read whatever I could get my hands on. I wasn’t until I entered my junior year of college when I changed my major to Creative Writing that I was introduced to more experimental work that has stuck with me for years. Gabriel Urza’s debut novel, All That Followed, comes to mind. Told in three perspectives that lead you down multiple paths and revelations, creating a more nuanced understanding of the events. It’s not a straight, linear narrative; it circles and radiates from a point of tension.
Despite my introduction to experimental narratives, I had a difficult time translating it to my own writing. I could spot an experimental form when I read it, of course, but transferring those kinds of structures to my own writing never really happened. It’s now three years later and I am a second year MFA student with a concentration in nonfiction at George Mason University. It has been years since I have written fiction, years since I have had to create an entire world from scratch. For the past two years, I have focused on writing personal and research narrative essays for my classes. As I enter into my third and final year of my MFA, my thesis focuses on a mix of both personal and research essays that explore my roots in the Midwest. I’ve started writing these essays, which explore a number of topics like the polite science found in the Midwest, sexuality and foe-liberalism, road trips and economics, chronic illness and family, and more. But I’ve hit a road block. My writing has felt stunted for a period of time. The narrative too linear, too predictable. Everything seems to lead to a climactic moment, one that usually revolves around a something traumatic happening, followed by an attempt to understand it. It has worked in the past; I’ve written essays about chronic illness and stigma that culminate in a moment of tension when I am diagnosed. These essays have been successful. Those moments are traumatic and tense, exactly what I felt when it happened. But that was years ago, and I no longer feel that way. I’ve grown beyond the understanding that it was a traumatic thing that happened to me. It’s more complicated and nuanced, just like I am. So, shouldn’t my narrative and how I structure it reflect the same thing?
I was skeptical when Alison read from her book, I will admit. I still love those climatic arcs and the rising action it takes to get there. I love films that follow that narrative as well. Avengers: Endgame has been out for five days and I have seen it twice already. It relies on that rising action and climax in multiple scenes and it’s done well.
But then other movies rely on something more experimental. Arrival does this with its narrative and structure. Everything builds and radiates and offers new understanding of what we had just seen a moment or half an hour before. I think of Gabriel Urza’s book and how its structure takes you down different paths. I think of W.G. Sebald’s book Rings of Saturn and its meandering structure that builds off of what you read thirty pages ago, which brings new meaning to those pages.
Alison deconstructs a theory from a critic, Robert Scholes, who explains that “sophisticated” fiction “consists of delaying climax within the framework of desire in order to prolong the pleasurable act itself,” comparing it to sex and climax. She responds by saying, “Is this how I experience sex? It is not.”
I chuckle at this line, but I also ponder the larger implication it is offering. While dramatic arcs are entertaining and heart-stopping, do they really reflect the life they are trying to portray? In some cases, yes. Genre and form do affect the choice in structure. But for stories, does following a linear arc, complete with rising action, a climax, and falling action, allow us to come to a deeper understanding of the story itself? For my work right now, I would say no. That may not be true for everyone’s writing, of course. That’s why we have the pleasure of so many different structures and narratives to explore. But for me, in order to understand beyond the moment I am writing about, an experimental form like the Radius, Spiral, or Cell might be the perfect thing to open up my writing and exploration of my life. Because a well-told story is not just the narrative; it’s also how you tell it. And how you tell it allows for a greater truth to explore, question, or answer. It allows one to portray life as life is. Something that is not predictable. Something that has many climatic moments or doesn’t really have any at all. It’s something that meanders and spirals and explodes.
Get your copy of Jane Alison’s book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Patterns in Narratives at Old Town Books in Alexandria.