“every force evolves a form”

laid out

The great thing about swimming is its capacity for meditative thinking. Not always. But sometimes, when I have something to figure out, and if I’m breathing steadily as I swim up and down the local pool, I can find my way down into the idea I’m puzzling through.  I’m going to write about it here because I know how often I read about writers and their work patterns and my own never seems to be anything like that. I’ve asked myself many times if I might in fact be a fraud, that maybe I’m not really a writer at all. But this time I actually had an insight about something and I worked out a solution that I think is pretty interesting.

Over the weekend I completed a first draft of an essay on rivers and venous systems. I was trying to understand how our veins work and how things can go wrong with them. Obviously my medical background is zero. But I also realized at recent medical appointments that there are gaps in the way doctors and other medical practitioners view (and tend to pathologize) anomalies in the human body. My essay remembers particular rivers and their origins, situating me (and my family, if required) on or in different rivers. The rivers move over and around obstacles, their water levels change, they form oxbows and meanders. I try to imagine the notion of braided rivers, channels that split off from one another for various reasons (bank erosion being one) and then rejoin each other again. And there are many correspondences with our venous system. I loved writing the first draft and now the challenge is to take the sections, written as they occurred, and make a coherence of the whole thing. The beginning is still the beginning and the end is still the end but the 12 sections in between needed some organizing.

I had in mind moving the material around on the page a little, as one would do with the sections of a poem, using the space of the page as a compositional field. Can you do this with an essay that is essentially written as straight prose? Well, maybe you can. In the pool, I remembered a little passage in one section of the essay that uses an encounter with a physiotherapist last week who was helping me to strengthen one leg.

My physiotherapist tells me that the ligaments, bones, and cartilage exist in a relationship. He braids his fingers together to show me. Then he turns them askew, like my own braided hair after I’ve slept on for a night or two, and he says our work will be to re-align the workings of my right leg. He doesn’t think it’s simply arthritis though he’s breezily convinced that everyone over 50 has some degree of it in his or her joints. He speaks of trauma, of injury. A bump or a fall or a turn too far.

So what would happen, I wondered, if I tried justifying the margins of certain sections to the right-hand side of the page rather than the left. Would you still be able to read the prose easily but might you also be able to understand how the sections are like the rivers splitting and rejoining one another, the bones and ligaments trying to do the same? Would you? Hmmm. I kept swimming up and down the pool, doing my slow kilometer, and trying to “see” the prose sections as visual correlatives of my body and the rivers I love. I know this could work with huge sheets of paper and letterpress printing, I know that space would not be an issue. But on an 8 1/2 x 11 inch page, what then?

I’ve been trying various things in my word-processing program (which isn’t Word but LibreOffice, close to Word but not exactly the same) and I’ve been cutting and taping pages to try to see which sections might look best meshing or braiding together (only at the bottom or top of a page, I guess, because otherwise there won’t be room for the actual text). And trying to remind myself that this is writing first and graphic representation second. That meaning ought to come first. But maybe there’s also room for what Guy Davenport, via Mother Ann Lee, so beautifully recognized: that “every force evolves a form.” That meaning is, in a way, a realization of aesthetic form.

one section

Ok, back to it. I can’t wait to fiddle some more.

8 thoughts on ““every force evolves a form””

  1. I’ve read poems written in this manner, so why not an essay? I think this is an example of one of the awesome things that happens when a writer has many passions and interests. I’m constantly comparing my knitting to my novel-writing, and dance choreography, gardening, and musings on cosmology…they’re all part of a whole. 🙂

  2. Fascinating. As Nita says above, why not? The form draws the eye, pleasingly, and lends a quality of prose poem to the essay. As you say, meaning ought to come first, but the form seems to add to, even emphasize, the meaning. Have you considered sending the results to CNF Mag for their Pushing the Boundaries section? It might be a perfect fit.

    1. Thanks, Chris. This still needs a fair bit of work– and it’s long, more than 6000 words. So it will probably hang around here for a bit. But it has me contemplating other kinds of shape-shifting…

  3. I love the idea of physically cutting and pasting. I recently had to edit a 50 page document, so I printed it out and took the scissors and tape to it. Worked out great! I just blogged last week about the writing process, and how we are writing even when we’re not writing. 🙂

    1. Yes, it’s somehow very liberating, to take the text and reshape it by old methods (not using “cut” and “paste”). Not everything needs this but sometimes? Yup. I recently read Jon McGregor’s gorgeous novel Reservoir 13 and he said in an interview (Paris Review) that the different narrative threads were all composed separately, then brought together in just this way! Yay!

      1. I read a story, I think it was by Terry Tempest Williams, and she said she was working on one of her books when she realized she didn’t know how best to structure it. So she ran out to a copy shop at night in her pyjamas and printed off all her pages, using different colours for different topics. Then she put them together the way they’d been in the document. She realized that there were clumps of pink pages and clumps of blue ones (for example), but they weren’t well integrated. So she started rearranging by page colour, to try and braid several topics into one narrative. For some reason that story has really stuck with me.

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