Venus on Mars

Structural Integrity

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on December 11, 2009

The Baronial Mansion - click to see how it grew (you have to wait 5 seconds)

The 16-room structure that came to be known as “The Baronial Mansion” at Lowell Observatory began its life in the 1890’s as a modest 4-room “observer’s house.”  When more house was needed, more house was built, piecemeal fashion.  The house grew larger but its structural integrity diminished as the original frame, beams and foundation were forced to support more walls, floors, ceilings, doors, windows, furniture and fireplaces.  Eventually the building failed and had to be torn down.

The inhabitants of the house – including Percival Lowell and his assistant Wrexie Leonard – most likely did not concern themselves with structural integrity, since this was not the part of the house they saw as they slept, dined, danced and worked in the library (a cozy room added on much later, and the only part of the house still standing).

Like the folks who once lived in the Baronial Mansion, I have been ignoring for the most part the structural integrity of the story I’m writing about them.  When my story needed a new part, I came up with it and added it to the existing story, thinking only vaguely, if at all, about the overall structure of the novel.  I think I resist structuring my writing in an early stage because I’m searching for what poet Denise Levertov calls “organic form,” a structure that  exists within a subject or experience from the beginning.  It is the writer’s job, she says, to “discover and reveal” this intrinsic structure.

Sometimes structure seems intrinsic: a journal is structured over time, each entry a neat subset of the overall span of time covered in the journal.  Historical fiction at least has some structure as its basis is in actuality – events that happened at precise times in the past.  Balancing a story on such natural structures can be a good way to start, maybe even to get through a complete first draft, as I have just done.  But eventually the writer has to judge for himself/herself whether the story can support itself, or whether its structural underpinnings need to be made stronger.

We write however we can get ourselves to write and keep writing.  Writing without attention to structure, I firmly believe, is far better than not writing at all, or writing in a constipated way, trying to force content into a rigidly defined, pre-ordained form.

Like the ramshackle Baronial Mansion, my narrative has grown over time from a few unorganized notions into 250 pages I find difficult to manage because I can no longer keep the entire narrative in my head all at once.  I can no longer read it all in one sitting, and now I have to attend to its structural integrity.

Aristotle wrote about what he called “magnitude and order,” the scale of any story as relative to its presentation:

“the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous.”

I had to look up the word “perspicuous” – it means “plain to the understanding especially because of clarity and precision of presentation”)

In other words, the larger a structure, whether house or narrative, the more important that it have “good bones,” a well-constructed form on which the entire story can live.  The bones are not readily visible and may not ever be consciously experienced by a reader, but without them, the entire piece can fail.

“There is something else new about the mansion,” my character Lulu writes after the building is expanded and renovated in 1903.  “When the new rooms were added, a passageway was carved out of the cellar, running diagonally underneath all the new rooms, with narrow stairs and a trap door at each end…but its purpose from its inception had eluded me.”

Rumors have circulated over the years about why the secret passage was built, most alluding to Percival Lowell’s need to be discreet in his ongoing relations with his assistant, but no one has been able to say for sure.  It’s a part of the Baronial Mansion that cannot be explained, built underneath the rest of the structure, but not an integral part of the whole, and, quite possibly one of the reasons the building ultimately failed.

“For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.”

Aristotle again, who pretty much had an argument for everything.  The unity of construction depends not only on all its parts working together, but also on the builder being able to judge whether each part actually serves a purpose.

Which brings us to structure as metaphor.  In my story the underground passage serves a narrative purpose, an alternate route for getting from one place to another, wormhole style, birth-canal style, its precise structure unknown because it’s down there where it’s dark.  Illumination is necessary for seeing, but all my characters have to spend some time in the dark before they see the light of day.

I think this metaphor may run underneath my entire story like the actual underground passage ran beneath the Baronial Mansion, either providing structural integrity or contributing to structural failure.  This is the part I have to figure out.

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