THE QUILT STRUCTURE AS A LITERARY STRATEGY
Many modern lives do not look like a Hero’s Journey or a Quest. They are too full of unrelated stops and starts. Women’s lives especially, are fragmented by constant interruptions. You are pursuing a career, then stop for a while to raise your children while they are young, then you may work with your husband in his office, stop to care for an invalid relative, divorce and remarry, go back to school in an entirely new field. Men’s lives now, too, are more fragmented than they used to be. You may be following a quest in your chosen career only to find that it has been eliminated by new technologies; you retrain and find a new job only to be laid off; you may live with periods of unemployment and incrementally, lowered salary expectations, which makes the hero’s linear quest an inapt model for your life.
The quilt image, patched together from fragments worth saying, provides and alternative image for a life’s structure. It bears similarity to a particularly modern literary strategy of assembling many short pieces (often short stories) into an extended work. For instance, George Saunders’ extraordinary Tenth of December, Stories, Random House, 2013. When you follow the quilt model of assembling a work, you spontaneously write and collect pieces that seem to you thematically related. As you proceed, a pattern or story begins to link the pieces. Certain areas will easily cluster, but you won’t have the whole picture until it is all in place.
Contemporary autobiographic story collections such as Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness, and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted follow a quiltlike structure in that each story stands on its own, and looked at together, the assembled stories tell a larger story. In quiltlike structures, the attempt to create smooth transitions is dispensed with in favor of tighter unity within each story or chapter. Transitions are often like cinematic cuts, which leave it to the viewer to read-in links between disparate pieces set side by side.
In a quiltlike book there is often a series of discrete minor character arcs instead of one major one. An unresolved problem expresses itself first in one story and then in another. The final realization in the last story is possible because of all the realizations in the story have led up to it.
It could be said that the edited diaries of Anais Nin are another type of autobiographic quilt. They were set down spontaneously as natural diaries, but when Nin chose to publish them, she went back and edited and rewrote from the perspective of a later point in time. She decided what her themes would be in each volume and edited for those themes, eliminating whatever did not seem relevant. In the first edited Diary (1931-1934), her central theme is the young woman becoming an artist; in Diary II (1934-1939), it is the discovery of inner time as opposed to outer time. Later volumes lack comparable unity, but the importance of Nin’s work is not so much in her skill as writer/editor and not in her faithfulness to literal truth. Although overlooked, Nin’s importance is in creating a new hybrid literary form, something between diary and autobiography.
Writing a single autobiographic short story that could (or might not) become part of a book length work is a great way to begin writing for those who don’t want to dive into the deep-end of a full length memoir. Autobiographic short stories are easier than ever to publish in literary e-journals or as audible stories for This American Life or The Moth. The short stories you see in old school popular magazines such as Vogue and Seventeen are of autobiographic short stories published as fiction.
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