Stories Don’t Always Need a Conventional Structure

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Nancy McCabe said when she got the invitation to teach at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center during Week Eight, she began planning for her reading, workshop and Brown Bag — all key elements of a writer-in-residence’s visit.

She soon realized all three pieces focused on the same topic: story structure.

McCabe is Week Eight’s prose writer-in-residence, and she’ll deliver her Brown Bag, “Visualizing Story Structure,” at 12:15 p.m. August 19 on the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.

She’s the author of four memoirs, and her debut novel, Following Disasters, is set for release in October. She teaches in Spalding University’s Master of Fine Arts program and is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize.

McCabe said her lecture is inspired by her own writing interests as well as her teaching.

“I got really interested in this a while back, because I think at heart I’m kind of traditional about the way I believe stories are most successfully told,” McCabe said. “But I don’t want to end up being rigid about that, because I teach a lot, and I don’t want my students to think I’m saying, ‘You must do it this way, and that’s the only way to do it.’ ”

That got her interested in looking at alternative story structures and figuring out how they worked differently from her own way of writing. After reading, she said, she found herself experimenting with new structures in her own work “just to see what would happen” and found herself surprised by the results.

McCabe said experimenting with those new forms — even when she found them unsuccessful — often gave her new insight into a story or a new way to frame it. She wrote an essay in the form of a women’s magazine quiz, called “Can This Troubled Marriage Be Saved: A Quiz,” something she thought would never work.

“And it’s the essay that I’ve gotten the most feedback about from readers,” McCabe said.

McCabe said she’ll give her audience some examples of writers who use non-traditional story structures, such as Michele Morano, who uses grammar lessons, Laura Esquivel, who uses recipes in Like Water for Chocolate and Lorrie Moore, who imitates self-help writing in her stories.

Those different types of structures shape the way we view narratives, McCabe said. Poets have been borrowing and using unconventional forms forever, but prose writers can learn a lot from it, too, she said.

McCabe also wants to underline what makes a good story, regardless of its traditional or nontraditional structure.

“The talk really emphasizes the elements that all stories, at least in the Western tradition, have in common,” McCabe said.

McCabe said she’s excited to share her talk with the audience at Chautauqua because she knows it’s a community of readers — readers who might give her new reading suggestions and ask her tough questions.

“It’s a great audience,” McCabe said. “Writers definitely — there are some audiences that are better than others when we do readings and talks. And Chautauqua is definitely one of those great audiences.”


The author Ryan Pait

Ryan Pait gets a different haircut every summer to keep the people of Chautauqua guessing. This is his fourth summer at The Chautauquan Daily, so if you’re tired of him, that’s OK. He recently graduated with his master’s degree in literature from Western Kentucky University. Don’t ask him about what he’s doing after this summer, but do ask him about the Nicole Kidman renaissance, the return of “Game of Thrones” and what he’s reading.