SARAH VEST – STAFF WRITER
Structure is a literary device that — when used correctly — is unnoticed by the reader but critical to the work. Week Seven’s prose writer-in-residence, T. Geronimo Johnson, uses structure in his prose writing to navigate both the literal and more abstract meanings of the word.
He will be giving a Brown Bag lecture for the Chautauqua Writers’ Center titled “The Hook: An X-Ray” at 12:15 p.m. EDT Aug. 13 on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch.
Johnson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Stregner Fellow. His novel Hold It ‘Til It Hurts was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and selected by the Wall Street Journal Book Club. His other novel, Welcome to Braggsville, a national bestseller, was shortlisted for the Hurston Wright Legacy Award, longlisted for the National Book Award and for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. He’s also been a finalist for The Bridge Book Award, a finalist for the Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award and included on Time magazine’s list of the top 10 books of the year. He is currently a fellow of the American Academy in Rome. He is a recipient of the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, the Ernest J. Gaines Award and the inaugural Simpson Family Literary Prize.
Johnson said for his Brown Bag his “aim is to be practical.” He wants to draw focus from typical literary devices like theme and symbolism and instead focus on structure on the macro and micro level. In other words, everything from chapters to sentences.
One way that he wants to try and demonstrate the importance of structure is by slowing down the attendees’ experience of a text. He said that he will select a piece that reads swiftly and smoothly and guide the writers through finding what makes it work.
Johnson said he will be basing what he focuses on for his Brown Bag — either sentence structure or scene structure — on what is going on inside his weeklong workshop, titled “The Hook,” where he has been analyzing formal craft elements with his students.
When Johnson talks about structure, he’s not just referring to the arrangements of large units like chapters or the technical aspects of putting together a sentence, but also navigating emotional moments.
He points to his novel Welcome to Braggsville as an example. He said that at times he used humor to “offset the sense of pervasive sadness or disappointment” that appears in the book. According to Johnson, how a writer weaves these elements together can alter how a reader perceives the story, and can give the book a “pulse.”
This kind of structure, according to Johnson, is easier to see in poetry because the author is looking at devices like enchantment or structural elements like line breaks. However, he argues that the same things that are happening in a poem also happen in a novel.
“Structure is a way of describing this network of aesthetic, and maybe some tactical and dramatic decisions that you make,” Johnson said, “and, hopefully, arrange in a way that creates the harmony that’s best for the book.”