“In Search of Structure: Reflections on Form in Four Recent Book-Length Essays” by Amy Hassinger

Books Mentioned

Heather Christle, The Crying Book. New York: Catapult. 2019.

Renee Gladman, Calamities. Seattle / New York: Wave Books. 2016.

Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton / Oxford: Princeton University Press. 2015.

Terese Marie Mailhot, Heart Berries. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint. 2018.

Maggie Nelson, Bluets. Seattle / New York: Wave Books. 2009.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York: Harcourt Brace. 1922.

1. There is story and there is anti-story. But is anti-story also story?

2. I read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets—a long lyrical meditation on the color blue—on a train to Chicago. Every so often, I’d look out the window at the green September cornfields, the pickups barreling down country roads, the highway gas station/convenience marts, the occasional brick buildings with weathered signs in passing towns. I kept reading as we approached the city—the brownfields and trafficked mazes, the towers of windows and metal-railed balconies. Mostly, all I saw, all I heard, was Nelson’s language. How could all the shreds of blue garbage bags stuck in brambles, or the bright blue tarps flapping over every shanty and fish stand in the world, be, in essence, the fingerprints of God? (2)

My train arrived. I took the Brown Line, still reading as I barreled above Wacker Drive, past weathered W signs in high-rise windows (for the Cubs World Series win), then walked to my Air BnB, where I finished the book, breathless. I felt I’d hit upon the answer to my question, the question that had been bedeviling me for months, the question of how to write my own book. Like this, I thought, laying Bluets on the desk in front of me. I will write my book just like this.

3. What I’ve just written is the beginning of a story. There is a first-person narrator, a setting, a cause and effect—the initial glimmerings of plot. But I’m not writing a story here. I’m writing a book review. At least I think I am. It’s possible I’m actually writing a craft essay masquerading as a book review. Is it possible I’m also writing a story?

4. Maybe I should instead begin with Heather Christle’s The Crying Book, which my friend Carol said I should read because she knew about my question, and thought Christle’s book might help me. It’s all about crying, she told me, but it weaves science and history together with fragments of memoir and essay. I expressed polite interest at the time. It wasn’t until I saw the cover—a stylized illustration of charcoal eyes weeping big gobs of indigo-blue tears, inside of which swirled the starry night sky—that I felt I had to read it, that maybe it had been written for me.

5. Or I could begin with the interview I read in The Atlantic, in which Therese Marie Mailhot discussed her memoir-in-essays Heart Berries, which tells the story of her descent into and emergence from a devastating mental health crisis, traversing meanwhile her own troubled past. In the interview, Mailhot mentions Bluets as a primary influence, because it “taught her to explode the parameters of what a book is supposed to be.”

What is a book supposed to be? A book is supposed to be a story. Isn’t it?

6. It might even be possible to begin with Renee Gladman, whose book Calamities I met while reading The Crying Book (in one fragment, Christle quotes Gladman). Calamities is wholly experimental: a series of short playful essays, each of which begins with the phrase: “I began the day…” Her day’s beginning, then, reaches over pages and pages, a series of starts, some of them funny, some touching, some puzzling, most of them absurd, a litany of calamities that just keep beginning over and over and over.

These unending beginnings felt familiar to me, like my own draft-in-progress, a book about singing, breathing, societal grief, and apocalypse. I didn’t know whether or not I had a story, so each part I wrote felt like a new beginning. Which sounds promising, but feels demoralizing. How do you write a story that keeps beginning? Stop, I felt like telling my draft. Quit that. There has to be a middle. Then an end. That’s how a story goes.

7. Each of these possible openings that I’ve just written marks the beginning of a relationship between me and a book. The beginning of a relationship is also, of course, the beginning of a story.

8. But Bluets is not a story. It is maybe not an essay, though some call it that. Nor is it a series of prose poems, though some say it is. It is a set of 240 numbered “propositions,” each of which does something different: confesses love, provokes, presents a cryptic yet searing image, debates (speaker against speaker, Nelson against herself), defends, admits loneliness, quotes Goethe or Mallarmé, offers a piercing vision of ocean. Nelson’s structure mimics Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a philosophical treatise composed in seven meticulously subdivided propositions (“1. The world is everything that is the case. 1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things. 1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts,” etc.), which, according to Wittgenstein’s preface, might be summed up as follows: “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”

Crystalline language paired with meaningful silence: this well describes the structure of Bluets.

9. Bluets begins with a supposition, an almost-beginning: “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color” (1). We may suppose but not yet fully enter. We are on the threshold, waiting, not yet invited in.

10. “I began the day,” writes Gladman, “standing at a threshold of time—the beginning of something, the end of something. I had a method for standing that was called art, then writing. The way I stood allowed me to see how things could begin and end this way—simultaneously.” (31) All moments are thresholds, of course. Each dawn a door. Each beginning, then, already an ending.

Does that help?, I ask my draft.

No, it says. And then shrugs innocently.

11. Mailhot quotes Nelson in an epigraph to Heart Berries: “I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.” Mailhot’s epigraph is Nelson’s proposition #238, which appears on the very last page of Bluets. In other words, Mailhot’s story begins where Nelson’s anti-story ends; Heart Berries stands at Bluets’ threshold.

12. Christle also seems to borrow from Nelson by starting The Crying Book with a supposition. “I suppose some people can weep softly and become more beautiful,” (1) she begins, but in this case, it’s the speaker supposing, not the reader. The speaker introspects, while the reader observes. We are perhaps not on a threshold at all, but at a window looking in, hands cupping our eyes.

13. Deborah Tall and John d’Agata, in their influential 2007 discussion of the lyric essay, posit that now, in a time when we’re increasingly alert to the “myth of objectivity,” the lyric essay draws us because “it seems less possible (and rewarding) to approach the world through the front door.” Readers, they argue, are interested in the lyric essay precisely because it “give[s] primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information,” because “[It] forsakes narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.” It is anti-story, anti-argument. It supposes, sometimes, rather than begins.

14. Christle’s first sentence hinges on a “but,” then moves to an image: “after a real cry, most people are hideous, as if they’ve grown a spare and diseased face beneath the one you know, leaving very little room for the eyes. Or they look as if they’ve been beaten.” A violent image of a crying face, as if it is a single, shared story. But she quickly slides to the personal: a memory of being noticed after crying at school by a popular 5th grade boy. The boy said her post-cry face looked “like a druggie.” “I was so pleased to be seen,” Christle writes, “I made him repeat it.” (1) Her memory—strange, specific, unique—becomes our story.

15. And yet The Crying Book is also not story, not in the traditional sense. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end, but, it seems, only functionally, because that is how time works as we read: we start, we keep going, and eventually we get to the end. But otherwise there is very little arc and virtually no plot. Like Bluets, it proceeds in proposition-like fragments, each separated by white space marked with three asterisks. After the crying face, Christle moves to Ovid, who exhorted women to be “comely” in their weeping. After Ovid, Christle’s speaker watches herself cry in a mirror for a long period of time, observing, watching her own “mouth try to swallow despair.” (2) As she stares in her mirror, we stare—briefly—at her staring. Glimpses of her personal story refracted in the patterned light of her language and her silences. The window we began at becomes a mirror—both her mirror and ours.

So you want me to be a mirror and a threshold? my draft asks.

Well, yes, I reply. And a window. Don’t forget that.

16. Bluets, The Crying Book, Heart Berries, Calamities–these books are cousins. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that The Crying Book and Heart Berries and Calamities are three of the many children of Bluets, as Bluets is a child of Tractatus. Every book, like every child, stems from multiple ancestral lines. Fruitful books, like fruitful children, sprout new lines, which branch into new familial territories.

The word branching borrows the language of trees. But it might also describe root structures or networks: tendrils of fungi spreading beneath forests; neurons firing across gaps to other neurons; arteries connecting with veins connecting with capillaries, connecting with breath; fiber optics zinging information through neighborhoods and across the globe. This bifurcating shape describes not only the way books birth new books, but also the structure of some books, like The Crying Book, like Bluets. Maybe like Calamities. These books seem to branch more than they arc.

17. What I want to know is whether this branching structure—which seems to mimic both organic and inorganic patterns so faithfully—is truer, somehow, than story? Must a story always be a lie?

18. Well, and why shouldn’t it be? I speak as if truth were possible apart from lies. “I learned,” writes Mailhot, “how story was always meant to be for Indian women: immediate and necessary and fearless, like all good lies.” (5)

19. Mailhot’s book is memoir, which is to say story. Her story emerges out of pain, loss, and instability into greater stability and love. But it is also meta-story. The narrator reflects on her own narrative, calling it “maltreated,” and “too ugly to speak.” Telling it turned it into a “solicitation,” a “hustle”—in other words, a lie. (3) Instead, she writes it, addressing it to the “you” she loves—her current husband and former teacher—as well as, perhaps, the multiple “yous” who made her story ugly: her alcoholic, abusive father, her neglectful, beleaguered mother, her ex-husband. In writing her story—and maybe in writing her story as a story—she puts herself on a “continuum working against erasure” (111). The writing of her story transforms ugliness into beauty.

“Nothing is too ugly for this world,” she writes, ultimately, toward the book’s conclusion. “I am not too ugly for this world” (114).

20. Christle first conceived of The Crying Book as an imaginary map of all the places she’d ever cried. This imaginary map grew into a network of conversations with friends, conversations that then grew into research and discovery, which grew into the book: “a record of that time, what I learned. And go on learning.” (v) Not a story, then, but an inquiry, a gathering, an assemblage. Not an ending, but a continuance. That time and now and the time to come.

21. So is Christle’s book a map in language? And can a map be a story?

Honestly, my draft sighs. I’m getting confused.

22. Or is it instead a kind of grid, like the one Gladman imagines when trying to help her students understand poetry? Standing before the chalkboard, she wants to draw “a grid of light, as if one were looking down upon it, a grid that extended across an opaque surface, then draw, a good distance below that, a container, inside which were symbols. From the lower container, I wanted to draw lines that reached the opaque surface then became the actual lines of the grid. I would call those lines emanations. . . . I wanted to say, Often when reading poetry, it’s the grid you’re experiencing, and the grid is not the same thing as that subterranean container, where some meaning might lie, the actual story of the poem, rather it’s the shape of the emanations refracted through language and feeling.” (34)

Could it be that the fragments that make up The Crying Book are more properly thought of as emanations from the subterranean container of Christle’s own lasting, debilitating grief?

23. Except soon Gladman realizes “there was a flaw to [her] thinking. The place from which the emanations arose was not intact, it was not a container wherein lay meaning. It was a grid itself but of what I could not explain within the allotted time.” (34-5) Following this logic, Christle’s emanating container of grief is itself a grid of patterned light emanating from some other buried source.

What is that source, then? A root system? A network?

24. Is a grid the same as a network? It seems more industrial, more designed, more regular in its form. But maybe not. The word network originates from the 16th century worlds of both metallurgy and textiles to describe something made of interlaced fibers, whether cloth or metal (Levine, Forms, p. 113). Network, then, originally implied a made thing (hence the word “work”). Grid comes from gridiron—a cooking tool. Something used to transform one thing into something else. As a story does. And maybe an anti-story, too.

25. Toward the end of The Crying Book, Christle writes about how the day she and a friend visit their mutual friend’s grave feels strangely composed, like a book or a poem, or like “the way the landscape suddenly reveals itself in layers, a vertical light shining its connective beam from one moment to the next.” As if she’s perceiving, in a flash of insight, the grid—those emanations of light, patterned in a sequence of infinite regress. As if the grid is an essential structure undergirding not only poetry, but experience itself. “I think,” she continues, “if I can keep myself alive to it, it will keep me from going under.” (157)

26. So her alertness to form–and specifically her form, which strives to reveal (or maybe more simply to touch, to glimpse, to momentarily illuminate) the patterned connections behind all experience—will be the thing that saves her from succumbing to the obliterating power of grief. It is her method of battling erasure, just as story is Mailhot’s. Both methods are effective.

“Mountains were stories before they were mountains,” writes Mailhot. “Things were created by story. The words were conjurers, and ideas were our mothers.” (107)

27. Could “the grid” be a branching network of stories? Or is such a statement trying too hard to codify the evanescent? Is this whole essay a futile attempt to “give shape to the infinitude, which [is] ultimately something beyond shape” (Calamities, 36)? Or could that be a description of every piece of writing that strives to tell the truth, whether it’s story or anti-story, or some kind of mysterious blend? Maybe the truest shape would be no shape at all, just as the truest sound is silence.

But, I confess to my draft, I don’t want to live in a silent world. I like music too much. I like shapes. I like stories.

My draft nods knowingly. Me, too, it says.

28. Bluets appears not to truck in story. But it begins in desire, as all stories do. “Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning. . . . I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live. I don’t want to yearn for blue things, and God forbid for any ‘blueness.’ Above all, I want to stop missing you.” (4) Nelson’s speaker is in pain now, in the present tense. By the end of the book, we arrive at the past tense (proposition #238, Mailhot’s epigraph): “There was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than . . . all the blue in the world.” (95)

There was a time. Once upon a time. Once I was in pain; now I have been released, transformed. An arc. Story.

29. If Bluets traces an arc at all, it is the story of loss and recovery: the speaker loses a lover; the speaker’s close friend, in a terrible accident, loses the use of her limbs; both survive. If The Crying Book traces an arc, it is also that of loss and recovery: the speaker loses a pregnancy, then eventually births a child; the speaker also loses a friend to suicide and struggles, herself, to remain alive. Tension and release from tension. By the end of the book, the longed-for child lives and is beloved; Christle mourns her friend, but his death is behind her. Still, her crippling melancholia continues. “I have been afraid I would die while writing this book,” she writes. “I have been afraid all the connections are wrong. And I also have not known how to stop. The crying does not stop; the web could grow forever. So how does one end?” (167)

Exactly my question. Aren’t all endings lies? Unless, perhaps, they are also beginnings.

30. Heart Berries ends in triumph. Mailhot’s mother has died, her lover has betrayed her, her first son has been taken from her, the extent of her father’s abuse has become, finally, clear, but she has learned to tell this ugly story, and in doing so, has gained not only psychological power over her losses, but actual material comfort. It brings her a degree, a fellowship, a job. “I have turned loss into a fortune,” she writes, “—a personal pleasure. . . . This loss has spun and twisted itself into silk my sons will hold to their faces.” (118)

But that is not the only ending. Because even though her sons may benefit from the transformation of her pain into story, she still carries the memory of her mother, which she must reckon with—a memory that does not have an ending. She writes her final chapter to this memory, addresses it to her mother. “Some knowledge,” she writes, “can only be a song or a symbol. Language fails you and me. Some things are too large.”  (120)

31. In other words, a story may end, as a life does, but anti-story—web, grid, network, branching infinitude—persists. It continues to grow past story, beneath story, through story, into a thing too large to encompass in language. It continues to grow. Maybe anti-story, unlike story, is an attempt to expose, however temporarily, that formless infinitude. Which must be done, paradoxically, by finding the right form.

32. Anti-story may be the wrong term. What do I mean by it? I think I mean form that does not have a clear beginning, middle, and end, form that does not look like an arc. But as we have seen, this kind of form is an illusion, too. Because all things written must have a beginning, middle, and an end. And maybe because all things written, by their very nature–being composed of human language and existing within time–sound to us like story.

33. Christle wills her ending: “I know I need to stop crying for long enough that I regain my capacity to imagine possibilities again.” Her final fragment shows her giving a talk about “how art—and poetry in particular—can make the limits of our imagining apparent at the very moment it moves beyond them.” (170) This, too, is a threshold (or a node of the network, a crosspoint of the grid): the ending arrives at another simultaneous beginning.

34. “That the future is unknowable,” writes Nelson, toward the end of Bluets, “is, for some, God’s means of suturing us in, or to, the present moment. For others, it is the mark of a malevolence, a sure sign that our entire experience here is best understood as a sort of joke or mistake.” (93)

“For me, it is neither,” she continues. “It is simply the way that it is.” (94) And then: “In any case, I am no longer counting the days.” (95)

35. Gladman ends Calamities with a section she calls the “book at the end of the book,” in which she writes about writing and drawing and drawing and writing and how, over and over, they are the same, “one gesture moving across space,” an eternal conversation, “always begun and staggered and begun, rupturing, never completing itself, rather, endlessly repeating, starting again and again, in the sense that sometimes beginnings are slow and last forever and everything you need is within them.” (106)

 36. My draft and I stare at each other. Or maybe glare. There’s definitely some hostility.

Well? I ask, eventually. What do you think? Any ideas? Anything at all?

Maybe, it says. But first you need to stop.

Stop what?

Stop thinking I’m going to be just like Bluets. Or The Crying Book or Calamities or any other book you happen to fall in love with on any given week. Because those shapes are already taken—anti-story or story, window or mirror or threshold or grid or network or root system, or whatever you want to call it. And I’m not going to waste my time coming into existence only to become something that’s already there.

OK, I reply. Fair enough. So what do you propose?

How about this: Stop rushing me. You just keep showing up, and trust that I will, too. Trust that eventually I’ll grow into my own, exactly-right form. Which then, if you want, you can find some loopy metaphor to describe. But not before.

Loopy is a little harsh, don’t you think?

[Eyebrow raise.]

OK, OK. I get it. I’ll back off. I’ll let you do your thing.

Thank you, it says, huffily.

But, I add, how do I know you’re actually going to do it? To find your form? Without me, you know, shaping you?

You don’t, it says. That’s the gamble. But if you don’t act as though you know, I never will. And then, Cheshire-cat like, it fades into the air, leaving only a ghostly enigmatic smile.


Amy+Hassinger+headshotAmy Hassinger is the author of the novels Nina: Adolescence, The Priest’s Madonna, and After the Dam. Her writing has been translated into six languages and has won awards from the American Best Book Awards, IPPY, Creative Nonfiction, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Illinois Arts Council. She’s placed her work in many publications, including The New York Times, Sierra Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Amy teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, and in her free time enjoys singing with her band, The Jaybirds, and bothering her children.