Katie Eberhart: Abandoning Chronology

Matanuska River Viewpoint
In a New Yorker article, Structure, Beyond the Picnic-table
John McPhee wrote about his struggles over decades to break away
from writing about events in the order that they occurred. McPhee explained:
“Developing a structure is seldom . . .
simple. Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and
theme, and chronology traditionally wins. The narrative wants to move from
point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across
someone’s life cry out to be collected. . . . But chronology usually dominates.
. . .”
McPhee explained that once, when
he was struggling with chronology, he spent two weeks lying on a picnic table
because the structure wasn’t evident for the article he was writing.
I wish I had that kind of time,
and the luxury, to spend weeks without interruption or the need for multitasking.
What did McPhee think about for two
weeks lying on a picnic table? Did boredom set in? Was he procrastinating?
Would I last for two weeks reclining
on a picnic table? I imagine after even a couple hours that the ravens would
appear and if this table was in the western U.S., soon the vultures would show
up, one or two or a whole flock circling overhead, staring down, calculatingly.
In Alaska, within a couple minutes or before you even climbed onto the picnic
table, the mosquitoes would assemble, humming en masse, preparing to bite. I
also think spiders would drop from an overhanging branch.
I’m not sure that lying flat on
a picnic table would help me work out the difficulty with a writing-chronology
but the experience would certainly be sensory, and perhaps productive if I
carried on with a mental cataloging of my surroundings. I assume the prone
position would be on one’s back which introduces some writing difficulties
(bring a pencil or an astronaut’s space pen). In any event, with the prolonged
exposure to nature, this would be a chance to notice sounds and scents, colors,
weather, heat and cold, breezes and winds. Moisture. Fog or rain. Need for
gear. Rain coat or tent. Food. What about the food? Is there a cabin nearby?
Why the picnic table? Once camping in northeastern Oregon, with family and friends,
we settled into a campsite in the forest—pines probably. In the afternoon, we
threw our camping pads onto the sandy ground and lay there, studying the sky
that held a hint of forest fire smoke, as did the air, until I fell asleep,
until my husband Chuck woke me, saying “there’s a scorpion on your shoulder.”
It heartens me to know John McPhee
struggled with structure and that he is intent on writing in a less linear
The chronology can be messed
with (as McPhee says) with flashbacks and flash-forwards but to really cast a
wider net, risking that readers might become disoriented, means letting a
thematic structure be anchored by ideas, or even the wind.
February 23, 2003. Chuck and I walked along the old rail bed above the
Matanuska River north of Palmer. We had parked on a gravel street that I had
driven hundreds of times back and forth to Swanson and Sherrod Elementary
Schools, taking the kids to school or picking them up. The walking was easy
because there was no snow but the day was overcast so the photos I took had a
pervasive gloominess. The trail was relatively level, crossing between a
subdivision and a hay field. We were surprised to see rails still embedded in
the dirt, protruding from the grass in places, appearing and disappearing. About
the time we began to wonder whether there were also railroad ties buried in
decades of windblown silt, we left the flat hay field (all tawny bleached
grasses) and came to the bluff beside the Matanuska River. Entering a ‘tunnel’
of alders, we stepped on worn railroad ties. Some of the steel rails were
missing, like they’d been pilfered, although in spots the spikes were still
embedded in the ties. Silt. Gray. Multiples of gray along this abandoned
railroad above the river where wind tosses the river-channel glacial-silt, even
up the bluff, to be scraped from the air by any obstacle.
The last time I stopped at the
Matanuska River overlook, along the Glenn Highway north of Palmer, the chain
link fence at the top of the bluff had nearly vanished beneath a dune. Windblown
silt had filled in what had been a paved path and it was an odd sensation to
walk beside an ankle-high fence at the edge of a bluff as high as a
thirty-story building.
Like memory, wind resists a
precise chronology. A researcher might pore through data on wind speed,
direction, and duration and perhaps measure layers of silt carried and dropped
by wind, and so the researcher builds a model of how wind augments or erases terrain,
but wind through lives and across time is anything but linear, because of how
we remember—like the old computer term RAM—random access memory—which is
exactly what our minds are good at—grabbing memories and certainly without
regard to chronology.
Reference notes:
Writers who have struggled with organizing complicated
topics into a publishable form will find John McPhee’s article interesting and
possibly helpful. The article includes diagrams and discussion of several
structures as well as descriptions of changes in writing technology. See Structure,
Beyond the Picnic-table Crisis,
“The New Yorker” (1/14/2013)
Eberhart’s chapbook ‘Unbound: Alaska Poems’ was published in 2013 by Uttered
Chaos Press. Her poems have appeared in Cirque Journal, Sand – Berlin’s English
Literary Journal, Elohi Gadugi Journal, Crab Creek Review, and other places.
Katie has an MFA in Creative Writing. She currently lives in Central Oregon
where she blogs about nature and literature at

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