We're reading a really great and inspiring guide to creative nonfiction writing in my first year MFA workshop. It's called Tell It Slant, and it's full of useful advice, writing prompts, examples, reading lists and sensible, vividly written prose. Which was why I was somewhat surprised to run into the following opining from Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola on page 146:
While essays can be organized many ways-- through topic, chronology or passage of time-- organization through image and metaphor has become much more common. Clustering thoughts through images and loose associations (and metaphors are, at the most basic level, associations) seems fundamnetal to the way the human mind works. You may mentally jump from a look at a leaky faucet to a memory of watching the 1970s TV show "Charlie's Angels" because of the name of the actress Farrah Fawcett. You may then glide effortlessly from that thought to a sense memory of the powdered hot chocolate with marshmellows your mother made for you on weeknights while you watched television. As we grow more aware of and sophisticated about the way human consciousness operates, it makes sense that our literature will come closer to these basic thought rhythms.
This strikes me as completely wrong on a whole bunch of different levels and to advocate an abdication of the writer's most basic job, which is to create in their writing a structure which conveys meaning to the reader or audience. Organizing your essay in the seemingly free-associative way discussed above will not do this. That is what we do in our first drafts. As we revise and improve, however, we drill down and reorganize in ways that may not be linear, but at least pull the reader towards the end and then reward them with a meaningful reading experience.
I've read essays that follow their author's minds down down down the neural pathways, that mimic the associative ways human consciousness work. They're boring when they're not bewildering because the different components don't resonate in a way that is meaningful to anyone other than their authors. It's telling that the example that follows this paragraph does not actually do what they're advocating here, but rather uses images to foreshadow an event in a narrative that progresses chronologically.
Over the next paragraph, they talk about investigating images without worrying about story as a way of unlocking them, which seems to be perfectly fine advice. I just worry about a world in which more and more work is being organized around chains of associative images as opposed to things like... you know... plot.