Somewhere in the world, a woman with long brown hair is balancing on a steel highway divider. She is watching the road, waiting for headlights to spear through the darkness. When the cones of light widen, she will bend at the knee. Then she will use all the strength in her thighs and calves to launch herself up and toward the road, arms extended way over her head like the gymnast she used to be. She will land in a crouch, all that straight toffee hair obscuring her face, and at the last second, when those headlights illuminate her, she will look up. But it will be too late for the driver to stop.
I woke up with the woman’s image emblazoned on my eyelids. I couldn’t shake the sight of her swinging hair, or how the headlights had colored her face amber, and most of all, I couldn’t forget the expression in her eyes: she was looking straight at me, asking me for something, and I didn’t understand. Not yet.
I grabbed my BlackBerry (I was pre-iPhone at the time) and made my way to the bathroom to record not just the strange, vivid fragment of a dream but also the words that had accompanied it. The paragraph that starts this piece was like a running narrative my sleeping mind created to lend some context for what I (the dream-driver) was seeing.
That wasn’t the first, or last, time I sleep-wrote, but it was the most complete beginning to a story that has ever come to me unconsciously. I couldn’t let it go. I had to write the story in order to decipher what the woman—Geneva, I named her—was trying to tell me, why she was about to end her life, and possibly another’s, in such a gruesome way. Otherwise, there was no way for me to know. And I had to know.
I believe that if you look at every narrative you can’t forget, you will see (or at least accept the possibility) that they have one thing in common: story came first. You’ll often hear writers say that they didn’t know what their books were “about,” in an idea-sense, until they were written, and I can attest to that odd phenomenon. Now that Geneva’s story is written, I know that it’s “about” the desperation to feel alive, even if to reach the most exquisite state of aliveness requires dying. It’s “about” everyday numbness, the slow suicide of unexamined routine. It’s “about” other things, too, things that will vary for each reader and each reading (at least, I hope). But if I had started there, with a lofty Idea-with-a-capital-I, I can’t imagine that the story would be anything other than wooden puppets pretending to be human.
At RTC, we are gifted with clients who come to us with Ideas. Beautiful, brilliant, surprising, potentially world-changing Ideas. It’s our job, as writers and editors, to fuse those Ideas with story—and, in fact, to prioritize story so that Ideas become ideas woven inevitably within a narrative thread. We want readers to discover our authors’ ideas, not to be pummeled with them.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Ideas are seductive. They tempt us to craft a sophisticated structure to house them, something novel and clever and new, something that will make people take notice of how damn smart we are. Have you ever read a conceptually sophisticated Idea book without a strong narrative to ground it? I’m sure I have. I just don’t remember. And that’s the point.
I woke up a few Saturdays ago with my sleeping mind still reciting this phrase: form follows function, structure follows story. My brain was struggling to solve a problem for me, the problem of why a current outline, which had started so solid, so enrapturing, had spiraled into something overwhelming and confusing, bare of the bones to support its radiant ambition. When I Googled “form follows function,” I found an essay written in 1896 by Louis Sullivan, considered one of America’s most progressive architects.
Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling.
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law. (Sullivan, "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered").
First, how beautiful are those paragraphs? But did Sullivan start writing them by thinking, I’m going to write something beautiful? I would argue that he did not. By his own law, he couldn’t have. He wrote to make a point. The form followed.
In college, I was an English major and a philosophy minor, so splayed on the floor at any given time was a dizzying combination of Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Morrison, and Bronte. My bedroom was a parlor in which voices far wiser than my own contemplated Ideas. Without realizing it, I began to harvest some doubt around story, its viability and maturity in the face of such important conversation. I began to have Ideas. I wanted to write “about” God, “about” what it meant for God, that man was made in His image. I wanted to write “about” the Mexican-American experience (as though there’s only one). I wanted to write “about” all sorts of ungrounded Ideas, and I cringe to think back on the stories that emerged. They were bloodless things, full of stilted dialogue and characters without a past, begging to be liked. And the Ideas? They were nowhere to be found.
When I read Sullivan’s piece, I understood our outline struggle with embarrassing clarity: we were attempting to mold an innovative structure (form) around an Idea, and hoping story (function) would naturally follow. We were building a house from the outside in, bewildered as to why exterior siding wasn’t lying against a nonexistent frame. We knew what we had to do.
Ideas are wonderful things. To have an idea is to be thinking, problem-solving, engaged in the surrounding world, alive to possibility. If you want to share your ideas, we want to hear them. But we want to hear something else, too: what is (in one of our clients’ words) the story that your life prepared you to tell? Chances are, your ideas are inextricably intertwined with it, so don’t be afraid to start there. Form will always follow.