by Amanda Wenger
At the final Third Thursday of the year, WLT staff member Sarah Renee Beach sat down with
three award-winning writers—poet Taylor Byas, novelist Jennifer duBois, and essayist Sarah
Viren—for a conversation about the ways they experiment with structure in their work. Over
the course of the evening, they discussed the ways the structure creates meaning in stories,
touched on other works that have influenced their own, and questioned the idea of “molds”
and what it means to break them.
In her memoir To Name the Bigger Lie, Viren recounts her experience unpicking a series of lies that upended her life when her wife was accused of sexual misconduct at the university where they both teach. Her experimental structure blends real conversations with imagined ones to show the process a person undergoes when they learn the truth after being deceived. She believes structure is a tool for clarifying meaning, and invokes the three-act structure favored by Shakespeare. The book owes a lot, she said, to Plato’s Republic; both works are concerned with justice, the meaning of truth, and what it takes to build an ideal world. She spoke movingly about memoir as a conversation between the past and present self, and about sensory memories as “time tunnels” that transport readers across great distances.
In DuBois’s latest novel, The Last Language, a linguist reminisces from jail about her romantic
relationship with her nonspeaking patient. DuBois compares her protagonist to Lolita’s
predatory Humbert Humbert, or the self-deluded central character of Pale Fire; the potentially unreliable narration invites the reader to wonder whether the linguist and her patient had a genuine connection, or whether the linguist has manipulated a disabled man under her care. It’s up to the reader to determine what kind of harm happened: either one of these people took advantage of the other, or the world ripped apart a loving couple who discovered a new and authentic way to communicate. And, cleverly, the literal events of the story mirror the process the reader undergoes to determine what has happened. It’s all about interpretation.
Byas’s new poetry collection, I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times, chronicles a Black woman’s coming of age as she journeys away from her home on the South Side of Chicago. She talked about how analyzing the structure of The Wiz—itself inspired by The Wizard of Oz–and superimposing it onto her own book helped her understand how to organize it. But there’s a twist on the “no place like home” motif. In I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times, staying away from home is what sets the speaker free. Inheritance, and the rejection of it, is a theme threaded between poems; just as the book plays with narrative structure, the content explores power dynamics between women and men in romantic relationships, as well as family relationships in which oldest daughters are expected to become fill-in mothers. Byas recalled learning about structure from a writing teacher who challenged her to tackle a new form every week. She realized that constraints can be fun when they force creativity.
The evening closed, fittingly, with a chat about endings, and how the withholding of resolution is a viable tactic toward making meaning. Some of the most interesting moments happen when you continue the story past where most people would have ended it. This may be the final Third Thursday of 2023, but WLT will continue the story into the new year. I hope all of you will join the WLT community on January 18th for the first Third Thursday of 2024.
See you there!