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Week Four
The linear narrative

The Event

Rather than get into a complicated discussion, let's give an example of a linear event.   Here is a simple folk tale from the Brother's Grimm.

The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean

In a village dwelt a poor old woman, who had gathered together a dish of beans and wanted to cook them. So she made a fire on her hearth, and that it might burn the quicker, she lighted it with a handful of straw. When she was emptying the beans into the pan, one dropped without her observing it, and lay on the ground beside a straw, and soon afterwards a burning coal from the fire leapt down to the two. Then the straw began and said, dear friends, from whence do you come here. The coal replied, I fortunately sprang out of the fire, and if I had not escaped by sheer force, my death would have been certain, I should have been burnt to ashes. 

 continue to read the rest of the story

granted, this  is fiction, not nonfiction.  But as you can easily see, the event is told in strict chronological order.  First this happens, then that happens.  There are no flashbacks, no summaries.  Hence a linear event.


Week Five
The nonlinear narrative

The Event

Rather than get into a complicated discussion, let's give an example of a non-linear event.  Here is a personal essay by Paul Pekin (published in the New York Press).

                         Chicago?  Agin?

 They left the apostrophe out of Howards Grove; it's the  Cheesehead way.  Come back to Chicago, I begged her.  Come back to civilization.  Come back to art, music, culture, literature.  Come marry me.

  continue to read the rest of the story

This piece is a short personal essay I wrote as a kind of a "Letter From Chicago" to the New York Press.  This may not be the best example of the nonlinear structure I could give, but at least I don't have to worry about any copyright violations.  The point is, the non-linear structure does not follow strict chronological order.  It jumps around, summarizes, speaks in generalities.  When I discuss the traffic on the Kennedy Expressway, I an not referring to a single time, or a single place.  That's what I mean by non-linear.

Many of the sample essay readings I have linked to the other pages in this sequence, follow this form, and do a lot better job than I do.



A Linear event.   An individual event told in chronological order.

Non -linear event.  An event that is not told in any particular order.
Week Four
Linear Event

First Day on the Job

The Night the Garage Burned Down

What Happened When the Cat Got Out

The First Time I Did It

The Last Time I Did It

The Time I Got Caught

And so on . . .


Week Five
Nonlinear Event

The Worst Job I Ever Had--and held for more that a week.

The Worst Girlfriend/Boyfriend I Even Had--and kept for more than a week.  (see notes on fictionalizing!

A Creature That Lived Too Long

The Old Family Home

A School I Attended

The Winter it Snowed a Lot


Consider the above your warm-ups.  You don't have to write them, just go down the list and try them on for size.  Imagine yourself writing them.

Then choose one from each column.  That will give you your assignment for week four and week five.

How to do it.

Linear.   Start in a certain time and a certain. place.
example:   Eight am on a hot July morning I come to work at the Blue Star Press.  It's in a big old brick building on Adam's Street. too far west to be part of the Loop.  I check the want ad I have circled in the Tribune.  Yes, this seems to be the right address . . . . :

From there your proceed forward chronologically.  You can summarize, but try to summarize in a forward direction. 

And of course, if nothing worth writing about took place on that first day on the job, you choose something else to write about.   But move forward.

When the event is finished, you are finished.  Unless!  You have something to add.  But do finish the event.


Nonlinear:   The Family Home

Deliberately start with a declarative sentence that is not focused upon a certain time or place.

Example:  The Old House on Western Avenue had a wooden false  front that caught the wind and sometimes made things very interesting for people sitting in the upstairs living room.

"Every good house has to give a little,"  my father would always say.  He would even say this when the water in the gold fish bowl was slopping over the sides. . . "

Now see how it works for you.  Of course if you go more than a few hundred words, every nonlinear narrative will contain passages that are linear.  The same will be true of most linear narratives; they often will have passages that break the pattern.

What you want to do, however, in order to get this thing straight in your head, is to really try to make each assignment a recognizable attempt to follow the instructions.  Only by doing this can you actually experience  the opportunities each structure offers.


A few final notes!

Clearly, you must understand that the prompts for these exercises are negotiable!

ExampleFirst Day on the Job can be the First Day of My Marriage, or the first day after my divorce, or the first day after my operation, or the last day on the job.  The The Night the Garage Burned Down can become the afternoon the sailboat sank,  or the  time the basement flooded, or the morning the clock did not go off.  And What Happened When the Cat Got Out could  just as easily be what happened when the cat got in.  Or squirrel.  Or rat.   Or spider.

What I am giving you in these prompts are 'universals," not specifics!

And so, the winter when it snowed a lot can become the summer when it never stopped raining, and the old school can be your army training camp, and so on.

Never once believe that nonfiction writing does not call upon your imagination.


Now read some nonfiction by Paul Pekin

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