I have recently finished reading I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushed With Death by Maggie O’Farrell. It is one of those books that sticks in your mind and refuses to leave because it says something essential about the human condition. It’s one of those books that makes you want to continue to be a reader, to continue to buy books in the hopes that one of them will do for you what this one did. I was completely dazzled by it — and I am hardly alone. Here’s what Ann Patchett says about it:
“I Am I Am I Am is a gripping and glorious investigation of death that leaves the reader feeling breathless, grateful, and fully alive. Maggie O’Farrell is a miracle in every sense. I will never forget this book.”
There is so much to say about O’Farrell’s genius — the way she makes her own story feel universal, the way she titles each chapter, the way she enters and exits each chapter, the way she creates intense tension in the most common situations, the way she lets us inside her head — but right now I want to call out just one thing she does so brilliantly, which is the shape of the story.
This book is a memoir. The subtitle betrays exactly what the book is about — 17 brushes with death. You might think that the natural shape of this story would be to put those incidents in chronological order. But one look at the Table of Contents shows you that the author presents her tales totally out of the order in which they occurred. It is not first to last, and it is not last to first. It is a mish-mash of dates about a mish-mash of body parts threatened by the mere fact of being alive. This mashup is what is known as a fractured chronology. It looks like this:
You might think that a structure like this has no chance of working. A series of random events, randomly presented almost never holds a reader’s attention. It is one of the most common problems I see memoir and fiction writers make — the belief that this plus this plus this other thing equals a riveting story. Readers want a story that has been crafted, curated, and shaped for us. We want to be LED — if not through a chronology, then through an idea. And this is what O’Farrell does so brilliantly.
Her memoir is exceedingly clear about its purpose. The intention is to explore one main idea — the idea of “how thin the membrane is between life and death.” And it is that idea that forms the warp and weft of the tapestry she weaves — not the passage of time. When a story has such a crystal clear purpose and such a crystal clear point, we don’t need the comfort of the common passage of time to guide us. We rest in the author’s presentation of material — in the belief that the author knows exactly what she is doing.
O’Farrell does not let us down. She guides her reader with a steady hand. The first chapter, for example, happens in 1990, when she is a young woman in her twenties. It’s an intense story — totally gripping, completely horrifying. (You can read it on the Random House website.) That chapter ends with a short paragraph in which O’Farrell leaps way ahead to the 2010s. She writes:
My daughter recently pointed to the top of a hill, seen on our walk to school.
“Can we go up there?” “Sure,” I said, glancing up at the green summit. “Just you and me?” I was silent for a moment. “We can all go,” I said. “The whole family.” Alert as ever to the moods of others, she immediately caught the sense that I was holding something back. “Why not just you and me?”
“Because . . . everyone else would like to come too.” “But why not you and me?” Because, I was thinking, because I cannot begin to say.
Because I cannot articulate what dangers lie around corners for you, around twisting paths, around boulders, in the tangles of forests. Because you are six years old. Because there are people out there who want to hurt you and you will never know why. Because I haven’t yet worked out how to explain these things to you. But I will.
With the addition of this paragraph — this leap forward in time — the author frames the whole book for the reader. She lays out what she is doing — working out how to explain these things that are usually left unsaid. We get it. We trust her. So that when, in the next chapter, she opens by saying, “It is late, near midnight, and a group of teenagers are out at the end of the quay,” we immediately think, Right, yes, I am with you for this jump in time — I know where I am and why we are here and we also think, Uh oh, because we are caught up in the grip of the idea about how fragile life is, how death awaits around every corner. O’Farrell, in other words, has us in the palm of her hand, and she never lets us go. She holds us there from start to finish.
The unusual presentation of chronology plays into the experience of the story. We never know where we will be in time, in terms of O’Farrell’s life. She might take us decades back to when she was a toddler, or a few days forward from the story she just told. We don’t know where she is going, but we know that we will be barely escaping death at every turn. The result is, frankly, terrifying. I barely breathed as I read this book. I felt a rush of relief that the author was still alive at the end — and that I am, too.
This is what every writer wants — to take their reader on a journey. The shape of your story should, therefore, never be prescribed or assumed. Don’t settle on a straight chronology or a straight presentation of facts as they happened. Don’t put your narrator in one place without thinking through the other places she might be standing. The shape should serve the point you are making. So you obviously must know your point. There is no way O’Farrell didn’t know her point. How you structure the material — where you start and stop, how much you say, and when you say it, and in what order — should be of primary concern when you start writing, when you write forward, when you revise, and when you polish. The shape of your story is everything. It is the difference between a memoir that will end up feel self-indulgent and thin, and one that your readers will be thinking about, mulling over, and returning to again and again and again.
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