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Someone Has to Hold the Structure
Finding the Right Container for Your Creativity
“Someone has to hold the structure,” he said with his spine as straight as an arrow, sitting on a cushion, teaching a dozen couples how relationship really works.
We were in class, my wife and me, learning about the subtle dance of partnership and how whenever someone has something to say, someone else needs to listen. Not react. Not plan what they are going to say next. Just bring your full presence and awareness to the moment. And as I sat there on the floor, eyes locked on the woman I love, the “me” I was disappeared. And there was only us. Only love.
And in a way, that’s how writing works, too.
I won’t go into the details of the experience, as it was a vulnerable and special place to be with a group of individuals desiring to know and be known more by their partners. But someone did ask how to have a regular time of connection, and the answer provided was that there needs to be a container. And that container must be created—and held—by someone. It doesn’t matter who, but someone has to hold it.
This work of holding structure, creating containers, keeping a space open for the unexpected to happen—it’s hard. It’s burdensome. No one wants to do it. It’s like a daily commitment to prayer or meditation.
Sure, there are moments of elation, occasionally. But far more often, it’s a grind. You get up, splash some water on your face, stretch a little, and get to work. This is a practice, and within the daily discipline, you’ll start to see some magic. Not before. Sometimes not even during. But you put enough reps in, and you’ll see results at some point. It’s an odd sort of math: this plus that eventually equals… something. It’s not fair. It’s far from scientific. But that’s how it works.
William Faulkner once said, “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” That’s holding the structure. You make a commitment and you keep it. You hold it, because it holds you.
Ideas, Like Lives, Need Containers
When I’m working with an author on a book, we always start here—at the very beginning. What is the big idea? How will it come together? And then: what is the structure needed to support that idea? Because without something to hold the idea in place, it’ll keep wiggling around on you.
This is more than a hero’s journey map of transformation, more than an outline or table of contents. It is the necessary rhythm that this particular story, argument, or thesis requires. In the same way that our lives need structure in the form of schedules and routines, a big idea needs a home in which to live.
And yes, this will be unique to each and every project. Just as with how we manage a life, we must treat each book with a similar level of care. Granted, there are tropes and templates to get you started; but in the end, this is your project and only you know the right container for what needs to be said.
But if you don’t know, you better find out.
Who Needs Structure?
You do. And so do I. It is a core human need to orient ourselves around rules and standards that help us make our way in the world. We need concrete places from which to leap into the unknown, and we need familiar places to return to. Once we get acquainted with the lay of the land, we are free to innovate and improvise. But our home base is always some basic practice to keep us grounded in a reality we can touch, taste, and smell.
Many people do not like structure. They may even be so crazy as to think they don’t need it. They want to rebel and create something from scratch, thinking that hundreds of years of tradition are somehow irrelevant to their latest caffeinated epiphany. That’s fine. They’re just wrong.
I’ve met many a writer who “just wants to write” and let the ideas flow. They want to splash some paint around the room with no consideration of a canvas. They will make a mess, expecting someone else to clean it up. And that works for children, but you and I have responsibilities to manage, obligations to keep, commitments to ourselves and others. We may resent some or all of these things, but they are reality. And we must deal with these concerns or suffer the consequences. Structure is what saves us from getting swept up in the vicissitudes of life. Chaos wants to kill you. Order just might help you see tomorrow. Be grateful for it.
Ideas are like children. They want to run around. They want to stay up late and sleep in and eat candy before dinner. They want to be free. And this mode of being is, of course, wonderfully exciting. But it is also destructive to anything creative. Wild, unfettered energy is not enough to make anything. You need an adult to step in at some point and say, “Bedtime is nine o’clock.”
And you are that adult.
Structures Are Found, Not Created
You have to find the right structure for an idea. Every book is different. What works for one won’t work for another. You have to get to know what you’re writing about, befriend it and understand it. Work with it a little, and see what you can learn.
Then, you’ve got to wrap a structure around it. Like a fence around an animal you intend to keep, if it’s too enclosed, the creature will want to break out. If it’s too spread out, it’ll be hard to track down.
So you’ve got to find the right size and shape of your structure to help the idea move—and so that you can move your reader through your argument, allowing them to arrive at the final moment where they say, “Ahhhh, I get it!”
It’s Not Any Good Yet
People often ask me to read their manuscripts and tell them if they’re any good, and I always refuse. Because I already know. It’s not any good. Not yet. It can’t be. If you just wrote a bunch of words on a page, it’s trash. And that’s okay, because all great work starts out as shit. That’s part of the process. Don’t feel bad. This is just work, and you’re doing a great job of getting started! I’m right there with you. Every first draft of everything is always terrible. It has to be. So congratulations and keep going.
I don’t need to read your book to tell you if it’s any good; all I need to know is that you’ve done the work. That’s so much more valuable than one person’s subjective idea of goodness. So let’s apply a little rubrice here:
Is there a big idea, an argument, something a reader can disagree with? Great. Now, you’ve begun.
Next, is there a structure that holds the thing together? Does your book feel like a train that once the reader boards it, they are inevitably headed towards a destination? You may have fifty thousand words.
But without a structure, you do not have a book.
Break It to Build It
I know this process well, because I almost always have to throw out the first draft of anything I write. To paraphrase Hemingway, it’s always shit. That’s the process. But buried in your trash just might be some gold. So let’s find those pieces—the big ideas—and the best way to contain them, and then get back to writing.
Granted, you may have to throw out half or even all of it. But that doesn’t mean those were wasted words. Writing is easy, Twain once said. You just have to cross out the wrong words. And there are a lot of wrong words. Sometimes, we have to break a book to fix it. But that is so much better than trying to edit something with no container.
Trust the process, and be judicious with cutting what simply does not work, no matter how beautiful it may be. Like a bone that isn’t healing, we sometimes have to twist and tweak the pieces in our work that are growing unnaturally. This can be painful. But it’s also so very good. Ultimately, this work puts us on the right path, readying us for what comes next.
In fact, the work is the path.
You Aren’t Allowed to Like It Yet
It’s taken me over a decade and a dozen books to learn all this. Writing a book is simple but hard. When our team works with clients, we tell them two things.
First, we say: “We won’t let you settle for a bad book… and it’s really easy to write a bad book.”
Second, about halfway through the process, during the first first of five drafts, we tell them, “You aren’t allowed to like it yet.”
Once you’ve got some words on the page, something that sort of resembles a manuscript, you can’t fall in love with it. Not yet. That’s limerence. It’s a bunch of chemicals fooling you into thinking what you’ve done is better than it really is. Don’t believe the chemistry. Trust the process, not your own temporary sense of what seems precious.
Never call a book your baby. This can’t be your baby, because you might have to drop it in the dumpster. It’s a junk draft, mere vomit on the page. You have much more to offer. It will take time and effort, but the good stuff will come. Provided you don’t settle.
If you are willing to be professional, to not allow yourself to settle for something less than your absolute best, you can work with that. You can make it better, mercilessly throwing out what does not work, no matter how pretty it is, and focus on what needs to be said.
This is the art of bringing structure to everything you want to say and feel. And it’s pretty damn good advice for living, as well.
In the words of Madeleine L’Engle, “You have to write the book that wants to be written.” And sometimes, what you want done isn’t what it wants. Check your ego at the door. Never stop surrendering or trusting. Keep working.
It is a deeply purifying work we endeavor to do; and it will require a sizable death on your part, guaranteed. But if you and I keep going, descending into the belly of the beast of our being, what soon follows is resurrection. Every time.
Welcome to the crucible of writing. It may scald you. You might walk away with some burns. But I guarantee you: it will hold you—if you hold it.
P.S. I’ll be teaching a live class about all this on September 21 at 4:00 p.m. Central. It’ll be a 90-minute class on ”How to Structure a Book” just for paid subscribers. I’ll share more details as we get closer to the date.
This is Part 2 of my latest teaching series on how to write a book. If you missed Part 1, you can catch the replay here (you’ll need to be subscribed). Be sure to review our last class before we dive into this next piece. We’ll be building upon the previous lesson and discussing the two main structures for a book and how to adapt these templates to your own project—and life.
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