So while I was studying my Sara Zarr books, I made another great discovery –Hunger Mountain, Vermont College of Fine Arts’ journal, and it includes a rich section for Young Adult Literature. This is where I read Lindsey Lane’s essay, Out on the Bendy Branches. In this essay, Lane compares stories to Alexander Calder’s mobiles. She says:
I started to see a correlation between scenes dancing on a fulcrum, balanced, telling a story, casting shadows, catching light, moving, resting and moving again. The pieces and shapes of a mobile have to be perfectly balanced as they move in concert and opposition, suspended at varying lengths from the spine, the arc of the story.
That’s what Sara Zarr’s doing, I thought!
My overriding impression when I started How to Save a Life was that she was laying her story down one piece at a time. Whereas the feedback I’d gotten on my own first chapter was: You’re stuffing so much in here I can’t figure it out and get my bearings, with Sara, I really had a sense of being able to take in one thing at a time. First, there is Jill asking, “Who am I without my Dad?” Then Jill goes into what’s hard about living without her Dad. Out of that she pulls that the hardest thing is loving her mom, in particular understanding her. Then she arrives finally at the specific challenge of understanding her mother’s decision to adopt, and we land in the train station waiting for the birthmother with Jill and her mom. One piece at a time, like the pieces on a mobile.
As I read, I was aware of each piece in relationship to the others, but Sara allowed me to be present in each moment without author anxiety about showing me right away how it was all going to fit together. That’s what I was doing in my chapter one –rushing in and confusing the readers with too much before they even had all the pieces.
There was another benefit to this. The pages were never overwritten. Because Sara is just laying down one piece of her mobile at a time without stopping to explain connective tissue, she gives the writing lift and forward motion. As Lane explains:
I thought about how much these writers leave off the page—but what they do leave on the page shows us enough that the world is created and the heart of the story beats….The overall arc is there. The voice. The characters. Even the back-stories are there. But there isn’t a lot of connective tissue. There isn’t a lot of telling. The reader supplies it. The reader actually holds the story as a whole. Each scene makes sense on its own and within the context of the whole but it allows the reader to make leaps.
What’s left off the page raises questions that propel me, the reader, forward.
And so I imagined Sara Zarr building her chapter one like a mobile. I actually drew it out:
Suddenly, I was getting very excited about my first chapter again. I could do it this way, I thought. Though a tapestry with different threads running through it is sometimes a useful metaphor for me, the mobile metaphor appealed. I get easily lost in a tangle of threads, but I could build a mobile. And for chapter one, I just have to introduce one major branch of the mobile and the pieces that dangle from it, one at a time. They move, they pick up the light, their shapes and colors harken to other branches of the mobile with which they are in balance, but for chapter one, I just have to build this one branch. I think in pictures so after I meditated on some different places to start in the marrow, I picked one and started sketching.
Consider drawing your story as a mobile. It just may be a useful mapping strategy! Let me know how it goes!