Triangles and Quadrants

1. My office is on a street of science centers, so I will occasionally drop by labs to participate in research studies. Lately I’ve been doing a sequence of smell studies for which I am given a tray of anonymous brown bottles which each contain a few drops of colorless, oily liquid. I have to cover my eyes as I uncap them and breathe in the smells; otherwise I stare at the beige wall of the lab and get confused. A few of the bottles smell wonderful: like cream and honey, or like fresh cucumber, or burnt orange. Others smell like rubber cement or stale oil. A great many of them smell like camphor to me, which is a smell that powerfully conjures an image of the little green bottle of Campho-Phenique I used for mosquito bites as a child.

In my first few sessions, there were three activities: compare two bottles and rate how similar their smells are; sniff a bottle and describe its smell using one or more single-word descriptors; sniff a bottle and select the best single-word descriptors from a list. Some of the smells are difficult for me to place: there’s one that makes me envision a marsh plant with white tufted seeds, its woody stem snapped open to leak a honey-colored sap. I can’t figure out how to put that into single-word descriptors. I don’t know if this is a real plant. Medicinal, I write. Botanical. The closest thing to it I’ve smelled in real life was a Christmas bouquet of piney greens and antiseptic chrysanthemums.

This month, there was an activity that introduced a spatial element: sniff each bottle from a tray of fifteen, and arrange them on a sheet of paper of in terms of how similar or different they are. There are no other guidelines; how to chart similarity and difference is up to the subject. Given the dimensions of the sheet of paper, I defaulted to quadrants at first. One axis is always edible to inedible. The other axis varied in each of my last sessions: once it was artificial to organic and once it was cool to warm. But I found that my quadrants didn’t quite get certain similar smells close enough together; in particular, the bottle that smelled cloyingly like cheap bubblegum always ended up on the opposite corner from the one that smells like exhaust, although I consider them more similar than not. So for my last sessions, I simply grouped them by similarity and by how much I liked the scent, with the mysterious marsh plant smell right in the center of that imaginary spectrum.


Traveling along a New Jersey highway, I watched the scenery vary wildly between spooky marshes and charming hamlets, or dilapidated motels and picturesque woods. Everything in New Jersey is either twee or haunted, I said to my friend who was driving. He didn’t disagree: we spend most of our visits in the twee parts, taking his young daughter to pick blueberries and stopping for lunch at a sweet, cottage-like vegetarian café. Once we stopped at an estate sale where I bought three quart-sized Mason jars with green lids; my friend bought a silver butter dish, and his daughter bought two plastic jack o’lanterns. But in between, the are stretches of dismal gray and crumbling infrastructure.

Later, I shared this observation with a carful of people who were traveling together for a women’s soccer game at a stadium in another city. What about the “Trenton Makes the World Takes” bridge? someone asked. Neither twee nor haunted, we decided. Bitter, more than anything. And the opposite of bitter is drunk.

So now my New Jersey spectrum is a quadrant, and many of the things within it can be categorized using one or more of those axes:

Trenton Makes the World Takes bridge: bitter
Pick your own fruit farms: twee
Pine Barrens: extremely haunted
Grounds for Sculpture: haunted, drunk
Ocean City beach: twee, drunk
Atlantic City beach: haunted, bitter

And so on.


I just read and loved Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Allison. I’ve been taking creative writing classes online and have therefore recently revisited the conventional wisdom that stories must rise and then peak and then resolve. “Something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no?” observes Allison wryly, later adding “Is this how I experience sex? It is not.” So she looks at novels and short stories that seem to be shaped in a different way: maybe they circle around a troubling center, or allow themselves to meander down side paths while generally moving forward, or perhaps they are arranged like a cellular structure with many small equally weighted pieces.

I love this. I think that the stories in There, There by Tommy Orange seem to spiral like a penny spinning toward the funnel of a coin drop, faster and faster until it falls through, and that the stories in Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (which I read this month) seem to move in the opposite direction, unspooling. This weekend I went with a friend from graduate school to look at an exhibition of Herman Melville’s books and letters, and we talked about what kind of structure Moby-Dick could be said to have. (Tributaries, we think.)

For my own writing, it’s harder to say. I am still new to the craft of fiction storytelling; for my class assignments last term I stuck to the classic arc, although I couldn’t help a bit of circling or spiraling in my themes. But in my personal narratives–my journaling, my car trip small talk–I can see the academic in me failing to recede. My story about the bottled scents is one of taxonomy and preference, like Bourdieu’s food space: the ones I like nearest me, the ones I dislike furthest away, everything else classified in terms I struggle to justify. My story about New Jersey is organized into patterns of belonging or failing to belong: where am I welcomed? where do I want to go?

And my blogging? I have noticed but can’t seem to curb a tendency to organize my half-private thoughts into groups of three. Three stories about growing up. Three stories about grief. Three stories about story structures. They are triangulated, in the sense of Claude Levi-Strauss’s culinary triangle: one water, one air, one normalized; or one raw, one rotten, one finally cooked sufficiently to be digested. Two unrelated things happen, then the third becomes an instrument to make sense of it all.

When I write something I want it to go somewhere; I want it to resolve. But to riff on Jane Allison, is this how I experience life? or learning? or pleasure? It is not.

1 thought on “Triangles and Quadrants”

  1. […] Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Allison is a lovely, lyrical look at some of the different structures a story can have besides the ubiquitous arc of rising and falling action. It is ostensibly a book about craft, a book in which a writer writes about writing. This can make for laborious reading, but this book is anything but; I had sailed through more than half of the ebook before I thought to check my progress, and was shocked at how little time it took me to swim through the rest. I did experience this book like swimming: although it is made up of many little sections (meanders, spirals, radials or explosions, networks and cells, fractals) which are made up of many more little sections in which the author both summarizes and savors the structural artistry of select stories and novels, her own structure is as smooth and pleasurable to move through as water. I did acquire the book hoping for some creative inspiration for my next storytelling endeavors, and I am not sure I found that–except, perhaps, in permission to explore many different kinds of telling beyond exposition > climax > resolution, and to give a story the structure it demands rather than mapping it onto an acceptable or clever format. I wrote down some other thoughts it stirred up here. […]

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