This poignant piece about how elite distance runner Gabriele Grunewald is coping with repeated instances of cancer offers a nice chance to study a piece of narrative writing that includes a non-chronologic structure.
It’s also just a real good story to read to appreciate Grunewald’s efforts — and what her resolve and her personal growth teaches us.
We mentioned in class that modern films often jump from one time period to another, not always in chronologic sequence. In other words, they can switch time periods, from the present to the past and back to present — or more.
A good piece of writing can do this too, especially lengthier feature stories that follow the lives of people over time. So here we see a nice story by longtime reporter Tim Layden that begins with a scene from the past, then moves forward to develop the main character’s story, then jumps back into the deeper past — and then finally ends with the runner’s outlook now.
As you read this, try following the structural turns. This is primarily a narrative. It begins with a key scene: The discovery. When does the writer switch scenes? When is he move into explanation to help us make sense of Grunewald’s story? When does he slip us back into the past — and how does he bring us back? Study. This is how we learn. First we study; then we try.
Notice, too, the amount of information Layden provides. How many times did he interview Grunewald and others? Where did he find the running stats? How does a media writer become well-enough informed about a rare type of cancer to report authoritatively? How many years, do you suppose, did he observe Grunewald, knowing something of her battle, before he set out to write about her?
You may not want to become a feature writer for a magazine, but the fundamentals still apply. (1) Find your idea, then (2) your angle. (3) Carry out lots of research. (4) Organize (map) your structure. (5) Write a draft. (6) Revise until it’s wonderful.
The more you practice, the better you’ll get. And when you write stories like these about people like Gabriele Grunwald, well, it keeps you in touch with why we’re alive. And perhaps it helps others to stay in touch. I imagine Tim Layden wrote a few stories like this before he gained this high degree of command and artfulness.
It comes with informed, focused practice.