“Developing a structure is seldom . . . simple. Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins. The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected” (49).
Even thinking like this is a step forward for me. McPhee is working on developing an interplay between chronology and theme, and later he gives different sample structures (for example, hanging a series of theme-boxes from a chronological line). One of the things we always teach students is that moving through a text in chronological order is likely to lead to plot summary; construct a thematic order, instead. OK, I do that, or I try, but the chronology does indeed “want to move from point to point.” I like the idea of trying to use this tension instead of fighting it. Since I am currently working on a project in which I do need both to outline a person’s life and to explore assorted other themes, I am for once working in a genre that is more like the pieces McPhee discusses than the “typical” humanities article (if there is such a thing).