According to Wikipedia, a keystone is “used figuratively to refer to a central element of a larger structure […] that locks the other elements in place and allows the whole to be self-supporting.” With a stone archway, the form is inherent, or predetermined. First, there is the abutment, then vertical supports, then voussoirs, and finally, crucially, the keystone. Ander Monson, in a 2008 interview: “in considering form, I think we immediately run up against expectation.” We, as readers, expect a certain order to things, and as writers, we learn the conventions of form and structure. We are taught that you can’t place a keystone without the voussoirs, yet you can start an essay without first deciding what form it will be, where the keystone will reside.
Leslie Jamison‘s essay, “Morphology of the Hit,” admits, “I never know how to start this story. I just don’t. That’s why I need functions.” Specifically, the functions of Vladimir Propp, author of Morphology of the Folktale, which provides Jamison “a map for storytelling, a catalog of plot pieces arranged into thirty-one functions: commencements, betrayals, resolutions.”
The abutment that supports the arc or form of an essay is a question, a problem. For Jamison, it’s the problem of how to begin a story, the story of being hit while traveling in Nicaragua. How does any woman or man begin to tell the story of unexpected violence? How does any writer begin? Beginning can be such a problem in and of itself, Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously commences with the problem of starting, the terror of that first line, of not knowing the way in. Eula Biss, on a panel at AWP Minneapolis, said, “I feel like in almost all my work, I find form, and I have to write my way into it.”