On Ordering Essay (& Story) Collections: To Try & Try Again

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Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage—one of the essay collections I read in 2016.

Earlier this year, I assembled a hybrid manuscript (short stories and creative nonfiction essays) and an essays-only version and sent both out to several places. My manuscript was a finalist at three presses this spring and summer, which was encouraging. A few of the editors, writers, and friends who read my manuscript generously provided some useful feedback. Then I took some time to consider next steps.

In September, I had lunch with Sabina Murray, a fiction writer who teaches in the MFA program at UMass Amherst. We were talking about the challenges of selling a hybrid manuscript and she said, “Think about when you go to a bookstore and pick up a memoir or a novel. You are looking for a different experience in reading one over the other, right? We have different expectations for nonfiction versus fiction.”

That made sense to me, even though, given the interest in books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen or Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, it is also a good time to be publishing “hybrid” work. For what it’s worth, Edie Meidav, another fiction writer at UMass thought it absolutely possible to shop and successfully publish a hybrid manuscript.

My takeaway: there’s no one or right answer. These are just decisions we make and go from there. The word “essay” comes from the French verb essay—to try. So much of writing is to try. And to try again.

After putting my manuscript aside for a few months, I decided to try separating the stories and essays, which meant shorter collections of each—but I could also see how they read differently.

In December, I picked up Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. As in any collection, I found some essays more compelling than others. Many of Patchett’s essays had been published elsewhere first (and some were the text of speeches), and while there were certainly themes, Patchett has a strong following as an established writer. Readers would (and did) buy the book whether or not the essays all worked together to create a unified whole. Beyond that, of course it’s meaningful and valuable to hold a book in your hand, all the writing there at once, instead of clicking to this link and that link online.

I read Patchett’s book from beginning to end, and did not skip around. I usually skip around. I realized that’s in part why I had a hard time thinking about chronology and ordering my essays or stories—the order of stories or poems or essays in a book usually does not have much bearing on the order in which I actually read them.

On the other hand, seeing the structure, reading an introduction or forward, seeing subtitles (as in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land) did help me to see in part how the writers themselves (and / or their publishers and editors) intended for the book to read. And I appreciated that, could see the value in that.

With a little help from (as Roxane Gay might say) Dr. Google, I found some useful resources:

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies also has two excellent posts covering recent conference panels on the subject. One is Vivian Wagner’s blog post, “Narrative, Lyric, Hybrid: Crafting Essay Collections into Books.” This post covered the AWP 2015 conference panel of the same title with Renee D’Aoust (moderator), and Rebecca McClanahan, Patrick Madden, Peter Grandbois, and Philip Lopate as panelists.

From Assay:

Rebecca McClanahan began the discussion by addressing the different ways that essay collections can come together. Some books of essays, she said, cohere organically because of subject matter, style, narrative movement, or repeating images. For essays that don’t automatically hang together, however, she said writers have to grapple with a variety of questions. What should one do, for instance, with events that repeat themselves over and over in various essays? Should the writer edit the essays and place a key event once in the collection? What if some of the essays are in present tense and some in past? What about the fact that people in our essays grow up, marriages end, and we ourselves change over time? As McClanahan said, “our reflections may change drastically from essay to essay. There can be several selves on the page colliding with each other.”

Wagner ended her coverage of the panel with this commentary:

I can’t say I came away from this panel with all the answers. I’m still mulling over my yet-to-be-assembled essays. What I did learn, however, is that putting together a book of essays involves more – much more – than just creating a single Word file and piling essays in it until it reaches 300 pages. And that lesson, at least, is a good place to start.

So true. It’s much more than creating a single Word file!

Next, Heidi Czerwiec’s write-up in Assay covered a panel at the 2015 NonfictioNow Conference (I was lucky enough to attend this panel, too): From the post, “Assay@NFN15: ‘Beyond Scaffolding: Constructing an Essay Collection,’”

Audience comment from Heidi Czerwiec: Susan Grimm’s Ordering the Storm contains several theories of how to order poetry books, and Katrina Vandenberg had a great essay in Poets & Writers on how to order a poetry book based on how to make a mixtape, a la High Fidelity. Jericho Parms [panelist] responded that she often looked to poetry books for ideas on ordering.

Audience comment from Robin Hemley: there’s greater importance on the organizing principle, especially on the title of the collection, and how it works as a rubric for how to read the essays together.

I scoured my bookshelves and gathered up books of essays and short story collections and studied them—the titles, where the books opened, the tone of the first line of the first essay or story; how each story or essay closed; where the book ended; narrative arc; whether or not they were divided into sections or parts and whether or not those parts had subtitles. I think it’s worth doing this with any of your favorite books of short stories or essays.

Here are some of the books I looked at (some in great detail and others, just skimming or scanning) listed here in no particular order:

  • Joy Castro’s Island of Bones (Essays)
  • Adrienne Rich’s Blood, Bread, and Poetry (Essays)
  • Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Essays)
  • James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (Essays)
  • Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays and The Balloonists (Hybrid/Nonfiction)
  • Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays
  • Douglas Watson’s The Era of Not Quite (Stories)
  • Lia Purpura’s On Looking (Essays)
  • Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Essays)
  • Sonja Livingston’s Ladies Night at the Dreamland and Queen of the Fall (Essays)
  • Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth (Essays)
  • Rachel Hall’s Heirlooms (Stories)
  • Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (Essays)
  • Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (Essays & Speeches)
  • Rick Moody’s Demonology (Stories)
  • Junot Diaz’ This Is How You Lose Her and Drown (Stories)
  • Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth (Essays)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies (Stories)
  • Laurie Colwin’s The Lone Pilgrim (Stories)
  • Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever (Stories)
  • Susan Steinberg’s three books: Spectacle; The End of Free Love; Hydroplane (Stories)

Ones I intend to look at:

  • Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now (Essays)
  • Julie Marie Wade’s Small Fires (Essays)

I found the process of ordering my stories and essays and thinking about how the individual stories or essays speak to one other, themes, etc., to be more challenging than I imagined it would be—even though I had done another version of this process in 2013. Or perhaps I knew it—and this is why it took me many years to do it again.

Finally, I had a really thoughtful conversation over email with my friend Nate Pritts, author of several poetry collections. From his email:

These questions, about ordering, are really so crucial. I think about them a lot. I have much I could say. But maybe first I’d say you should trust yourself – reading those first and last paragraphs to see what resonance there is makes a lot of sense. Also, if your instincts suggest coming up with a structure for sections, I’d say go for it, explore it. For me, sections have always been obvious (ie, series of poems, or seasonal) or mysterious (which is to say, I roughly feel like there is a first and second section and organize poems according to those currents).

Maybe just think about the pieces overall. What shapes or recurrences or narratives define what you’re writing about: interior / exterior, journeying and returning, etc. The question then is, for example, if you can ascertain a rough interior / exterior divide, do you separate them or intersperse them for strengthening?

For poems, I tend to print out ALL the poems and spread them on the floor (or desks, whatever, all over the house) and then just walk around reading them and picking them up as I go as it makes sense, if I’m finding those riffs and connections. If these are shorter pieces, maybe you could do that too? Or maybe you could just start with one piece – is there one that seems like a center or kernel? Then what piece of the other 21 pieces goes before it? Or after it? And start working out organically in waves.

Nate’s advice resonated with me. Before this year, I had no idea how other writers came to this process. Like Nate, I had printed out copies of all the essays and stories and spread them across my office. I could see all of the pieces and move them around as actual physical objects—well before any cutting and pasting on the computer.

Many years ago I ordered the stories in my MFA thesis in the final days and weeks before handing it in and the whole process felt rushed and somewhat random—just putting things together in a word document. In the end, it was a thesis, but not a book.

Maybe assembling a book is a little like taking stock of the year—here we are on New Year’s Eve. What’s your story about 2016? Themes, highlights, recurring images? It’s stepping back and seeing the forest, as McClanahan said— (after, for me, counting up, classifying, and mulling over the variety of trees and various vegetation).

Our country’s story in 2016: The rise of Trump. A loss of heart. The loss of so many gifted musicians and writers.

The to-do list: I still have to research long-term care insurance.

Writing: I bought a new desk and two new file cabinets. I assembled manuscripts and mulled over titles and subtitles and epigraphs.

Obviously, there’s much more to the lists than this, but it’s getting late in the day and this blog post is already long. (And I need to take a shower.)

What’s on your list? What are the important pieces and parts and stories of your year?

I wish you and yours health, happiness, wild creativity, and meaningful order in 2017. And to trust your instincts. And lots of reading and writing.

Commonplace Books & Other People’s Words, Post Election

fullsizerender-6On the recommendation of two of my students in the advanced memoir / creative nonfiction class I’m currently teaching, I recently went back and finished Mary Karr‘s excellent The Art of MemoirIn Chapter 19, “Old-School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr suggests keeping a commonplace book: “a notebook where you copy beloved poems or hunks of prose out. Nothing will teach you a great writer’s choices better. Plus you can carry your inspiration around with you in compact form.” She includes other great exercises—memorizing poems, writing reviews, and augmenting a daily journal with a reading journal.

I first came across the term “commonplace book” on a former colleague’s syllabus. Martha and I taught at Marymount Manhattan College, and she showed me her syllabus for Narrative Fiction (English 180?), the introductory literature class I would also be teaching. I loved the idea of this—a reading journal.

Both Karr and poet & editor Mark Pawlak, with whom I read last week, mentioned the practice of keeping a commonplace book, and I feel inspired to keep such a book apart from my regular journal—right now they are combined in one notebook so unless I go back to my journals to flag and cull excerpts from what I’m reading, I sometimes lose those copied out passages. In fact, I wrote out the following quotes from Karr’s book in my journal last week. This post will be a kind of online supplement to my commonplace book—I’d like to try doing that and see if it feeds my writing and teaching at all—making some of this commonplace book visible and available. Ideally, it would also be a potential resource for other writers or my students, but also a resource for me to look back at what I found interesting or inspiring. Here are some of her words that struck me.

From The Art of Memoir:

No matter how much you’re gunning for the truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle. Start trying to bring yourself to the page and fear of how you’ll come off besets even the most forthright. The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision. (153)

In her chapter on revision (Chapter 24: “Against Vanity: In Praise of Revision”): “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” —quoting Mark Twain

She also quotes from G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology (on 217):

I have never done anything ‘useful.’ No discovery of mine has made or is likely to make directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world….Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil, and outside mathematics it is trial anyhow…I have added something to knowledge and helped others to add more; and these somethings have a value that differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.

I’ll add one more quote, not from Karr, but rather from Rebecca Solnit. My friend Gail Hosking showed this to me (pasted into her journal), when I mentioned I’d been crying earlier in the day—still stunned over the results of the election.

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meanings that may be at odds with your soul, your destiny, your humanity, so there’s another kind of success in becoming conscious that matters and that is up to you and nobody else and within your reach.

This helped, to see what Gail had copied and pasted into her journal. I shared Solnit’s words with my students last night too, all such devoted and inspiring writers themselves. I felt better after reading and discussing their thoughtful work.

I’m sharing a couple of blog posts by writer friends, which also helped to deal with the helplessness, despair, and mourning that engulfed me and so many of us this week.

Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls

Amethyst Brook and the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst, Massachusetts. My dear friend, poet Holly Wren Spaulding, suggested this walk on the equinox, which is also her birthday.

A labyrinth near Amethyst Brook and the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst, Massachusetts. My dear friend, poet Holly Wren Spaulding, suggested this walk in Amethyst Brook on the equinox, which is also her birthday.

September is the month of the autumnal equinox—the time when summer ends and autumn begins. In the weeks before this, I was thinking about goals for the fall and mourning the end of summer a bit, especially for R, since his life (and mine) change dramatically once the school year begins. But not all change is bad. He loves teaching middle school and coaching tennis, and I love the fall.

My fall classes at Writers & Books begin next week, in October, so I’ve had the chance to do some meaningful traveling and attend events related to art and writing in September. For that, I’m exceedingly grateful…especially since we’ve had health issues in our family, and our summer was mostly spent with parents, my grandmother, and extended family who had come to visit my grandmother.

At the New York book launch for Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, held at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

At the New York book launch for GOOD GIRLS MARRY DOCTORS: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, held at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

Some September highlights: R and I took a trip to New York—our first visit since we went there together at the end of 2013. It was a lovely vacation, instigated by an invitation from writer Jyothi Natarajan to moderate the Q&A for the book launch of the anthology, Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion (edited by Piyali Bhattacharya), at the Asian American Writers Workshop. Piyali had invited me to submit an essay to the anthology, but it was due right after my wedding, and I didn’t have the mind space to be able to see an essay through to completion then. So I was especially pleased to be able to participate in this book project in some way. It was a wonderful event—moving essays, a packed house, and a chance to reconnect to some of my literary community in New York.

img_0531I’d vacillated on this next trip, but I am so grateful I went. Stephen Clingman, a former professor of mine at UMass Amherst, invited me to take part in a symposium on the life and work and legacy of my MFA classmate, slain American journalist Jim Foley. Besides his work as a brave witness of the suffering in Syria, Jim was also a talented fiction writer. We were honored to spend time with Jim’s parents, John and Diane Foley, who also attended the symposium.

Other writers on our panel included MFA classmates Erin White and Yago Cura; Jim’s friend from Teach For America, poet Daniel Johnson; our MFA professor, Noy Holland; and Jim’s close friend from Marquette University, Thomas Durkin. One of the writers for the documentary about Jim also attended—his childhood friend, Heather MacDonald. I read from an essay I’d started about Jim a couple of years ago and still need to finish.

img_0428September brought with it the Rochester Fringe Festival, which meant the chance to see my favorite hometown modern dance company, Garth Fagan Dance. They have been inspiring me my whole life, and R and I were lucky enough to have one of the dancers, Natalie Rogers-Cropper, choreograph our first dance at our wedding. Fagan created his own dance vocabulary using elements of Afro-Caribbean, ballet, and American modern dance—and this influenced me as an artist; he extended what was possible, or what seemed possible. We all have different stories to tell, complete with different vocabularies. You don’t have to use someone else’s—in fact, you can’t. How liberating it is, but it requires confidence—a certain strength of will and belief in your story.

Rachel Hall (center) with Howard Solomon and Marijana Ababovic, 9.27.16.

Rachel Hall (center) with Howard Solomon and Marijana Ababovic, 9.27.16.

September also brought with it the publication of an essay of mine in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction’s special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization—“Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps.”  In addition, This week was the book party for my friend Rachel’s Hall’s debut collection of stories, Heirlooms. l was so pleased for her! In the last few years, we have talked a lot about the process of writing a collection and sending it out to find its home. I interviewed her about Heirlooms in my final column for the Kenyon Review Blog.

img_0717The day after Rachel’s book party, I had the opportunity to hear the venerable, acerbic, witty, and wonderful Margaret Atwood! (I can no longer say there’s “nothing going on in Rochester.”) Not only is the epigraph from my manuscript from Atwood, her essay, “Nine Beginnings,” is one I regularly teach and come back to in my thinking and writing. I’ve also been reading from a collection of interviews with her (books were generously given out at the event, held at The College at Brockport, The State University of New York).  Here’s an excerpt of an interview I read this morning:

Geoff Hancock: What do you think your strengths are as a writer?

Atwood: I used to say, in the usual Canadian way, ‘Well, aw shucks,’ I don’t know.’ We’re trained to be modest. But now that I’m middle-aged I’m going to allow myself to say, ‘Well, maybe I’m good.’ Not all the time, but enough times, I can get the words to stretch and do something together that they don’t do alone. Expand the possibilities of the language.

Hancock: And your weaknesses?

Atwood: Weaknesses?  We can’t afford to think about those kinds of things. Most writers are tightrope-walking over Niagara Falls all the time. Look down and you’ve had it. If I thought too much about weakness I’d block.

—From “Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls” in Margaret Atwood: Conversations (edited by Earl G. Ingersoll)

Let me just say I want to be her when I grow up. In the meantime, I’m learning to be me as best I can. It’s the task of a lifetime.

Finally, I wanted to share some essays I came across this past month, so as not to forget them. These are also some of my reading recommendations, if you are looking for any:

  • Holly Wren Spaulding’s thoughtful essay on art installations in nature.
  • My friend Meera Nair’s essay about food, longing for home, and the importance of cooking.
  • A smart NYT article my friend, writer V.V. Ganeshananthan, recommended about networking. It’s about more than networking though—it applies to literary citizenship, manners, and being mindful about paying the help we receive forward.
  • My friend, local writer Nate Pritts, on writing outside and the importance of spending time in nature.
  • Also flagged to fully read / listen to (I caught just the end on the radio): Mary Karr on writing memoirs on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
  • An essay on death, dying, and happiness, by Brooklyn-based meditation and yoga teacher, Jess Geevarghese. (I met Jess in a yoga class while in NY in September, and we ended up striking up a conversation at a cafe down the block from the studio…one of the most meaningful interactions of my trip.)
  • Last one: I heard Sarah Cedeno read this essay in July, but it stayed with me, and I’m adding it to this list to remind myself (and you) to take a look at her haunting essay about family, hoarding, and the stuff of life.

What are your reading recommendations? I’d love to hear from you about them.

What Can’t Be Cast Off: An Interview with Rachel Hall

At the end of July, I completed a six-month stint writing a bi-weekly column for the Kenyon Review blog. I am proud of all that work (and gained tremendous respect for the work involved in writing a weekly column or blog and for all who do it).

Heirlooms-coverMy final post is an interview with fiction writer Rachel Hall, a friend and fellow Rochesterian. Her first book, Heirlooms, is a collection of linked stories, which will be published in September. From the interview:

I grew up looking at family photo albums and listening to family stories. I’m lucky that my mother is an excellent storyteller, as were her adoptive parents, my grandparents. I loved their stories about the war in France, loved hearing them repeated, and in particular the way a new detail might emerge. At some point I began wondering what was left out or smoothed over or forgotten altogether… Read the entire interview here.

Most People Are Not Your Friends

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My latest essay for the Kenyon Review blog is on friendship, Anne of Green Gables, Sula, and wedding guest list do-overs. I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about all of these subjects. For many years, I worked on an essay about female friendship breakups, but then the friendship in question healed, it’s stronger than before—and though I know there’s a lot to say on the topic, I have yet to figure out how to write it. This post is about pruning:

In the fifth grade, I was friends with a girl on my street. Best friends—though we did not wear those Be Fri / St Ends necklaces—a heart split in two—each friend wearing a half; each friend wearing a broken heart around her neck. Jessica lived three houses away from me. We rode the same bus; we were in the same classes. Our parents had lived in the same apartment complex before moving to our street; my parents had even looked at her house when they were searching for a home. We moved to the same neighborhood within weeks of each other.

“Mean girls,” as a term or the name of a movie, did not exist then. (We did, however, have a table we called the Blonde Table—even though not everyone who sat there was blonde, but they were all wealthy, confident, and a little cruel.) Jessica wasn’t part of that table. I often walked home with her from the bus and stopped at her house for a snack, to play with Barbies (sorry to admit this), to listen to Men at Work or Toto (yes, “Africa”) on her record player. She had Rick Springfield and John Cougar Mellencamp, too. Sometime in the middle of fifth grade, Jessica dropped me—she stopped speaking to me….read the whole post here.

 

Recent News

The Cleveland State University Poetry Center announced that my book manuscript, How to Make Your Mother Cry, was a finalist in its 2016 Essay Collection Competition. The other press that recently awarded my manuscript finalist status is also in Ohio: The Ohio University Press’s 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize. What makes this ironic is that the essay I wrote last week for the Kenyon Review was about Ohio and my fear of the Midwest.

In other good news, my essay “Married,” was published last week— in the literary journal Waxwing —Issue 9, Summer 2016. I spent my 20s and 30s going to weddings—over 50 of them (I counted when planning my own wedding last year). I love weddings—they are such joyous events— but there was also a point, in my early-30s, when it felt bittersweet to always be attending these celebrations solo.

My friend Elliot once pointed out that part of weddings is about getting single people in one’s community together—that weddings are a good place to meet people. I met people, but never the right ones. This essay is about that time in my life when I attended so many weddings.

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Still of my sister-in-law and me from the wedding video.

“Married,” an essay written about two of many people I did not marry, begins:

We were in the airport. I can’t stay in this moment. You were sweating so much you needed to find paper towels. You found the usual symbol indicating the usual room. I waited for you, by your bags, watched the people on the moving walkway, standing or walking. Here was all of it: the travel and tiredness. The rolling black suitcases and the pale green suits. Read more here.

What We Keep

IMG_9090My latest essay for the Kenyon Review, in which I write about getting married, the books we keep, and the books we give away—along with thoughts from other writers about how to decide which books are keepers:

“In Marie Kondo’s best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she writes, “Books are one of the three things that people find hardest to let go.” (The others are paper and miscellany / mementos. Perhaps books are especially hard because they involve aspects of the other two?) So how do we decide what to keep and what to give away? I wrote to several friends, mostly writers, curious to know their thoughts….” Read more here.