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What Makes a Collection?

You’ve amassed some stories. Maybe you have enough for a collection, maybe you’re still a few shy. It’s not an obvious grouping of stories: there are no common characters or recurring places or a clear theme. How do you organize them? What order will make the most sense?

At AWP 2018, writers Mia Alvar, Ramona Ausubel, Helen Phillips, and Deb Olin Unferth discussed this topic in Finding the Understory: What Connects a Collection, moderated by Laura van den Berg. The title for the panel came from George Saunders, and here’s a wonderful description from him, via The Story Prize, on how he puts together a collection:

Well, usually about a year before I finish the book, I start to get a pretty good idea of what’s going in there. There might be a couple of things still in-progress, but there usually comes a time when, looking out on to the horizon, I feel: Yes, those stories I’ve finished, plus, maybe, these two in a pipeline, represent a coherent artistic blop (yet another technical etc., etc.). So once I get all of those stories done, I take a deep breath and make an index card for each: Title, first line, last line. And then I start moving those around on the floor or a big table. The idea at that point is: Which order would propel a reader most effectively through this book? That is: How can I arrange these so that the reader finishes the book, and feels great when she does? And from there it becomes a bit of a logical puzzle. These two stories should (or shouldn’t) go one after the other; this story needs to go first; this would make a good closer, etc., etc. And this process is exactly equal, turns out, to trying to produce the most thematic power—somehow, if I arrange the stories to produce a nice reading velocity, they turn out, also, to be telling a sort of under-story—one that I wasn’t really aware of as I was writing the individual stories.

Another solution, put forth by Ramona Ausubel, and used to great effect in her story collections, is to create sections which impose order on the collection. In her most recent collection, Awayland, Ausubel groups her stories into the following sections: Bay of Hungers, The Cape of Persistent Hope, The Lonesome Flats, and The Dream Isles. She discussed the fact that stories could fall into different sections and so by the choice of which section a story belongs in, the writer is giving a bit of a hint to the reader as to the meaning of the story. When she was finishing up this collection, she deliberately created some nuanced connections between the stories so that the astute reader would see the echoes and connective tissue.

Many of the writers on the panel talked about the difference between stories that echo or speak to one another and stories that simply repeat. Part of the process of putting together a collection is to understand that difference and not include those stories that simply seem to be doing the same work as another, stronger story. And in line with that, several of the writers said that it was important for them to get outside advice on the architecture of the collection in part because it can be difficult to see your work objectively.

Different advice was provided for the first story in the collection. Some writers had been told to put their strongest story first, and their next-strongest story last. Others deliberately placed a not-too-long, not-too-short, interesting-but-not-too-demanding story first. All agreed that the first story matters, that it should represent a welcoming hand from the writer to the reader.

Two readings were recommended: Not-Knowing by George Barthelme and Only Collect by Peter Ho Davies. Barthelme says, “Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how…The not-knowing is not simple, because it’s hedged about with prohibitions, roads that may not be taken.”

Davies deals directly with the idea of a story collection, and he says the following:

That act of collection is often a seminal moment in the development of such writers. They go from being people who write stories, to people who write books, and most importantly, in setting their stories side by side, in considering them collectively, they gain new insight into their work, new perspectives on it, frequently discovering things in the work that they were previously unconscious of. Some of these things, as noted above, can be weaknesses – an overuse or predilection for certain images, certain modes of story telling – but many others suggest recurring obsessions or interests that the writer himself is un- or only dimly aware of.

This thought is similar to Saunders’ concept of the understory, that subconscious thing that unites a writer’s work. Davies goes on to provide many wonderful examples of the way in which collections are linked by these obsessions and interests and concludes by saying that many of the best collections show: “An interest in variation – alternatives, mirrorings, parallels – within ostensive similarity (of community, ethnicity, experience), and perhaps too a desire to hold together or put back together that which has already begun to come apart.”

Davies concludes his piece by considering the tension that lies in a great collection, the tension that is derived from the fact that a collection is just that: parts that make up a whole:

Perhaps most obviously each evinces a tension between cohesion and fragmentation, between the parts and the whole, an acknowledgement of the fragility or temporary nature of the whole which harkens back to the idea of collections as a means of preservation, or at least of recording, and provides a contrast to the novel with its focus on the “new”.

This nicely reflects another idea that the panelists put forth, that a collection is reflective of a writer’s mind at work. Given that stories are often written over quite a wide swath of time, it is possible to see the progression of the ideas of a writer as they wrestle with their subconscious and for that progression to form some sort of understory or architecture.

Exercises

  • Create an index card for each story with title, first line, last line, a la George Saunders. Move them around and see what feels like the best order to you. Where do the connections feel the strongest? Where are the weak links?
  • Write out a list of the themes that you see running through the collection. Is there an understory there, a way to connect the stories so that the understory has a progression from beginning to end?
  • Is there a way to tweak some of the stories so that the echoes and resonances are stronger? Could a secondary character in one story actually be the main character in another story? Could that beach in one story be the same beach as the one that appears in a later story?
  • Once you’ve decided on a good order, give the whole collection to a few readers. Get their sense of the order and whether it works for them. Listen to their suggestions. They may well see an understory and a different organizing mechanism for your work.

by Laura Spence-Ash