The Seams & the Stitches

by Kate Finegan

Somewhere, the story already exists. You glimpsed it, you have to find it.

And then—it’s in the door like a stray cat. Then, for me, comes an occasional deceiving fondness, followed by the wish, in the middle of cooking or talking to somebody, to go get the story and grab it by the neck and be rid of it. This is after weeks, months. It’s my cat by then.

Valerie Trueblood, How Writing a Short Story Collection is Like Starting a Zoo

On Day 1, we built a dollhouse. We populated it by considering the following questions:

  • Where does your work take place? What are its boundaries?​
  • Who exists within the walls of your work? Who is absent, offscreen, or awaiting entry?​
  • What are the spaces that used to exist? What has been demolished or abandoned?​
  • What is the general temperature of this space?​
  • Where does time contrast in your space (seasonally, daily, etc.)?

Of course, building a dollhouse is one thing, and filling it with furniture and fixtures is another. But a real dollhouse is the staging ground for the imagination, a place to explore the lives of characters, to enact questions through play.

In this essay on Jericho Brown’s Pulitzer Prize–winning collection The Tradition, Christopher Louis Romaguera uses the word let 13 times and allow 7 times. Grounding oneself firmly in place can provide an anchor around which to explore difficult themes—and variations on those themes. It gives permission.

When I say place, I’m not just talking about physical location. We can be anchored within a scenario, within a mood, within a set of images. Where is a slippery, amorphous concept in English, and when I’m writing a collection, I am forever writing into the place of that collection, even if the stories themselves take place in far-flung locales.

When I was putting my short story collection manuscript together, I came to think of the central themes and images as rays of light passing through the prism of the collection as a whole. One recurring image is bees. Bees show up in three stories. Reading each of these stories individually, you would see the bees as 1) the dangerous legacy of a mother who has abandoned her daughter, 2) an obligation fulfilled grudgingly and an almost comforting source of worry in the wake of grief, and 3) a source of liberation from a toxic friendship. But within the context of the collection, as the bees are filtered through the other themes and images, each of these meanings takes on a slightly different weight or colour, based on the stories that precede and follow them.

A phrase I end up coming back to, within collections and individual pieces, is to “write into” an image, theme, or idea. My collection ranges widely in terms of geography—from Iceland and the English coast to Vancouver Island and Texas. So it seems strange to speak of standing within the place the collection was building, but I think it still applies. 

The place was the emotional, intellectual, and physical experience that the collection was building. The way a constellation of seemingly disconnected memories can somehow feel like a place within ourselves. 

All the stories deal with womanhood. Many of them deal with motherhood – bad mothers, ambivalent mothers, great mothers, people who are very happy not to be mothers. There’s a lot of wild, unwanted growth of all sorts. I began to see the connection between motherhood and growth, all the different things that growth could mean. Then it became a question of What are all the things that can grow, that are unruly? I wrote into that question. And writing about motherhood made me keenly aware of motherhood’s prismatic nature—all the different ways that role can refract the light of our individual lives and obsessions. So the other question became, What aspects of motherhood have I not explored? Once I had explored an aspect, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a one-sided exploration, so my story about a couple conceiving after fertility issues was paired with a story about a woman who feels like an outsider for not wanting what her coworker had worked so hard to get—a baby.

As the stories accumulated, I moved from writing individual stories to writing into what the collection as a whole was saying. Like, here’s a story about prize chickens; what about animals people don’t want?

The name of this Weekend Workshop Intensive is Common Threads, and if you work with textiles, you know that motifs recur within a piece of fabric; you know that while a garment may be knitted from a single strand, that strand can be worked into bobbles, cables, lace, or all of the above.

So, let’s go back to the quotation from Sabrina Orah Mark that opened yesterday’s craft note:

Nabakov talks about it, how writers will plot subliminal coordinates that you’re working with, and it’s like this secret thread beneath all of the poems.

As college students who coveted expensive wool but had a Red Heart budget and lived in a town where Walmart was the only yarn shop, my roommate and I would drive to Goodwill and go to the rack of extra-large men’s sweaters, where we would seek out the finest fibers then turn the seams inside-out to check that they weren’t cut and serged. If each piece of the sweater was made of a continuous strand of yarn, we’d buy it then go back to our apartment, wash the fabric, snip the seams, and unravel the sweaters into brand-new balls of yarn.

This is how writing into images and themes in your collection can feel. The work you’ve already written is the raw material for what comes next. You need to study what you’ve already written. Check its tags, stretch its seams. See if you can harvest some buttons. Maybe they’ll look different on a hat, some gloves.

Themes and images are not finite resources. You can repurpose your obsessions again and again and again, like knitting and unraveling then knitting and unraveling the same sweater.

Knitting is about repetition. It’s about mastering the stitches. That’s why we’re going to build a metaphorical lexicon in our Day 2 live session. Then, it’s about charting a pattern, or a map, of how those stitches connect.

You have to practice a lot to get good at knitting. This requires some level of obsession.

That’s what I want to end with—the power of obsession. If you don’t have this in your notebook, stop reading and start writing. Title a page Obsessions and then fill that page. List everything that keeps you up at night, everything that sends you down internet rabbit holes, every earworm you can’t shake, every scenario that lives on loop inside your mind.

This is your yarn. This is what you’ll use to create your collection, and the next collection, and the next.

In this interview, Rumaan Alam lists the images and themes that are repeated within Samantha Hunt’s collection The Dark Dark, and Hunt responds,

. . . Let me say, to find all of these obsessions collected here so obviously was a surprise to me. I live with deer and coyotes. Lyme ticks are a daily concern and mystery, but, yes, what do they mean? I don’t know yet. But I’d rather point out the abundance of mystery than pretend to solve it.”

She also calls the collection itself “a survey of the past decade’s obsessions.”

Knitters, like squirrels, are infamous hoarders. We hold onto yarn. So I was well into my twenties when I finally cleared out my unused Goodwill-sweater yarn. As I packed those skeins into bags, I remembered how each sweater had draped on the hanger, how the yarn resisted as I pulled it from the shape it had been knitted into. I went back into that place; I remembered how Sonic cherry limeades tasted on the drive home, how we’d watch Buffy on our crinkly couch as we unraveled our bounty.

When we look into our work, we are also looking into our pasts. We’re looking into not just the collected words, but the collected observations and experiences. The obsessions.

Hunt ends by noting,

As a writer I feel more like a filter than a performer. I absorb and observe and then I name scatterings of stars into constellations. I don’t usually spend time asking whether the stars are random or planned. I make a narrative in the darkness, the area subscribed by an outline of bright points. Sometimes they look like Ursa Minor, and sometimes they just look like one day the world exploded.

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