Layering a Collection

How they speak to each other is important.

Sara Schaff

Last night, as I was continuing to consider what to write about layering a chapbook or collection, I got to attend the digital launch for Sara Schaff’s new short story collection, The Invention of Love. One attendee asked her how she went about putting the stories in order. She compared the process to curating a mix tape and also noted how different the stories are when they are in conversation with one another, as opposed to being published separately.

I also recently got to hear Ayelet Tsabari discuss revision. She spoke quite a bit about putting a short story collection together, and her process is this: She revises the individual stories many, many times, and eventually reaches a point where she stops viewing the stories as separate and instead revises the collection as a singular work. In this way, she builds layers similarly to how a novelist does – by looking at the arc of the collection. She mentioned the need to identify and track recurring themes, to ensure that she’s introducing them and reinforcing them at the right times, while avoiding hitting the exact same note.

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. I have a chapbook coming out with Sonder Press in October. It’s mixed-genre (prose poetry & flash fiction & one lonely verse piece) about being stuck inside with your family because the outside world is dangerous (yep, I know; it was accepted pre-covid). My entire process for that consisted of digging and expanding. I started with one piece, and that piece essentially became the prompt for my next piece. I would write a piece that took place on the couch and then ask, “But what about the basement?” It truly was a process of standing in the place that the chapbook was creating and then looking around and paying attention to how the body would feel in that space – how there would be a basement beneath those floor boards, and that might be where the last stores of food would be, and how that would feel. The guided exploration from Day 3 was really a cornerstone of my layering process.

The short story collection I mentioned 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 could not understand why her coworker worked so hard to conceive, but tried to be supportive in her own weird way.

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 process involved a lot of reading and rereading my own work. When Canadian poet and novelist Ian Williams is working on a collection, he tapes all the poems to his walls, so he has to look at them all the time. When people come over, they’ll look around as he pours them wine or finishes cooking dinner, and they’ll say, “A lot of these poems are about X.” He’ll notice those patterns, too. He’ll be putting on his coat to head out the door when a line catches his eye – a statement that needs to be explored further, so on the bus he’ll pull out his notebook and start composing a companion poem.

Within my collection, I believe every piece has a companion piece. That can be a way to add layers to a collection, which is perhaps more manageable than viewing the collection as a large, unwieldy whole.

One last thought: In David Queen’s word west workshop on plausible magic, he mentioned the concept of the suitcase. Essentially, every short story has its own particular list of resources that it needs in order to function. These might be props, like Chekhov’s gun, or they might be a dreamy tone that makes you believe the unbelievable. Whatever they are, the writer has to pack them in their suitcase, and the suitcase is the first page. All the elements that will be necessary to the story should be planted there on the first page. Now, this is getting dangerously close to a “rule,” and there are tons of stories where this is not true. BUT I think it’s worth asking yourself, when building a collection, what each new piece adds to the suitcase. Ask yourself what you need to establish in the first 1-3 stories, to make sense of the later ones. And then ask yourself whether you can thread those suitcase items throughout the collection as a whole, and how each appearance can deepen the meaning of those items.