In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard seems to warn writers away from embarking on a collection of individual works: “…[S]ince every original work requires a unique form, it is more prudent to struggle with the outcome of only one form—that of a long work—than to struggle with the many forms of a collection.” As someone who has written both kinds of books (long form, book-length nonfiction, as well as books of individual essays), I must agree with Dillard. In fact, she’s letting us off easy by warning of only one challenge: the struggle to find the best form for each individual piece. Several other challenges await the writer who shapes a book of essays. Note that I wrote book of essays, not collection. To my mind, the two are vastly different. A collection merely gathers individual pieces under the same roof—the cover of the book. A well-shaped book of essays is another genre altogether; though each essay can and should stand alone, each also relates to the other essays in significant ways. If you embark on shaping a book of essays, here are some of the challenges you might face:
1. Choosing which essays to include
I never set out to write a book of essays, nor do most of the essayists I know. Rather, we find ourselves writing one essay, then another, then another. (I like how that sentence came out—we find ourselves writing—as if writing helps us find ourselves, which of course it does.) After a while, the essays accumulate. “How many do you have now?” a writer-friend asks. “Enough for a new book?” Well, that depends. Maybe enough for a collection, but a book? I’d have to think about that. Do all the essays talk to each other in interesting ways? Is there a center point, a hub, into which all the spokes fit? If I had to write the cover copy for this book, what central elements would I highlight?
In a well-shaped book of essays, the whole is more than the sum of its combined parts. Each essay should be sturdy enough to stand alone, like a vigorous tree. But when all the trees stand together, they should form not merely a stand of trees but rather a richly organic forest. This doesn’t mean that the essays must resemble each other in structure, style, or other literary elements. In fact, placing too-similar works in the same book can weaken the design of the whole. What dazzles in an individual, stand-alone piece can become a problem when set among other pieces that dazzle in the same way.
If, for instance, you have a gift for lyric intensity, and every essay achieves this same level of intensity, the reader may become exhausted, wishing for a little breathing space. If you have a gift for full-stop endings so powerful that the reader is satisfied after the first—or second, or third—essay, he may put the book down and never pick it up again, feeling no need to, since you’ve ended the book so well already. If you are skilled with the segmented form, and your book contains fifteen segmented essays, consider how many segment breaks you are requiring the reader to absorb over the expanse of the whole book, not just in one particular essay.
Nowhere are an essayist’s natural gifts—and limitations—so visible as in a book of essays. You may not realize how similar some of your essays are, but the attentive reader will notice. When you shape your book, consider how to vary your signature moves so that they don’t become repetitious, expected, or ineffective.
2. Finding the best order for the essays
This is one of the most essential decisions you will make, a decision you cannot avoid. Even if you were to stand at the top of a stairwell and toss all your essays down the stairs, retrieve them in no particular order, and name the result “my book,” you nevertheless will have influenced the book’s shape. And that shape, in turn, will affect the reader.
For some writers, the ordering process is intuitive. You may be guided by unconscious principles that are difficult to articulate but that nevertheless work: a sense of musical integrity, for instance, or an inherent gift for dramatic arc. “I don’t know why,” you think, “but this essay must come after this one. It just feels right.” When this happens, count yourself lucky. Sometimes when you host a dinner party, everything works out just fine. The guests seat themselves around the table in the perfect arrangement, everyone gets along, each guest has her moment in the light, and the happy chatter that ensues is a kind of music. At other dinner parties…well, we all know about those.
Some writers imagine a physical shape or structure for their book (a triptych, for example, or a braid, an accordion, a digressive spiral) and then order the essays to enhance that shape. Some use repeating patterns or motifs to unify their books, such as the colors that recur in the essay titles of Judith Kitchen’s Distance and Direction. Sometimes the order of essays is dictated by plot elements. If separate essays refer to the same event, especially a suspenseful event, this may determine the order. In The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, I mentioned a family medical crisis in one essay and revealed its outcome in another. I decided to place the “solved” essay later in the book so as not to give away the suspense too early on.
A caveat: Even if you choose the perfect arrangement for your essays, there’s no guarantee that readers will read the essays in order. In a book-length memoir or other nonfiction text, most readers start at the first page and read through to the end of the book. Not so with a book of individual essays. Your reader might pick up the book at any point. Let’s say you’ve spent a year or more choosing which essays to include, putting them in the best order, and even revising several of them so that they form a unified whole from first page to last. Then some reader decides to start in the middle of the book, say, or read the last essay first because he happens to be drawn to its title. When I wrote the introduction to The Riddle Song, I tried to anticipate this challenge: “Though some readers might choose to sample the essays in no particular order, the essays are not randomly ordered, but rather arranged so that they build upon each other.” I don’t know how many readers took the hint, but I like to imagine that those who read the essays in order enjoyed a richer literary experience than those who didn’t. My advice? Order the essays for your ideal reader, and hope for the best.
3. Repeating necessary information
Since essays must stand alone as well as support the whole book, you may need to supply the same background details several times. This is particularly true of memoir-based texts, or personal essays in which certain autobiographical facts are essential. The first time I read Andre Dubus’s Broken Vessels, one of my all-time favorite books, I noticed that in several of the essays, he recounted details of the accident that had left him, in his own words, “a cripple.” Since I read books of essays in order, often several essays at one sitting, this repetition bothered me at first. Later, I saw that details about the accident were essential not only to the stand-alone essays in which they appeared but also to the book as a whole, and I admired the way Dubus varied his presentation with regards to proportion, balance, and style. For some books of essays, repetition of information is unavoidable; the challenge lies in not sounding merely repetitive. To do this, select only essential details, vary the wording from essay to essay, and pay close attention to the timing, placement, and release of the background information so that it supports not only individual essays but also the book as a whole.
4. Handling time, or time handling you
Single-arc memoirs and other long form nonfictions often proceed more or less chronologically, and even when they don’t, their past and present timelines usually remain consistent for the scope of the book and thus can be navigated without undue difficulty for writer or reader. Within a book of essays, however, there may be many different timelines, some of which overlap or even conflict with the timelines of other essays. In what order will you place the essays with relation to time? What if some of the essays are written in present tense, others in past tense? If individual essays each include multiple time periods—present tense, recent past, distant past, even future—how will the reader monitor the larger timeline of the book?
A more complex challenge concerns how time has its way with the flesh-and-blood author. When you write individual essays about real people, real places, and real events over a period of years, and then begin shaping these essays into a unified book, you may discover large gaps. The infant niece you describe in one essay is a teenager in another; the marriage you praise as the one that will last forever (in one essay) ends badly by the time you write the final essay. Do you leave the essays as you originally wrote them, and let them duke it out on their own? Do you rewrite them so that they abide more peaceably within the covers of your book? Or do you accept the gaps and provide the reader with a way to navigate them, as Edward Hoagland does in his author’s note to The Courage of Turtles: “The essays on love and pain are…not updated to take into better account my recent marriage; and two essays have been especially vulnerable to the speed-up of events…. Already it seems strange that I could lose sleep over tearing up my draft card to protest the Vietnam War….”
As Hoagland’s comments illustrate, even if your essays are not memoir-based or dependent on factual information that changes over time, your emotions, perceptions, and reflections regarding events or information might change radically from essay to essay. Then, when it comes time to shape your book, you may discover several versions of yourself colliding on the page. How to handle these collisions is another important challenge to consider.
5. Re-seeing, re-shaping, re-imagining
I’ve saved this challenge for last because it is the scariest, one I have faced several times in my writing life. Many years ago, when a poet friend was helping me shape a poetry manuscript, at one point he looked across the table and said, “Quit going in with tweezers. Blow the mother*&#$* up.” He was right. More was required than moving a poem here, a poem there (you can substitute “an essay here, an essay there”). The center was not holding.
Shaping a book of essays can be a process of deep, sometimes violent, revision. You may discover that something big is missing: the defining essay, the essay that is the hub for the many loose spokes, the essay that completes the narrative arc. Or, conversely, you discover that your three favorite pieces do not belong in this book at all; they are seeds for a book you’ve yet to write. If you keep your options open right up to the very moment of sending the manuscript off, big things can happen. As Richard Hugo writes in The Triggering Town, “To change what’s there is difficult because it is boring. To find the right other is exciting.” The “right other” may be a new shape for your book. You may even discover that the book is not a book of essays at all; it wants to be something else entirely. This has happened to me twice already and may well happen again. The good news? I haven’t died from it. Yet. And I have no intention of giving up on essaying.
Yes, I agree with Dillard’s warning. Creating a book of individual pieces is a struggle, and those who embark on the struggle may fairly be deemed imprudent. As for me, I willingly plead guilty to the charge of imprudence. What choice do I have? I love reading and writing essays, and I love books of essays. A well-shaped book of essays is one of literature’s most elegant forms, one that deserves our highest attention as readers and writers. Enjoy the struggle. It’s worth it.
Rebecca McClanahan’s tenth book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change, was published in March 2013 and is now in its second printing. She has also published five books of poetry, three books of writing instruction, and a suite of essays, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Sun, and numerous anthologies. The recipient of the Wood Prize from Poetry Magazine, a Pushcart Prize, the Glasgow Award for nonfiction, and literary fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, McClanahan teaches in the MFA programs of Queens University (Charlotte) and Rainier Writing Workshop.