Take Down the Scaffold

I have said that the only rules a story must follow are its own. It turns out in the case of my collection, Jewelry Box: A Collection of Histories, I actually had to break even that last rule. I started with one rule—one rule!—and I couldn’t keep it after all.

Here’s how it happened. My original manuscript was called “One Hundred Histories.” I started it years ago, when I was working at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., running the poetry reading series. This was a nine to five job. My husband and I were also raising our daughter, an infant at the time. I had just finished a draft of my novel, The Anxiety of Everyday Objects (then called The Blind Girl, but that’s another story), and I needed to do two things. One, bust out of the constraint of the novel form, and two, find a way to keep writing despite the time limitations of my days.

I sat in the Folger’s Elizabethan Garden during my lunch hour, pad and pen in hand. I had an idea. I would write histories—short pieces I could write quickly, brief as poems but in prose form. I would explore the city, weaving in my own life and memories. I would write on the subway and during my lunch hour and while my baby slept. I would accomplish something every day. Ultimately, these would become something larger, more than the sum of their parts. A collection, a book. Yes, size matters. One hundred histories.

The title was a motivation, a rule, a necessary constraint. It kept me going. It was the thing. And then, ultimately, it wasn’t the thing.

When you work on a project for a long time, as in a decade, it becomes part of who you are, a little moon you hold in your arms. I wrote the title “One Hundred Histories” on a few manila folders. I spoke of the project in gondolas with bottles of Brunello handy (not really). There were months when I wrote many histories, bursts toward my hundred, and there were fallow periods, when the book simply waited for me. When I neared one hundred, I realized I should definitely overshoot it, so I wrote about a hundred and ten, leaving myself room to cut out weaklings. Finally I had my first complete draft. I sent it out to some contests. No such luck! I went back and fixed it some more, trimming, cleaning up, adding. I sent it out again. Take this process, repeat a few times. (I have many drafts of this manuscript.) At last, a year or so ago, I had one last new awesome manuscript and I gave it to a writer friend to read. He suggested that I cut some of the histories, make it another shape—not numerically based. What the hell? This was a radical, nay, a completely crazy notion. I sent the manuscript to an editor who liked it but thought it could be cut quite a bit. What the hell? Not holding to “one hundred” seemed, to begin with, a deeply unpleasant notion. The book was, after all, One Hundred Histories. ONE HUNDRED HISTORIES!

I tried it.

And I saw almost immediately that it was a good idea. There were moments of repetition and ways in which pieces did not rub up against each other in interesting ways. I was too inclined to stretch out what I had to maintain the hundred. By ridding myself of the super helpful, essential, near/dear, number one rule of this project, I was able to make the final edit necessary to find an organic shape for the collection. I had to think of the shape the project could become, not the one I conceived of in the first place.

Recent Blog Posts

Focus on Completion

July 21,2015 There is no such thing as writer’s block. You’ve heard this, right? Well, I agree. You may be stuck, but never truly blocked. We writers are coming up with ideas all the time. We’re... Continue Reading

What to Write

April 21,2015 Someday, you’re going to be dead. I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you. If it does, you are either extremely young or extremely naive. Neither situation bodes well for great writing.... Continue Reading
Page 1 of 2812345...1020...Last »