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.