One of my writing goals this summer has been to shape a collection of essays into a cohesive manuscript. It sounds like a relatively simple task, with much of the writing already completed and polished. But it took some time to struggle with two questions before I could begin to consider calling the assorted works a collection.
The first question: What is this manuscript to be about? Or in other words: What have I got?
I had to figure out the answer before I could determine which pieces belonged and which didn’t. A false start on answering that question sent me down the wrong path for a while. I thought I could build a collection around a new idea that interested me, but when I began choosing which essays to include, and when I looked at my strongest work, I realized that I couldn’t manage any kind of adequate treatment of that theme. So I looked again at the work, at what I really had.
The answer was that throughout most all of my essays, I had been grappling with the process of bringing children into the world, shaping my life around the task of raising them, observing the changes in them and in myself as they grew, watching them move out into the world, and letting them go. What’s more, I could see all of that from the position of having lived through it as I considered what the next stage of life might hold. Overall, what I had was insight into the process of raising children, and perhaps myself as well, from the perspective of someone in the process of transition from child-rearing years to something else.
Finally, I had found a narrative in the collection, and I had a narrative stance for the overall work.
The second question: How will the collection be structured?
Finding the right structure is essential for having a collection make sense. It can transform a jumble of essays, or stories, or poems, into a satisfying, unified whole that deserves to be treated as a book. The work itself may suggest the structure that helps convey its meaning. But when the answer isn’t clear, inspiration is all around. The structure of objects in the world, or of our experience, offers myriad possibilities.
A daisy, for example, has individual petals surrounding the center. Some petals overlap but all radiate outwards. The eye is continually drawn from the center to the surrounding petals and back again. The pattern of the petals, seen together, echoes the circular shape at the heart of the flower. Concentric circles suggest both outward movement and concentration of energy at the center.
Thinking about the daisy might help shape the writing about, say, the guests at a wedding. The same dynamic occurs, with a wide circle of people connected through their relationship with the bride and groom. The organic shapes of living things offer a world of potential structures.
A book can also be structured by how we measure things. Time is a classic way of shaping literature, whether according to the cycles of hours, days, or seasons, or according to a chronology of events. Distance is another measurement that can lend itself to structure—measured by miles, or points along the way, or elevations. Terry Tempest Williams, for example, used the changing level of the Great Salt Lake to mark her chapters in Refuge.
Stages of work that mark the progress through a project is another possibility, whether the work is construction of a house, preparation of a meal, or launching of a business. Structure can be made in accordance with geography, as in Crystal Wilkinson’s collection of stories about the people on Water Street. It can be arranged by how things naturally occur together, as with Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s A Gift from the Sea, where the various shells she finds on the beach also serve as metaphors for her reflections on family life. Architecture can be another source of inspiration, whether it’s the shape of a building viewed from outside or the layout of the interior.
To find the right structure for this collection, I needed something that incorporated my perspective on the years of raising children. I wanted to celebrate child-rearing years as a single passage of time among many that a lifetime holds. So I structured the collection as a progression through the full cycle of a growing season, from the new growth of early spring through through the fullness of summer and the harvest then into the latency of winter when the earth rests before the next blooming.
By sculpting the work into a cohesive whole, I hope to be able to bring this collection into the world. There are no guarantees, but at least I have a completed manuscript dressed in good clothes ready to meet new people.
I wish you well in shaping your collections, too.