How to Write a Short Story Collection

Good morning, friends—

The title of this week’s newsletter is intended as a joke: as you all well know, it is impossible to write a short story collection! Haha, no, that’s also a joke. Sort of. A short story collection is rarely a thing anyone sets out to write. One might write a story imagining it will eventually be part of a collection, but it’s rare for a story writer to start with a clear idea of what form a collection will take, and write deliberately toward that end.

One exception is my first story collection, Pieces for the Left Hand, which began as a daily exercise with time (specifically, my daughter’s nap time) as the only constraint, and quickly became a project with a specific goal. I decided to write a hundred little stories, in a particular voice, and together they would form a book. This is why I sometimes (again, half-jokingly) refer to that book not as a collection, but as a novel about a guy who writes a hundred stories, with the stories themselves as the predominant text. I wrote it the way I write novels: there was a book-length thing I wanted to do, so I did it. (I actually wrote 104 and cut a few.)

I suspect that most collections consist simply of the last dozen pretty good stories that a writer published. My second collection, See You in Paradise, is one of those; I just chose my sort-of-conventional career favorites thus far, eliminated a few redundant ones, and smoothed out the wrinkles with my editor. I wanted a story collection like the ones my eighties heroes Charles Baxter and Alice Munro published—an eighties shopping mall of a collection, anchored by a couple of stories, published in the slicks, taking the roles of Sears and J. C. Penney; a bunch of solid, mildly offbeat pieces representing the Gap and Waldenbooks and Listening Booth; and maybe a Spencer Gifts or Claire’s Accessories for comic relief.

Let Me Think

The new collection, Let Me Think, came together much more slowly and uncertainly, first at random and in little bursts of energy, and then grindingly, with excruciating deliberation. It contains 71 stories, culled from more than a hundred, many written contemporaneously with the other two collections. (The oldest in the original draft were written 20 years ago; the oldest in the final version is from, I think, 2004.) Many of them were drawn from a folder on my hard drive labeled “Miscellany,” which, in 2016, I printed out, spread all over the floor, and rearranged with my own two hands. (I have long romanticized this task, which I think of as something poets get to do and, these days, document on social media. I did it! I photographed myself doing it and put it the photo on social media.)

What I discovered performing this extremely self-conscious act was that 1) I had written a lot of stories based on the limiting exercises I was assigning to students; 2) I had done a lot of small commissions for themed magazine issues and anthologies; and 3) the result didn’t actually come off as miscellaneous as I thought it would. Because these stories took on the shapes of arbitrarily imposed forms, and because I typically drafted them quickly, I’d mentally categorized them as trivial one-offs. But, taken together, they suddenly seemed like a window into the obsessions and preoccupations of my late youth and middle age. I arranged the stories into piles and labeled the piles: I think the labels read childhood, love, parenthood, madness, and death. Then I rearranged the stories in each pile into what seemed like an attractive order and put all the piles together. I created a new document file and dragged each story into it, then sent the result to friends to read.

Their readings led to my first culling; I removed all the prose-poemy stuff that I later published as Mistranslations and Meeting Notes, and a few weaker pieces. What was left was lean and incomplete, but thematically strong. I spent another four years adding to and subtracting from it, often by assigning myself new exercises. The collection kept its five-pile structure, but, at my editor’s suggestion, I removed the section headings and let the contents of each dictate what kind of stuff I ought to add to it. You can still feel the ghosts of the initial themes, but each section took on some life of its own; I was trying to make each feel like a movement of the same symphony.

The working title for this book was Monsters. There is a story in it with this title, and this is how I regarded the stories themselves, as charming little lab-generated monstrosities. (It was originally paired, in my mind, with Broken River, which at the time was called Ghosts. As it turned out, only one of those books was finished.) By the time I submitted the book to Graywolf, alongside Subdivision two years ago, I’d changed the title to Let Me Think, a phrase that appears in it several times, and which always struck me (and strikes the child in the title story) as an unusual commonplace, a plea both more and less desperate than it sounds.

Several of these stories are based on a triptych exercise I devised for a struggling graduate student: three thematically connected pieces that fit side-by-side on a single sheet of paper.

One is a microcollection of fictional descriptions of Vines, the erstwhile social-media video format.

Half a dozen were composed on my phone, in the messages app, and sent to random friends as texts, without explanation. I originally included the friends’ puzzled or amused responses but eventually elected not to foreground the process so much.

One consists of a series of surreal tweets I issued during a long, dull meeting.

Several are inspired by random street views found on the website mapcrunch.com.

A couple are performance pieces, generated for readings at a writers’ conference, and based on a shared prompt.

One is a response to an essay contest that has been over for more than half a century, sponsored by a company that no longer exists, extolling a product that is no longer manufactured.

One is based on a tarot card, for an anthology that was printed in the form of a tarot deck.

A few were generated for a magazine that requested two-sentence-long stories.

One is inspired by an object for sale on eBay, as part of a charity project.

One is based on an episodic dream I had.

One is about Trump.

One is true.

The Cover

I think this is my favorite cover of any of my books. It is my irrational belief that you’ve really “arrived” as a writer when you can publish a book with only text on the cover, so this feels like an important moment! There are two additional clever things about it; the first is that the table of contents is on it, and the second is that there actually is an image there, you just have to draw it yourself. The color (Pantone 2915C) is great, too. This design is by Kyle G. Hunter, who has been responsible for all my Graywolf covers, all of which are terrific.

If you want a little more by me to read this week, check out this review I wrote of the new Otessa Moshfegh novel.

Take care—
John