Holding the Multitude Together: How Short Stories Can Become a Collection
by David Ebenbach
Let’s start with the obvious: a short story collection is not a novel. A novel tells one story. Now, it can be extremely complicated—you can have lots of characters, plots, subplots, and an intricate structure—but you can’t really get around the basic fact: a novel must be, however complicated, one coherent story. On the other hand, a collection is, by definition, well, more than one story. That right there is a pretty big difference.
But the other obvious point is that a collection, like a novel, is a book. It’s not just a pile of stories; it’s a collection. And that means that the individual pieces have to belong together in some way, and maybe even that they have to be, God help us, in some kind of sensible order.
When my first collection, Between Camelots, was published, audiences regularly asked me how the book had come together. The answer I gave was honest but a little embarrassing: I didn’t really know. I did know that, a couple of years earlier, Jesse Lee Kercheval—a great writer and former teacher—had asked me whether I’d ever thought about gathering my stories into a manuscript. I hadn’t, actually; to me they were all separate things, independent. And yet when I went back to my desk to take a look, I found that the stories weren’t as independent as I’d thought. I didn’t have the experience or distance to be able to explain the interconnections then, but I could feel that some of my stories harmonized with each other. They belonged together. There were also stories which, as fond as I was of them, really didn’t harmonize with the others; they clanged against them instead. So, although I couldn’t have named the reason why I pulled those particular stories together, I listened to my gut instincts and knew it wasn’t random. In retrospect, I now see that the stories were all about people trying hard to reach out to others—on dates, among friends, within families. The stories belonged together.
Of course, you can go at this with a little more foresight. My second collection, Into the Wilderness, started to form when I realized I was writing a lot of stories about parenthood. (I was a new father myself.) I even had a scuttled novel about a woman’s first weeks of motherhood, a novel that seemed to contain several good, stand-alone, extractable stories. So, I didn’t have to look back at a bunch of pieces and hope they fit together somehow; I’d already identified my organizing principle. I gathered the relevant stories (and extractable novel pieces) that I already had, and, more importantly, I focused my creative process going forward, intentionally writing about still-unexplored experiences of parenthood. In the case of Into the Wilderness, I wrote toward a collection, just as a novelist writes toward a novel.
This has been true of my third collection as well, though it’s centered not around a topic but around a kind of storytelling, one in which the narrator seems to be speaking to the reader, as in a monologue. Collections can be coherent because of subject matter or style or location or stance or any other binding force; all that matters is that they cohere.
Then there’s the issue of sensible order—probably the harder question. (Hence, God help us.) It’s one thing to feel that stories belong together, and quite another to know which should come first, second, and so on. But here we can look to the novel for some help. Like a novel, a collection should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Like a novel, the beginning and the ending need to be especially strong. The beginning probably ought to introduce the main themes of the book, which can get developed and complicated in later stories, and which might well be summed up or brought together (if not resolved) in the final story. Again, I didn’t know any of this when I put Between Camelots together; I just tried different orders until one felt right. (Writers often spread their pieces out on the floor to try different orders.) I’ve become more conscious of ordering since that first book—and, in Into the Wilderness, those novel pieces, in order, served as a kind of backbone for the rest—but, again, all that matters is that it works, whether or not you’re conscious of why it works.
And so, sure, a story collection is, by definition, more than one story. That’s good news, because delving into a collection means entering not one world but a multitude. Then, too, if the author handles that multitude well, a collection can hold it all together; a good collection can make a scatter of stories into something powerful, singular and whole.
David Ebenbach was born and raised in the great city of Philadelphia, home of America’s first library, first art museum, first public school, and first zoo, along with his very first stories and poems – though those early efforts went on to become (deservedly) less famous than, for example, the zoo.
Since then David has lived in Ohio, Wisconsin, Philadelphia again, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, and Ohio again, picking up some education (formal and otherwise) and more than a few stories along the way. He has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
In addition to his short-story collection Into the Wilderness (October 2012, Washington Writers’ Publishing House), David is the author of another book of short stories entitled Between Camelots (October 2005, University of Pittsburgh Press), and a non-fiction guide to creativity called The Artist’s Torah (forthcoming, Cascade Books). His poetry has appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal, Subtropics, and the Hayden’s Ferry Review, among other places.
He has been awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center; and an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council.
David currently teaches at Georgetown University and very happily lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and son, both of whom are a marvel and an inspiration.
David Ebenbach @DavidEbenbach