I attended this panel hoping to get some advice about what to do with the essays I’ve been accumulating over the last several years. Though many of them have been published individually in journals, they also seem to want to be gathered together. Yet I haven’t been sure how to turn these often disparate texts into something cohesive, something that can legitimately be called a book.
The panelists all spoke about the process of assembling a book of essays, and their presentations inspired me to think about this act of assembly as a process just as creative as the writing of essays itself.
Rebecca McClanahan began the discussion by addressing the different ways that essay collections can come together. Some books of essays, she said, cohere organically because of subject matter, style, narrative movement, or repeating images. For essays that don’t automatically hang together, however, she said writers have to grapple with a variety of questions. What should one do, for instance, with events that repeat themselves over and over in various essays? Should the writer edit the essays and place a key event once in the collection? What if some of the essays are in present tense and some in past? What about the fact that people in our essays grow up, marriages end, and we ourselves change over time? As McClanahan said, “our reflections may change drastically from essay to essay. There can be several selves on the page colliding with each other.”
There are no easy answers to these questions, but writers need to deal with them if they’re going to create an artful and coherent book. It might mean rewriting some of the essays, for instance, or writing new essays specifically for the collection. It might also mean leaving some rogue essays out — letting them, perhaps, serve as the germ for another collection.
The other panelists all discussed how they’ve grappled with many of the same questions raised by McClanahan. Patrick Madden looked back at Michel de Montaigne’s semi-chronological approach to essay collecting and Charles Lamb’s “artful haphazardness,” and Madden said his own organizational proclivities have been similarly loose, relying on the coherence provided by his own voice. Peter Grandbois discussed a book he’s currently writing about his return to fencing in middle age, saying that he had been in search for an organizational principle for the book when he happened upon the Samurai code of conduct, which challenged him to structure his book around specific principles and also gave him titles for his essays. Renee D’Aoust discussed the process she went through in organizing and writing her book of essays, Body of a Dancer, and how she ultimately developed a chronology of the body. Finally, Phillip Lopate, discussing his far-ranging experience in essay assemblage, emphasized the need for variation in books of essays – alternating, for instance, between essays that are short and long, funny and serious, meditative and research-oriented, personal and critical.
I can’t say I came away from this panel with all the answers. I’m still mulling over my yet-to-be-assembled essays. What I did learn, however, is that putting together a book of essays involves more – much more – than just creating a single Word file and piling essays in it until it reaches 300 pages. And that lesson, at least, is a good place to start.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches English at Muskingum University. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, The Pinch, Zone 3, Silk Road Review, McSweeney’s, and other journals, and she’s the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music.