(Painfully) Giving a Collection its Wings

Crude Sketches Done in Quick Succession is set to release on January 20th, 2015; here Andrew Brininstool talks about putting the stories of his debut collection into place:

Midday at Highland Village Elementary and all us little tykes are seated in Ms. Gilmore’s art classroom. It must be nearing Halloween, because on the tables before us sit the materials to make bats: black construction paper, tongue depressors (how has Ms. Gilmore gotten her hands on so many tongue depressors?), string, glue. Our instructions are to arrange the pieces so that, once completed, the bat will come to life—will flap its wings and become animated—with the pull of the string.

The problem is that I can’t complete the task. No matter my efforts, there is something missing in my development that can make meaning of these items. I’m not exactly sure how to arrange them.

All around me, comrades are hammering out perfect little bats. The girls seem especially adept. Yet here is my final yield: a bat that cannot flap its wings; a bat with plagiocephaly, jismic strands of Elmer’s on its torso. My bat might’ve been missing a wing. Perhaps it is true, as Hebrews 12:7 would have it, that malady is intended to produce discipline. Looking at my deformed little bat, however, I feel nothing close to a just creator.

There’s no other correlating feeling of failure in AdultLand that I’ve experienced save for the arrangement of a short story collection.

The process is perhaps easier if your project is a novel-in-stories or a linked collection or whatever we’re calling that thing these days. Mine was not.

The earliest story in Crude Sketches Done in Quick Succession was first written when I was a senior in college. It took four years to publish. (I’d rather not say which, though I’d be curious to watch people guess.) So technically, the stories in my collection span six years of work; most of the stories were written in a burst between 2010 and 2012.

I went about writing these pieces without much thought about placing them together. When it came time to arrange them into a unit, I read David Jauss’s essay “Stacking Stones,” in which Jauss writes: “If the collection is well constructed, reading the stories out of sequence is like listening to the movements of a symphony out of order-we do violence both to the parts and the whole.”

Whoops.

Only when I began structuring the collection did I start to see the connective tissue—the themes shared between the stories. This is a somewhat horrifying experience. It’s a kind of self-analysis done too late. I found, for instance, that on some level I have a deeply imbedded interest in fatherhood. This was not something I would have copped to or even known about myself until the stories rubbed up against one another. I’d assumed my material was that of people who have made good on the American Dream (professional athletes, inventors, beauty queens, Yard of the Month types) only to be sorely disappointed in the reward(s). As it turned out, this takes very much a backseat to a subject far simpler: family.
Jauss is right in his equating arrangements of stories to music.

This is going to sound donnish. But, well. I don’t care.

One of my favorite arrangements by Charles Mingus is “II B.S.” (or “Haitian Fight Song”) from Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. There’s a consistency to the heart of the piece, held down particularly by Mingus’s bass playing; the other musicians are allowed to wander a bit—though not much—but they always return back to the pattern created early.

Okay, so I don’t know shit about jazz (like you do?) but I think the analogy still holds.

Once I saw that the heart of the collection was children and parents, arrangement became a pattern game. Where do I want to hit a theme or an image immediately after it has been presented by the previous story? Where do I want a theme or an image to linger? In what ways should I arrange the following: a duck, a commercial airliner, a space shuttle? Should I follow the natural order of things, the way the Graduate Records Examination might ask you to? Should I fuck around with it?

I’d like to say this was a fun task. It was not.