Collected: A Case for the Whole

I came to short story writing through Flannery O’Connor and John Updike in one of those high school English anthologies with two decades' worth of student signatures on the inside cover, usually published by Norton, and with a title like The Greatest Words Ever Written by the Greatest Writers Ever, 1911 – 1989.

My adolescent love of anthologies was similar to my adoration of the mix-tape (or mix-CDs that my friends and I still called mix-tapes). We liked these samplings because they gave the listener an idea of what’s out there, a direction to follow. While it’s a huge undertaking to listen to every Elliott Smith song ever recorded, it wasn’t that enormous a task to listen to “Pisteleh” on repeat for three days, and then decide, hey, I am in love with this—and now I’m going to seek out every Elliott Smith song ever recorded.

When I first started writing my own short stories, I learned of Alice Munro in Jeffrey Eugenides' anthology, My Mistresses’s Sparrow is Dead: Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro. The cover art for this anthology was an illustration of an anatomically correct heart, labeled with the names of the authors inside. In place of the left atrium was Denis Johnson, and for the aorta was William Faulkner.

What started as an impulse bookstore-buy led to an obsession with Munro, so much so that when she won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I rolled down my window off the coast of Hilton Head Island and hollered into the thick salty air, “We did it! My team won!”

What team was that exactly? The short story team. I’ve been at work on my debut story collection for over a decade, since those early days when I collected anthologies like burned CDs. But eventually, as my writing changed, and my adoration and passion for the form grew, I was no longer interested in just a sampling. I needed the entire dose.

One of the greatest pleasures of reading, for this writer at least, is to guess at the underlying craft decisions beneath a text’s surface. Why was this paragraph ordered in such a way? Why open this scene after the pivotal event has occurred? With short story collections, after I was initially hooked by a story or two, I wanted to understand why the collection was ordered in the way it was. This gave me another element of craft, a different vantage point of structure to analyze and ponder.

In this way, one or two stories became something greater than a piece pulled away and placed lovingly in an anthology. I began to see collections as fully moving bodies with structural choices, authorial sacrifices, and eccentricities.

Instructor Kali Fajardo-Anstine is teaching the Lit Fest one-weekend intensive Order to the Madness about assembling short story and essay collections. She has a novel and story collection forthcoming from One World/Random House