All this to say that I was a pretty weird kid, but still: I believe collections ask us to do the work ourselves, to fill in the gaps, to find a meaning that is uniquely ours.
I recently came across an interesting essay, “In Defense of Themelessness,” over at Brevity’s blog. In the piece, writer Randon Billings Noble talks about the process of putting together her own collection, Be With Me Always, recently published by the University of Nebraska Press. She talks about her resistance to the idea of theme, to the idea that every piece of writing in the book must fit into a designated category.
Of course, themes can serve a purpose--either in marketing or even in our own writing/creative structure--but they can also be stifling. With that said, readers will always take the Queen’s Greatest Hits route: giving the book its own narrative. With that said, how much work should we as writers put into directing the readers toward that meaning, or how much should we leave open to their own interpretation?
I had a chance to talk with Randon Billings Noble over email for the past few weeks. We talked about the idea of themelessness, a resistance to memoir, and the ways literature references are a way of collecting our favorite works with our own thoughts, changing the trajectory of each. —David LeGault
David: To start, I wanted to refer back to your essay, "In Defense of Themelessness," on the Brevity website. As someone who is primarily a writer of essays, I think a lot about the ways that a collection is shaped, how any collection will ultimately accumulate to a bigger meaning. In your piece, you ask the question, "must an essay collection have a through line?" I agree with you in principle, but I know how my brain works: my immediate impulse (both as a reader and writer) is to try to make those connections between pieces, to read the first piece in a collection as a sort of a set-up for what I'm getting myself into. With that said, I'm curious about your process of ordering here: if you were not thinking in terms of "theme," what do you think was the guiding principle for putting together your collection?
Randon: My essay collection, Be with Me Always, had a very long evolutionary process, which—while difficult to go through—was in the end a very good thing.
It started out as a collection of every essay I had ever written that I thought was any good at all, which was not a very good organizing principle! But I was a newer writer then and didn’t know better. An agent found me through one of those essays, read the collection, and wanted to represent me. But then she wanted me to revise my collection into a memoir and I was unwilling to fillet my essays and mold them into something else. So we broke up, and I kept writing.
Over time I noticed that many of my essays had to do with longing, nostalgia, and the path not taken. I thought of this as my set of “writerly preoccupations” and kept writing in that vein. When I started sending out the manuscript I claimed “hauntedness” as a loose—very loose—theme.
Very late in the process I did the ordering. I printed out a page for each essay: title, first sentence, last sentence. I knew that I wanted to start with “The Split” (the oldest of the essays) and finish with “Devotional” (one of the newer ones) and I knew that I needed to have a few experimental essays appear early, so the reader wouldn’t be surprised by them later. Because the subjects of my essays are so varied (a near-death experience, Anne Boleyn’s relationship with Henry VII, Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm, regret, control, capacity) I decided to divide them into sections—essays (like “The Heart as a Torn Muscle” and “A Pill to Cure Love”) that had to do with biology, essays that had to do with looking, essays (like “Yet another Day at the Jersey Shore” and “Widow Fantasies”) that were about past and future loss. I made these divisions fairly easily, instinctively. And then I moved individual essays around so that the last line of one essay had some kind of relationship—or ease—with the first line of the next. When I was finished I had 26 essays divided into six sections, all loosely themed around hauntedness.
David: I really like this on a number of levels: First, I think the structural component of this (the experimental essays coming early) is an unappreciated part of the essay collection as its own sort of genre...I think with a memoir, we do think about thinks like a linked narrative and (usually) a somewhat chronological order, but the collection also allows for shifts in form and style. Secondly, the idea of "hauntedness" as a theme, which is to say that a pattern emerges once the pieces are put together. It's always interesting to me that these patterns are a discovery to the writer, that we often don't know what it is we're writing about until much later in the process than one might expect.
I know in my own collection, I struggled with this question of theme as well because I wanted to write about everything, and it wasn't until probably the 3rd iteration of the book that I figured out what it was about, and from there I had to go back and revise to reinforce that bigger picture, as well as write a few more essays that more meaningfully filled in some gaps. I'm curious, as you came to the idea of "hauntedness," did you fundamentally change anything about the bigger collection? Did you change order, revise, or write anything new to make that more apparent, or was it more about presenting the book to a publisher, etc.
Randon: That’s a great question with a somewhat complicated answer. The short answer is yes to all. But the longer answer is this:
I used hauntedness as a theme when I was presenting the book to publishers. When Nebraska accepted it I was thrilled—but there was a catch: too many of the essays had been published and the press requires a 50/50 ratio of published and unpublished work. So they offered me a pre-completion contract: they would publish the book, but I had to add new essays. This was both a thrill and a letdown at the same time. The book was accepted! But not quite just yet.
In retrospect, this turned out to be a very good thing. I weeded out some of the weaker essays and wrote new ones. The new ones still fell under the haunted umbrella, but I didn’t deliberately set out to write haunty essays. I still wrote about the things that interested me—silence, invisibility, looking and being looked at, the responsibilities of both physical and intellectual creation—and those essays fit. I also revised a couple of much older drafts into essays that felt both current and finished. Then I ordered them. And then—at last—it was done. At times it felt like Xeno’s paradox but Be with Me Always is a much better book for this work.
David: This is really interesting. Again, as we consider the question of what it means to assemble a collection, there are the practical considerations of the publisher, as well as things like marketability, etc. Like you say, I think sometimes these constraints can improve the final product in the same way that formal constraint can reorganize our thoughts, force creativity, and put pressure on our language in unexpected ways. I think that flexibility in your project--the possibility of movement and shaping--in collaboration with someone else is ultimately a good thing.
As I was reading Be with Me Always, I also picked up on the way a lot of these essays are in conversation with books. We get Woolf, Montaigne, Stoker and Shelley. I see how books can fit in with this idea of being haunted (particularly with the horror authors) by these works, but I feel like they are functioning on a different level: more like your life is in parallel, echoing their ideas. How do you see books in this case building into the bigger idea of this book? Are they a jumping off point? Do you see your work in conversation or as continuation? Something else entirely?
Randon: I love this question. And your use of the word “parallel.”
I’ve always read a lot—broadly and omnivorously—so using novels and essays and stories and poems in my work happens intuitively. (I can’t think of a time when I consciously thought, I need to quote a classic novel in this piece.) And because reading has been such an ingrained part of my life I have often felt as if the lives I read about (fictitious or not) run parallel to my own.
I remember being floored by something one of my professors said—that we read fiction to learn how to live. Someone had put into words what I was doing instinctively. (It’s always a thrill when someone articulates something wordless in your life—however obvious their statement might be.) I remember feeling the same thrill when reading Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life when she claims that "lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard." I realized I was always living by—or against—the stories I read.
And now my essays do too. What I've read becomes an alternate way of looking at an idea. Robinson Crusoe helps me articulate depression, the characters in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours become different facets of my own (hoped for) identity, and Dracula and its romantic retellings help me see more clearly the price we often pay for passion. It’s a pleasure both intellectually and emotionally to have so many other experiences to draw from.
David: Well said. I do believe that one of the greatest things of the essay (particularly in a collection) is that it allows us to look at the same question or problem from a lot of different angles. Whether it's in our lived experiences or our reading, we're already doing that anyway! I think the book is an opportunity to tackle these problems more explicitly, and I think you've done a great job of that here.
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her full-length essay collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in March 2019 and her lyric essay chapbook Devotional was published by Red Bird in 2017. Individual essays have appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Massachusetts Review, Shenandoah, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She is currently the founding editor of After the Art.