Five Stars: Shaping the Short Story Collection
Four books arrived in the mail last week. I need new books because I’m going to spend Thanksgiving with my grandkids in California. Since I hate airplane travel, I never look forward to this biannual trip, although it does oblige me to sit still for five hours straight, the perfect opportunity to catch up on reading. I slit the cellophane wrap with a kitchen knife and lift out the precious volumes chosen for Los Angeles, 2013.
The first book I pick up is The Isle of Youth, Laura van den Berg’s new short story collection. I flip it over. Wow! There’s a blurb from Karen Russell. How amazing. A book with a bright yellow jacket emerges next: Snow Hunters by Laura’s husband Paul Yoon. (I had loved Once the Shore, which I borrowed from the Wellfleet Public Library before meeting his wife, so immediately wanted to read his novel, published in August.) The third volume is Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories. Two years ago I enjoyed studying “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” in my Fiction II class with Christina McCarroll and so figured it would be a good idea to read Hempel’s other work. Finally, I remove from the box Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, a book Laura brought to class every morning for four days. Yes, this fall I took a short story class with Laura van den Berg and what an exceptional class it was.
In filling out the online survey afterward, I was stymied by the final request, a quote Grub might use as promotion. I wanted to jump up and down, cheering enthusiastically, but that would require a YouTube video and perhaps be overkill? To simply say “Shaping The Short Story Collection” had changed my life was an exaggeration because I have only written one story so far, polished in Chip Cheek’s revision class last winter, and probably won’t finish enough stories to publish for several years. Could I ever summarize what “Shaping The Short Story Collection” had meant to me in a couple sentences? Let’s try.
It’s true that Laura van den Berg provided eleven eager short fiction Grubbies with tips on how to choose stories for a collection, but she delivered on so much more. I came away with confidence in myself as a writer. “Own what you do,” Laura told us on Monday. Tuesday, she reminded us the short story is an end-based form and described putting her own soon-to-be-published collection together. We imagined her sitting on the floor of a vacant Baltimore apartment, loaned by a friend, in communion with seven manuscripts, laid out in a circle around her so she could decipher connections, echoes, etc., with first and last lines scotch-taped to the wall behind her, and we realized the role passion must play in our writing careers. I think it was on Wednesday that Laura first used the term “architecture.” Our job was to uncover how we had unconsciously built the architecture of our book. At some point, during the four-day class, we started believing each of us could succeed in putting a short story collection together, one that would matter and that could be sold to an agent. Thursday we all felt regret at knowing our favorite new teacher would soon no longer be a part of our lives and wondered whether her winter class might fit into our schedules.
Grub admin, here is my quote: “Five stars!” When you take a class like “Shaping the Short Story Collection,” you start thinking about short stories differently, you read short stories differently, you learn to work on your own short stories differently. So I guess it did change my life after all. I like to think that is what Grub is all about. Thank you, Grub! Thank you, Laura van den Berg!
Alexandra Grabbe is the author of Wellfleet, An Insider’s Guide to Cape Cod’s Trendiest Town and the editor of Émigré, 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count. Her recent work has appeared in The Washington Post, Better After 50, Five on the Fifth, and The Gateway Review, and is forthcoming from The Offbeat. She is writing a novel.See other articles by Alexandra Grabbe