by K. L. Cook
The spring semester has just begun, though I use the word “spring” ironically, given that temperatures in Ames, Iowa, have plummeted to minus 16. For the first time in several years, I’m teaching the form I most love: short story cycles, linked stories, and novels-in-stories. Three of my six books are collections of linked stories—Last Call, Love Songs for the Quarantined, and Marrying Kind—and I’ve lectured and facilitated workshops about short story cycles for the last quarter-century. In “The Cyclical Imagination”—an essay in my book, The Art of Disobedience—I write about my decades-long fascination with this subgenre and my love affair with books of fiction that defy easy categorization and
straddle the fence between novels and collections of stories.
The fact that no one quite knows how to name these things—story cycle, linked stories, ring of stories, story sequence, novel-in-stories, composite novel, or the intentionally ambiguous “work of fiction”—is, I believe, a sure sign of the vitality of the form. I’m talking about classics such as The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, James Joyce’s Dubliners, and William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, to be sure, but also contemporary classics such as Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City, Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven and Improvement, and Pulitzer Prize winners such as Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
What excites me most about reading, writing, and teaching short story cycles is the wonderful sense of elasticity the form provides and demands. Each story must be self-contained, with its own artistic unity and integrity, but also interdependent, advancing a larger story—about family, community, or place, for example—or unravelling a dense thematic conversation, creating something greater than the sum of its parts. The form requires a dual vision: the microscope and the telescope. It asks the fiction writer to exercise miniaturist skills of poetic compression, formal rigor, and attention to detail. Yet putting the pieces together calls upon a muralist sense of narrative design, short and long lines of suspense, and commitment to the evolution of characters, families, and communities over time. The best short story cycles deliver exquisite lyrical epiphanies along with grand vision.
The thing I love about teaching the form is the chance to turn students on to something that may seem both strange and deeply familiar, like naming something they’ve known all along. Our cultural lives are, and always have been, steeped in artistic forms that allow storytellers and audiences and readers to relish the parts and the wholes. Television, for example—especially now when there is such rich variety and quality on a plethora of streaming channels—has always been a form that requires its creators and viewers to shift nimbly between parts and wholes. Each episode must have its own artistic integrity, while contributing to the longer arcs and threads of the season and even more complex unity of the entire show. Currently, television is the greatest artistic manifestation of what I call the “cyclical imagination.”
From a process perspective, one of the primary advantages of working in this form is that it allows you to experiment with and/or salvage parts of larger projects. There’s a great deal of pleasure in writing the “one-off”—the story or essay or poem that is not tethered to longer works. You finish writing and send the manuscript out into the world, and then wait for the next endorphin rush of inspiration. However, if you operate this way all the time, relying only on one-off inspirations, without thinking seriously about the cumulative effect of your stories or essays or poems—how they might be in productive conversation with one another—then you run the risk of becoming a prolific writer of short works who can’t quite crack the nut of a whole book. I know many brilliant short story writers who can generate new material with great facility but never seem to aim themselves in a specific direction or impose a sense of design and coherence on their work. They are good with parts, less so with wholes.
One of the great turning points for me as a writer was when I stopped thinking about my fiction in simplistic dichotomies—stories or novels. Instead, with each story I wrote and sent into the world, I asked how that piece could both be a satisfying experience for a reader discovering it in a magazine or literary journal while also occupying an evolving place in a book-length puzzle. This method energized me as a writer, allowing me to see each story as having a dual life. As my larger vision came into focus, it also galvanized me, helping me generate new stories.
This way of working can also benefit those who primarily identify as long-form writers—novelists or memoirists, for instance. While most of my published books of fiction have been collections of linked stories, I spend a lot of my writing life troubling over novels, often churning through hundreds of pages of multigenerational and multi-plot sagas. The great thing about being inside a bona fide novel (rather than a story or story cycle) is the sense of spaciousness the long form allows, the relative lack of page limitations, the openness to discovery. The downside, for me at least, is that I sometimes get lost in these narratives. They tend to become unwieldy, in terms of breadth and length, as the pages and computer files pile up. Because these projects take years of research, writing, re-imagining, and revising, the process can often feel lonely, confusing, and spirit-challenging, an endeavor in which I fall in and out of love with the project and the characters.
When this happens, I have to call upon my inner short story cyclist. Instead of writing a book, improvisationally, a story at a time, figuring out the design later, I go searching for self-contained stories and excerpts within the larger manuscript I’ve already created. That process of combing through existing material (“wreckage,” I felt tempted to say) can be a way of re-engaging with a long project, a method of re-enchantment.
Recently, I used this process to find self-contained parts within a novel I’ve been working on for the past decade, Shakespeare West, which is about a Shakespearean repertory company in Arizona and its founder, Zeb West. For years, I’ve been in love with this character, his children and fellow thespians, and the Southwestern community where they live and work. I’ve written about a thousand pages of material, exploring these characters and the history of this theatrical organization from a number of different angles, trying to find, as Henry James famously said about fictional design, “the figure in the carpet.”
As is often the case for novelists, the process for me of writing this book has been arduous, requiring patience, discipline, and a high tolerance for failure and delayed gratification, in addition to passion, stamina, energy, and empathy for both the characters and myself as the novel’s (frequently uncertain) author.
When I was putting together my last collection of stories, Marrying Kind, one of the final additions to the collection was “Portrait of a Shakespearean Actor as a Young Man,” a self-contained origin story about my protagonist’s first exposure to the kind of repertory theatre he’d eventually dedicate his life to. Identifying and then revising this excerpt—applying the short story writer’s sense of compression and narrative rigor to what in the novel is a rather unwieldy one-hundred-page section—clarified a number of things for me about my character, the voice of the novel, and the role this particular event plays in the overarching plot. Most importantly, it galvanized my energy, allowing me to take stock of where I was, what mattered most, and how I might proceed anew. The process also, I believe, enriched Marrying Kind, expanding the vision of the stories in that collection to include not only the people but also the vocations we wed. And it felt good, after so many years, to share Zeb West with a larger audience, to let him get the spotlight he was craving. An actor needs an audience.
This past fall, I had the opportunity again to search for a self-contained excerpt from the book. An editor at the literary journal Bloom reached out, asking if I had a story for an upcoming issue. For short story writers, such solicitations are few and far between, and though I didn’t have any new stories ready, I also didn’t want to waste such a generous invitation. I asked for some time and set about excavating Shakespeare West to find chapters that might work as stories. I read through the whole book again (a good thing in and of itself), identifying ten possibilities that fit within the word limits the editor had requested. I enlisted my wife, Charissa Menefee (an award-winning playwright and my best editor) in the process of culling the possibilities and compressing the selected chapters into a self-contained excerpt. I reshaped the story, creating a comic meditation on aging, as my protagonist begins an affair with the sculptor who is creating a bust of him to celebrate his eightieth birthday and final season with the festival. The result was “Bust.”
As was the case with “Portrait of a Shakespearean Actor as a Young Man,” the process of finding the story within the novel-in-progress, a part within the whole, was both clarifying and energizing, providing me with a new potential starting point for the book. I was charmed and fascinated by the character again and in ways that reignited my engagement, which is half the battle when writing any work of imaginative literature.
K. L. Cook is the author of six books and co-directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State University. He has been a faculty member of the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing since 2004. His author website is www.klcook.net.