This summer I’m spending several hours a week in my imaginary worlds. More specifically, I’m reworking my dissertation (which is a collection of linked short stories). I’ve cut a few stories out, added four newer ones (of the dozen or so I’ve written in the last three years), and begun the process of revision. My university even graciously awarded me a generous grant to work on the project, and in late August, I’ll be sharing some of my work with the entire faculty (all 160+ of them).
I’m a big fan of short-story cycles, works in which the individual pieces can stand on their own, but when arranged with other stories become almost novelesque. Some of my favorite cycles are The Things They Carried, The Joy Luck Club, Love Medicine, The House on Mango Street, and Winesburg, Ohio. The older I get, the harder I find it to read long novels, and I’ve become much more of a short-story aficionado. The short-story cycle gives readers a complete narrative of, say, 15-20 pages (approximately). And then when you add up all of those smaller narratives, with their various threads, you have a book that might be 200+ pages, but has the depth of something seemingly longer. (That, at least, has been my experience.)
In my collection, recurring elements include characters, settings, themes, and chronology. With characters, for example, in one story an individual might be the protagonist, but in another story serve as a minor character. I’ve fleshed out three specific settings around which the stories revolve: my fictional town of Ellis, Minnesota, set in the southwest part of the state; a small college town in eastern South Dakota; and the area around Big Stone Lake (which is on the border between Minnesota and South Dakota, right where there’s a triangular bump). Google Maps has been my friend, helping me to imagine these communities. For the most part, the action in the stories takes place over the course of a year, with a good portion of the stories set in the fall (my favorite time of the year).
So far, I’ve made substantial revisions on two of the newer stories, and I’ve established a writing rhythm and routine (which can be difficult in a professor’s otherwise unstructured summer). I’ll share some more thoughts on this project as it progresses, perhaps even sharing an opening line or two.