A Clogged Drain, Box of Rocks, a Fish’s Heart: How Writers Structure their Collections


by Mark Alvarez

NonfictionNow is a conference for writers. In a conference for writers, metaphors will rule. Do text and textiles share more than just a Latin root? Are collections like dead fish or disgusting birds? Are they like unruly orphans, clogged drains or music albums?

In “On Collections,” the conference’s opening panel, novelist Venita Blackburn, poet Chen Chen, and non-fiction writers Angela Morales and Elissa Washuta shared how they organized their short-story, poetry and essay collections

The writers offered insight into how they structured their collections, and even presented visualizations of how they thought of their collections–everything from vertical seismic charts to messy lines, complex venn chains, and baroque moving wheels.

Of all the panelists, Blackburn focused most on structure itself. Not only do the stories in her book, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, share similar techniques and themes–magic realism, race, gender and faith, but there is big emphasis on the pacing and the way the stories are placed.

“My collection is ordered like an album,” said Blackburn.

Poet Chen Chen’s metaphors were a little messier.

“My collection is a shower drain clogged with hair. It is a nest for my most disgusting birds,” said Chen.

Non-fiction writer Angela Morales said her book was like a rock collection. More specifically, her childhood rock collection.

“One of the benefits of being latch-key kid is nobody will tell you that selling your rock collection on the street is a bad idea,” Morales said.

Just as she thought people would want to buy her rocks, she thought someone would one day want to read her essays.

“Kinda like the rocks, I felt like my essays, however misshaped, might have value,” Morales said.

“Maybe someone would want to read my collection…. having faith in the stories gave me confidence to send it out,” she said.

Elissa Washuta, author of the book My Body is a Book of Rules, said her essay collection represented something like an inner search.

“I think of all of my essays as questions I have to answer so I can grow as a human being,” Washuta said.

Washuta, whose father is a fish pathologist, also offered a lesson in piscine anatomy.

“If you pull out a dead fish’s heart and put a spoon to it, the heart will start beating again,” Washuta said.

And you thought spooning a fish was only about the feels.

NonfictionNow runs November 1 -3 in Phoenix, AZ.

–Mark Alvarez