Deborah Eisenberg on the Best Way to Read a Short Story Collection

The author of ‘Your Duck is My Duck,’ on her creative process and the piece of writing advice no one wants to hear

Read a short story collection, and you can defy time. There are several beginnings, several middles, several endings, but no singular beginning, middle, and end. You don’t have to read the book from linear cover to cover. In Deborah Eisenberg’s short story collection Your Duck is My Duck, her characters deal with the problem that life does not work like a short story collection, although many wish it would. They cannot skip around; time marches on. But memory makes moving through time from the “cover to cover”of life more difficult. Because memory works more like a short story collection than a novel. Memory skips, it repeats, it collects into moments, into stories. In the eponymous short story “Your Duck is My Duck,” a painter is “hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device, [her] life.” In “Taj Mahal” an aging actor reflects on the gilded days of his youth in Hollywood, asking a friend “Can you believe that all that turned out to be then? At the time I somehow thought that it was now. Did it occur to you that it was going to be then?”

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What Eisenberg shows us is that while time marches on, life is made up of the clots of memories we cling to, and how they hold together when we offer them to someone else with their very own collection of memories. We mess up each other’s ideas of one another in ways that are sometimes good, sometimes hurtful, but always vital. The characters in Your Duck is My Duck can’t help but circle back to a “then,” cannot resist imagining what will be “later.” Eisenberg’s stories which manage to be both rich in substance and economic in execution, give us time to look at how all of our “then’s” and “later’s” clatter into one another to see that it’s okay to take our time trying to make sense of life because no one’s got the story straight. Maybe they never will. And in the hands of someone like Deborah Eisenberg, maybe it’s better that way.

Eisenberg and I spoke over the phone about why you shouldn’t read stories in order, the piece of writing advice no one wants to hear, and how to confront how terribly long it takes to write anything worth reading.

Erin Bartnett: After putting together five collections of short stories now, I was wondering if there’s something new that came to you. On the level of the collection, was there anything new about putting this collection together?

Deborah Eisenberg: Well it was really just like putting all the others together. I don’t think in terms of collections at all. I just do one thing and then I do the next thing and then I do the next thing and then somebody says to me, “well that’s a collection.”

EB: So it’s more of an external assignment? I often wonder what it’s like writing one story and then saying okay this story now lives next to this story and behind that story, and so on…

DE: Well yes, I don’t do that, but I think one’s mind does it. I mean one goes from one thought to the thought that is born of the previous thought. Or the concern that is born of the previous concern, and I have never set the order of the stories in my collections. I’ve left that to my editor, and so what you see in a book is not a chronological compilation.

EB: So perhaps in the same way you write the stories that become a collection, do you think when someone is reading a short story collection, there’s a chronological way to go about reading it? Or do you think it’s more fruitful to let your curiosity lead you “out of order?”

DE: I would recommend that. Because it’s not — a collection of stories is not a novel — it’s different expressions of the same mind within a circumscribed period of time. I certainly would recommend against sitting down and reading any collection of stories in its entirety at once. I think probably the “best” way to go about reading a collection is to pick it up when you feel like it and let your mood dictate what title speaks to you at the moment.

The “best” way to go about reading a collection is to pick it up when you feel like it and let your mood dictate what title speaks to you at the moment.

EB: That is often how I read short story collections, and yet I also feel this urge to “finish” reading a collection in the same way I would a novel. Like I’ve gotten to “know” an author when I’ve read an entire collection. Which of course, isn’t possible just through reading one collection, as your stories in Your Duck is My Duck reminded me.

So many characters in this book experience the discrepancy between the story that they’ve held onto about a person they love, and the entirely different life that their beloved actually lived. A lot of these characters also happen to be tangentially famous — like Adam in “Recalculating” who is the nephew of a famous scholar, or Emma the daughter of a Hollywood icon in “Taj Mahal.” Adam and Emma each experience a third kind of betrayal — they read some new thing that some stranger has written about a person they love. Can you talk more about these relationships in your stories? How did these relationships shape the way you began to understand these characters, and write them?

DE: That is such an interesting question, and I have absolutely no answer for it. [Laughs.] You know I don’t really think analytically in that way as I’m beginning to write. I don’t think “well, here is a Question, or here is a Situation, how do I best address it?”

EB: So how do you start?

DE: I start by sitting down and just seeing what my hand does, really, on a piece of paper. One’s needs to tell a certain thing, to communicate a certain thing, surface despite one’s inhibitions against it. So the best thing — well for me — the best way to proceed is not to think about controlling what I intend to do, but just to do and then see where it is I’m going.

EB: And how do you know when you’ve arrived at the “end” of a story?

DE: You know it’s so amazing to me that people are always — young writers, specifically — are very anxious about that question. “How do you know that you’ve finished?” I would say there’s absolutely no uncertainty in my mind when I finish something. I just know it’s finished. I once heard Mavis Gallant say something that is instructive possibly: “You’re finished when anything you do makes it worse instead of better.” That’s not an exact quote but it’s something like that. But I feel that really most of the time I take to write something — and I do take a lot of time — is spent trying to understand what it is that I’m actually interested in. And I’ll tell you a story about the story called “Recalculating” that you referred to earlier. I mean it’s been true very frequently that I’ve thought I finished something, and then I can’t think of a title, and that is instruction to me, that I don’t really know what I’m doing. So I think I finished the last draft. And yet, if I don’t know what to call it, I surely haven’t finished it. So I had just finished writing the story that is called “Recalculating” and I was being driven somewhere and I was trying, I was desperate to think of the title for this story, and I was sort of using the drive to try to think of the title. And you probably don’t remember the GPS that would take a wrong turn and they say “recalculating, recalculating recalculating — “

EB: Oh yeah — we had a Garmin.

DB: Yes! So I was sitting there in the car, thinking to the GPS “be quiet! I’m trying to think!” And the GPS kept saying “recalculating. recalculating. recalculating.” And I kept thinking “be quiet! be quiet! be quiet! I’m trying to think of something important.” “Recalculating.” And I thought, “Oh, I see. Now I understand.” And I understood the story! And I rewrote it then. I mean I didn’t have to change much but I had to sort of clarify what it was about, and you know I just was able to make it that much more coherent and sharper and that was exactly, I mean that word meant to me exactly what I was doing in the sense that the GPS uses it. So often the search for the title tells me what I’m missing. And then I have to look.

EB: I love that story, knowing that the last line of “Recalculating” is “Don’t Move.”

DE: Yes.

Your Duck is My Duck

EB: What are you reading right now?

DE: Right now I’m just reading my students’ work, and work for a seminar that I’m teaching. My reading habits are just awful. It’s terrible. When I’m teaching I really can’t read aside from what I need to read for school. I’m an extremely slow reader, and when I’m writing it’s very hard to read. So I have periods when I’m doing neither and then I can read, which is very pleasurable.

EB: Coping with the academic reading schedule is so hard. When I was teaching, I knew I needed to read something other than student essays, but didn’t have much time, so I promised myself I would read poetry — just one poem each night. It helped.

DE: That is a great idea, just to reach for the poetry, and circumscribe one’s ambitions to say “I’m going to read one poem and just be utterly refreshed.” How wonderful!

I think for almost all writers, it takes much more time and much more patience than is almost possible to believe.

EB: In your role as a teacher, what do you think is the advice that young writers need, but don’t hear, or even don’t want to hear?

DE: I think that it is that it takes a tremendous amount of time. Now I know almost every writer writes more quickly than I do, so maybe it’s inapplicable to most people but I think for almost all writers, it takes much more time and much more patience than is almost possible to believe. And also it is extremely embarrassing not only because one reveals to oneself one’s deep interests, which might not be the deep interests one would most like to present to the world or to oneself, but also because one does it so badly at first. And it really takes time to make something good. When you sit down you write, I don’t know a page or whatever you write, two pages, a paragraph, and you think “Ah! Isn’t that marvelous. I’ve expressed myself so utterly and beautifully.” And then you look at it the next day and you can’t believe what an idiot you were! I mean you just can’t believe it! It’s so mortifying. But I think it’s very very important to develop the confidence through experience that you can make things almost infinitely better than they start out being. If you keep working on it, it’s going to get good. And the fact that it’s bad at first doesn’t mean that you’re ill-suited to do it, it just means that it takes time.

If you keep working on it, it’s going to get good. And the fact that it’s bad at first doesn’t mean that you’re ill-suited to do it, it just means that it takes time.

EB: I’m so glad to hear you talk about that. It’s refreshing to hear it takes time and that’s okay.

DE: Oh it’s absolutely okay and you have to be able to sustain the humiliation of seeing what it is that you do at first. And the humiliation of the time it takes. Because I think one of the things that we hope for when we get something down on a page when it’s finally satisfactory is that it looks like it took no effort at all. And that takes a tremendous amount of time and effort. And the embarrassment of seeing how clumsily one writes.

EB: Do you think that’s a “new” feeling? That humiliation of the time it takes? Do you think we’re in a moment where we’re particularly proud of how quick and efficient and zippy we can be? Or do you think that’s just kind of something that writers have had to deal with always?

DE: Well, I wonder, actually. I was thinking about something of that sort the other day. I mean I think it is something that people have always had to deal with, but it’s such a privileged position to be able to write, that probably most of the people who’ve done it until recently were very very privileged, had a lot of time, had phenomenally polished educations, did find it easier to put a sentence together, and were tremendously driven. Now there’s so much pressure for everybody to write and everybody thinks ‘Oh I’m a writer,’ or ‘I should be able to be a writer’ or something of that sort. I’m betting that you are right that there is more pressure — you’re supposed to do things fast, you’re supposed to do things well, and people just aren’t prepared for what it really is. And they don’t know. And it isn’t much spoken of.

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