Discovering the Why of a Collection

by Patrice Gopo

In the early days of the pandemic, words fell from my fingers, returning to me after a time of absence. Several years before, in the aftermath of the publication of my first essay collection, I had found myself unable to create. How strange that this time of lockdown existed side by side with my emergence from a creative wilderness.

I didn’t ponder this oddity, though. Instead, I wrote and wrote and wrote. And later as the headlines filled with George Floyd’s murder and our country’s brutal racial reckoning, I continued to write. Observations became ideas. Ideas transformed into fledgling essays. Fledgling essays found completion.

By the autumn of 2020, I was ready to return to a place I’d been before: the place of organizing an essay collection. The wonder of what I might discover in this process. The excitement at the possibility of a new book. I believed this group of essays—a combination of new and old work—belonged together. But I knew I needed to find the reason these essays should be a book. What golden thread might connect these distinct pieces? What was the beating heart of this collected work?

With my first book of essays, I formulated a process for turning this abstract notion of
“connectedness” into a concrete summary statement that served as a guide. Along the way, I recognized that to organize a collection of personal essays is to search for—and ultimately find—a deeper knowing about yourself, the world around you, your own work. Organizing was a journey toward discovery.

So, amid that first pandemic autumn, I proceeded down a somewhat technical path when set alongside words like “journey” and “discovery.” I created spreadsheets. I used formulas. I wrote specific items on index cards and shifted them around as I sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor. There was precision in how I worked as I tapped into portions of my brain that appreciate definitive answers. I asked myself what is the why of this new collection. Finding the answer involved a literary sleuthing that brought joy.

Of course, there are many ways a person can determine the reason for an essay collection’s existence. Similarly, there are many methods one can use to organize a book of a person’s collected writing—whether essays, short stories, or poems. What mattered is I had a system that worked for me.

By January 2021, as life continued to feel bloated with illness and suffering, and the intense public conversation about addressing racial injustice had predictably moved from shout to whisper, I emerged with a new manuscript. Even more, I emerged with the reason for this collection’s existence. Autumn Song, I titled this work, followed by the subtitle, Essays on Absence. Within the pages, these essays together, ordered in a particular sequence, told a story. A story much greater than what I could have imagined.

Patrice Gopo is an award-winning essayist and the author of books for adults and children. Her debut essay collection, All the Colors We Will See, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her second essay collection, Autumn Song: Essays on Absence, is forthcoming in autumn of 2023 with the University of Nebraska Press. Patrice lives with her family in North Carolina, where she enjoys walks just after dawn and thinks a perfect day ends with ice cream.

Greater Than the Sum of the Parts: Transforming Personal Essays into a Book:

Personal essays are a popular genre, and sometimes essayists consider the possibility of turning their work into a collection. The thought of taking essays and forming a book can feel daunting and perhaps intimidating. What order? What structure? Often, the biggest challenge is figuring out which essays fit in the book. In this session, you will learn tools and ideas to help you find ways to think about how a group of essays might become a book. Using these ideas and tools, you will learn something more about your writing and the larger story of your work.

Thursday, March 9 | 10:00 am – 12:00 pm | Charlotte Lit @ hygge Belmont. Members $45, Non-Members $60. Register