Yes­ter­day, Stu­art Nadler blogged for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ings Vis­it­ing Scribe about cast­ing off one’s sins

At a cer­tain point in the process, I had to do the cut­ting. Not the small cut­ting, the excis­ing of some mis­placed lines, the usu­al reshuf­fling that revi­sion turns into at the end, every­thing some­how feel­ing more sur­gi­cal than ther­a­peu­tic. But I had to real­ly cut. To kill some sto­ries. To take them out, shelve them, end them. This is what I did, in the most unsen­ti­men­tal of ways – sto­ries that I’d suf­fered over for months at a time, pulled from the man­u­script, put into the draw­er. There were four­teen sto­ries. Then there were ten. For a few weeks there were nine. Now the book exists in its final form, and there are sev­en sto­ries, all hand­some­ly put togeth­er and bound and out there for any­one to read. But what about the oth­ers, the sto­ries that didn’t make it?

Short sto­ry col­lec­tions are, at their best, a crys­tal­lized instance of a writer’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. In most cas­es the medi­um doesn’t allow for the con­cen­trat­ed ener­gy a nov­el does, or for the lin­ger­ing, care­ful intro­spec­tion. At their best, a cer­tain inci­den­tal beau­ty emerges, a glanc­ing touch of some­thing love­ly, or wise. I wrote the bulk of my book in Iowa City, a won­der­ful town with a small Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty, but where, after a few months, I found the sim­ple task of buy­ing can­dles for a meno­rah near­ly impos­si­ble. The expe­ri­ence stuck with me. I’d been work­ing on a book about a piano play­er. I shelved it. Slow­ly, the sto­ries began to touch one anoth­er, their com­mon threads sig­nal­ing, at first, a deep­en­ing fas­ci­na­tion about reli­gious iden­ti­ty. My char­ac­ters, as they emerged, were sec­u­lar Jews whose notion of their iden­ti­ty was brit­tle and unin­formed. Why did I want those can­dles so bad­ly, when I bare­ly cel­e­brat­ed any oth­er hol­i­days? At the end of one of these sto­ries, a char­ac­ter whose father is dying announces that he has no idea what it means to be Jew­ish. This, it seemed to me, was what my book was about. Or what it should be about. But then, so quick­ly, things changed. Oth­er threads emerged: strug­gling fam­i­lies, adul­ter­ous lovers, estranged broth­ers. My pre­oc­cu­pa­tions were shifting.

There is a dis­tance, often, that takes root between what a writer wants to write about, and what a writer actu­al­ly writes about. Out­lines become use­less, taunt­ing things. A col­lec­tion of sto­ries becomes bound by ideas the writer is not entire­ly away of. Slow­ly, this began to hap­pen to me. The woman who even­tu­al­ly became my edi­tor helped me real­ize that the char­ac­ters I’d been writ­ing weren’t all reli­gious, but they were all Jews. If noth­ing else, this was the thread.

Pho­to by Nina Subin

John Cheever’s advice on putting togeth­er a sto­ry col­lec­tion was to put the best sto­ry up front, the next best sto­ry last, and then arrange every­thing else in the mid­dle. I heard this a few weeks after my book had been acquired for pub­li­ca­tion, an occas­sion that to me felt like my own, pri­vate Hanukkah mir­a­cle: my book of sto­ries would go out into the world! But there was a whole sep­a­rate book I’d shelved. In it, there is a sto­ry about a broth­er whose twin is dying. A sto­ry about a fam­i­ly whose adopt­ed son is a paint­ing prodi­gy. There is a sto­ry about a box­er who falls in love with his oppo­nent. I’m this book’s only read­er now. It’s a fun­ny thing to see: my slight obses­sions ris­ing up and falling away. My plans for a per­fect­ly round col­lec­tion loos­en­ing. This book doesn’t have a hand­some cov­er, or a title, or real­ly, to be hon­est, any future. But it exists, if for no oth­er rea­son, than to remind me of how my book got made – by cut­ting and cut­ting and cutting.

Stu­art Nadler is the author of The Book of Life. Check back tomor­row for his final post for the JBC/MJL Author Blog.