Compiling My Nonfiction Collection Monstrous Creatures

Jeff VanderMeer • August 23rd, 2009 @ 10:53 am • Writing Tips


(The cover of my nonfiction collection from Guide Dog Books, an imprint of Raw Dog Screaming Press, art by Eric Orchard; the new subtitle, not reflected above, is “Explorations of the Fantastical, the Surreal, and the Weird”, but that too is subject to change.)

This weekend I started putting together my nonfiction collection Monstrous Creatures. I’d been capturing material in one document in the following categories:

Introductions & Afterwords
Features (Articles, etc.)
Reviews
Essays
Columns
Interviews
Miscellanea

I’ve been sifting through more than 450,000 words of material including blog entries, and I began to get dissatisfied with the organizing principle. For my last nonfiction collection, Why Should I Cut Your Throat?, I’d had the normal sorts of categories, like “Essays” and “Reviews”, but had included convention reports between the sections, trying to capture moments in time while also showing the evolution of my attitude toward such events. I’d also included more personal pieces about, for example, City of Saints, that had some intertextuality with the reviews and essays.

For the new collection, I realized suddenly that I didn’t have much of an organizing principle at all, except to cram in as much of the quality material from the last five years as possible. I’d meant the title, Monstrous Creatures, as a kind of catch-all for a general nonfiction collection dealing with fantasy. The title would also tie in to my fiction collection, The Third Bear, especially since my essay of the same name would be included therein.

But, again feeling somewhat bored with the structure, I asked my good friend Matt Cheney, “Do you know of any examples of innovative organization for this kind of a compilation?” His answer:

That’s an interesting question–at first, I thought, “Of course there are!” but then I couldn’t think of any. Certainly, there are plenty of collections of miscellaneous nonfiction–Updike and Oates come immediately to mind, simply because they seem determined to collect every napkin they ever wrote on–but the organization for those books is mostly pretty dull. Donald Barthelme’s “Guilty Pleasures” is arranged in three sections, but they’re basically thematic. Same is true of the sections in Barry Lopez’s “About This Life” (one of my favorites). The range of forms in these books is not particularly wide; most writers seem to find a form of nonfiction that is comfortable for them, and they stick to it. I was working on putting together a ms. of a nonfiction collection that was arranged thematically to show the progression and development of the ideas without regard to the format (essay to review to blog entry, etc.)…I like collections that, through juxtaposition and sequence, show how a specific idea about X is also a general idea about Y that leads to the (previously seemingly unrelated) specific idea about Z. Because it’s what I know most vividly, Delany comes to mind, and each of his collections has been more radical than the last in terms of what is included (interviews, letters, etc.), but I still don’t think of those books as terribly radical, again because so much of what he does is limited to certain types of nonfiction. But they remain for me an ideal of showing the crossover of ideas.

Perhaps the most innovative form I know of is that used by Guy Davenport–who often de-emphasized the occasion that produced each item and so when reading his collections you often don’t know whether you’re reading a review, an introduction, an essay, a journal entry, or what. In his final collection of selected works (“The Death of Picasso”), he even mixed fiction and nonfiction without indicating in any way which is which, and I find it to be his most compelling book to read because of that.

So I slept on that, and this morning had one of those “the sky is blue” eureka moments that makes you wonder why your brain didn’t see it all clearly before, because it’s all there in the title: Monstrous Creatures. That thar, Sherlock, is my organizing principle–whether monstrous cities, people, books, or creatures, with “monstrous” used in the sense of the complete array of the meanings under “monster” in the OED:

From the Latin, Monstrum, meaning something marvelous; originally a divine portent or warning.

1. Something extraordinary or unnatural; a prodigy, a marvel.

2. An animal or plant deviating in one or more of its parts from the normal type.

3. An imaginary animal…having a form either part brute and part human, or compounded from elements of two or more animal forms.

4. A person of inhuman and horrible cruelty or wickedness.

5. An animal of huge size; hence anything of vast and unwieldy proportions.

I must also note how tickled I am to discover “monster” as a verb in the old OED, with the meaning of “to make a monster of,” “to exhibit as a monster; to point out something wonderful,” or “to play the monster, assume the appearance of greatness.”

Anyway, I now have a much clearer idea of an organizing principle. But, to winnow down you must first have more content than you can use, so I’m continuing to collect text under my boring old original headings, although now with more of an eye toward some initial exclusion of material. Once I’ve got a good 120,000 words in one document, I’ll then look at it all, cut out what seems weakest in the new context, and begin a path toward a new organization that seems thematically correct. I believe my editor said 80,000 tops, and that seems like a good length.

Monstrous. Marvels. Cruelties. Rodents of Unusual Size. Cities that behave like creatures. Essays that seem like behemoths. Bears that are not bears. This is going to get interesting…

7 Responses to “Compiling My Nonfiction Collection Monstrous Creatures”

  1. Liam says:

    Yes, actually the word comes from the verb “mosntro”, “to show” — the idea behind it is that the monstrous was purposely created to show some kind of message or meaning. Interesting book on this is “The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought,” by John Bloch Freidman.

  2. Larry says:

    This might be a bit tangential, but the same Latin root verb also comprises the Monstrance, the device that holds the Eucharistic Host for display during Adoration for Catholics and a few other Christian groups. I guess that’s a showing/monster use a bit different than what you intend? :P

  3. Adam says:

    I absolutely love the cover! It reminds me of “Where the Wild Things Are” in a very good way.

  4. Hellbound Heart says:

    ….so, is there an ordinary day for you when the extraodinary doesn’t make an appearance in some way shape or form?

    silly, silly question……i take it back……if we don’t find something extraodinary every day, well, i guess we’re not trying hard enough…..

    peace and love……..

  5. Hellbound Heart says:

    there you go, the extraordinary thing was that i forgot the r……

    twice……..

    bugger

  6. Jim Hall says:

    It looks to be an amazing collection, I am looking forward to it.

  7. Sparrow says:

    O, lingua Latina. Yes, indeed, Liam is correct. Roman priests used to keep lists of ‘monstra,’ in order to better puzzle out the gods’ will. Two-headed snakes or calves, children born oddly, twins, etc. The Latin noun, monstrum, is essentially the perfect passive participle of the verb monstro, monstrare– thus, a thing having been shown/revealed. It didn’t even always have to be a creature or person. Lightning strikes and the like could also be ‘monstra’.

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