CNF Conversations: An Interview with Patrick Madden

Unknown-1

Patrick MaddenSublime PhysickUniversity of Nebraska Press, 2016.

Patrick Madden is the author of Sublime Physick (2016) and Quotidiana (2010), winner of Foreword Reviews and Independent Publisher book of the year awards, and finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His personal essays, nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and noted in the Best American Essays six times, have been published widely in such journals as Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, the Iowa Review, McSweeney’s, the Normal School, River Teeth, and Southwest Review, and have been anthologized in the Best Creative Nonfiction and the Best American Spiritual Writing. With David Lazar, he co-edited After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays and now co-edits the 21st Century Essays series at Ohio State University Press. A two-time Fulbright fellow to Uruguay, he teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he curates an online anthology and essay resource at www.quotidiana.org.

About Sublime PhysickA follow-up to Patrick Madden’s award-winning debut, this introspective and exuberant collection of essays is wide-ranging and wild, following bifurcating paths of thought to surprising connections. In Sublime Physick, Madden seeks what is common and ennobling among seemingly disparate, even divisive, subjects, ruminating on midlife, time, family, forgiveness, loss, originality, a Canadian rock band, and much more, discerning the ways in which the natural world (fisica) transcends and joins the realm of ideas (sublime) through the application of a meditative mind.

In twelve essays that straddle the classical and the contemporary, Madden transmutes the ruder world into a finer one, articulating with subtle humor and playfulness how science and experience abut and intersect with spirituality and everyday life.

Watch the book trailer for Sublime Physick here…in which Montaigne and Sebald get drunk together.

For teachers who’d like to adopt this book for their classes, Madden has provided a number of helpful teaching resources, including a 40-minute lecture on his writing process and writing prompts for each of the book’s essays. You can find those here.

 Unknown-2

Julija Šukys: First of all, Pat, thank you for this wonderful book. It’s a beautiful, melancholic text, penned, or at least published, at mid-life. We’re almost the same age, you and I, so I connected to the simultaneous gaze backward to childhood, forward to aging and death, and downward to the children at our feet. Tell me a bit about the organizing principle of this book. You write that the “essays all derive, in some way, from the physical world, and all reach, always insufficiently, toward the sublime.” Can you say a little bit more about this?

Patrick Madden: Thanks, Julija. I’m really glad you liked the book. I think that the middle of life (whether “midlife” or not) is a long period of relative stasis (I know I’m oversimplifying), so I hope that these essays can speak to lots of people, in the middle of life. As for the organizing principle of the book: I wanted to collect essays under a general characteristic that holds true not only for my own essays but for essays generally, and I discovered that phrase, sublime physick, while researching Amedeo Avogadro, the 19th-century Italian chemist who theorized that equal volumes of gas contained equal numbers of molecules, no matter the gases. We’ve since named Avogadro’s number (6.02 x 1023, the number of molecules in one mole) after him. Aaanyway, I learned that he held the chair of fisica sublime at the University of Turin. I thought it was a lovely oxymoronic term, because it suggests both the concrete and the abstract, the physical and the sublime. While I realize that this department was the equivalent of our modern-day “theoretical physics” (thinking about the science of the natural world), I played with all sorts of definitions and combinations that give insight into what essays tend to do. So this book collects many essays that have science themes and metaphors (I did my bachelor’s degree in physics), and they all make connections between the world of lived experiences (the concrete) and the world of ideas (the abstract), sometimes with a reach toward the spiritual (or sublime).

As you know, I had a group of students read your essay, “Spit,” and the endeavor was wildly successful – my students are still talking about you. In many ways, “Spit” is a classic essay: it combines scene, research and reflection flawlessly. It’s conversational and intimate yet deeply, deeply intellectual, and it vacillates in the most surprising ways between the big and the small. It appears to be about one thing (saliva!) and turns out to be about something else entirely (redemption, forgiveness, self-forgiveness). Tell me about the writing process of this essay.

I am smiling. They were a great bunch to talk with, and I’m glad the essay had a good effect on them. I hope one thing they can take from that essay is that they can write about anything, even frivolous or unappealing things, and they can write without knowing from the start where they’re going or what it all means. One night as I was putting my daughters to bed. I realized that one of them was learning to whistle, another was learning to snap her fingers, and the third was learning to ride a bike, and I had a flash of memory to when I learned how to spit. I thought this was an odd thing to remember, especially because I don’t usually have a good memory. So I began to write an essay about spit. It was all very superficial at first: I gathered all the memories and associations I could make with the literal act of expectorating. Of course, I knew that this would never work as an essay. I needed something significant, an idea to explore. I soon remembered what is probably the essay’s climactic moment, when I returned home for a weekend during my freshman year of college and I discovered that one of my friends was now hanging out with a different crowd, doing as they did. I got upset, we argued, and in the escalation of emotions, I spat at him. Because my friend had since died, very young, I began thinking about forgiveness. Beyond that, as I was trying to get some DNA research done on my ancestry (by sending a cheek swab for analysis), I met, through email and phone, a distant relative who’d never known anybody he was genetically related to. Even though our common ancestor lived centuries ago, he was pleased to get to know me. As we shared our experiences, I learned that he’d recently gotten into some legal trouble, so that the life he’d worked so hard to build was falling apart. I began to see him as a tragic hero, undone by his fatal flaw and events beyond his control. This was a challenge to the dear notion that people can repent and change. So I wrote toward this uncomfortable question: What is repentance? How can we forgive? And so forth. I felt that this was a substantial idea at the end of an initially inane essay.

Some time ago, I was introduced at a reading as “an essayist,” and immediately felt a sort of revolt inside me that said “No! I’m not an essayist…” A few seconds later, I reversed this and thought, “Hang on, maybe I am an essayist…” It’s been a long road, but for what it’s worth, I increasingly define myself as such. By contrast, you seem to have understood early on exactly what kind of writer you were. In “On Being Recognized,” you quote Arthur Christopher Benson: “The point of the essay is not the subject, for any subject will suffice, but the charm of personality” (117). What is the point of the essay for you, Pat? Can you talk a little about your journey to the essay? Did you flirt with other genres before you settled on this one? Do you ever (as I did recently) get accused of fetishizing the essay?

“Fetishizing the essay”! I like that phrase. I’ve never been accused of that, but only (I suppose) because it’s so obvious that I do it. People feel it’s unnecessary to even make the statement about me. Of course, I deny the premise, as “fetishizing” assumes that the obsession is “excessive or irrational,” and this is obviously false. In any case, I never really had any other literary goals, and though I like reading other genres, I’ve never seriously tried writing in them. Joseph Epstein says that essayists are all failed at other literary and artistic pursuits (e.g., Lamb the failed playwright and poet; Hazlitt the failed painter), but this is not the case for me. Unless I’m a failed physicist, I guess. Yes, maybe that’s it. I came to the essay because it promised a great freedom. I had a physics degree, but already before I had graduated I felt the narrowing constraints of lifelong expertise in a very small subject area. In physics, this smallness is doubly true: each physicist’s field is metaphorically small, but also a cutting-edge physicist will probably be working with subatomic particles, invisible even to microscopes, and the work tends to involve colliding accelerated particles then sifting through the computer data for years in order to get a read on what flashed into and out of existence during a nanosecond of interesting results. Aaanyway, I felt claustrophobic at the prospect of dedicating my life to this. Meanwhile, in the two years after graduation, I served a Mormon mission to Uruguay, which gave me a lot of time to think about my future. Gradually I realized that I loved to think wildly, without restraint, flitting from one subject of interest to the next as the spirit moved me. And eventually I discovered or decided that writing essays could be a way to keep my life open and free, to study what subjects inspired me for as long as they inspired me, and then move on. So I came to the essay knowingly, intentionally, and with great hopes. I think now that I was naïve, but also very lucky, so that my life has worked out to be what I had hoped for.

By the way, I don’t know who introduced you as an essayist, but I feel that the title is a great compliment. Most people who would use it to describe you would do so knowingly, meaning that you’re an experimenter and explorer. Continue reading

Share

CNF Conversations: An Interview with William Bradley

WilliamBradley

William Bradley, Fractals. Lavender Ink, 2015. 

William Bradley’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Missouri Review, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fourth Genre, and The Bellevue Literary Review. He regularly writes about popular culture for The Normal School and creative nonfiction for Utne Reader. Formerly of Canton, New York, he lives in Ohio with his wife, the Renaissance scholar and poet Emily Isaacson.

About Fractals: In his seminal book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot wrote, “A cauliflower shows how an object can be made of many parts, each of which is like a whole, but smaller. Many plants are like that. A cloud is made of billows upon billows upon billows that look like clouds. As you come closer to a cloud you don’t get something smooth, but irregularities at a smaller scale.” In this collection of linked essays, William Bradley presents us with small glimpses of his larger consciousness, which is somewhat irregular itself. Reflecting on subjects as diverse as soap opera actors, superheroes, mortality, and marriage, these essays endeavor to reveal what we have in common, the connections we share that demonstrate that we are all fractals, in a sense—self-similar component parts of a larger whole.

coverWilliamBradley

Buy the book here. 

Julija Šukys: In Fractals you write of your numerous battles with cancer. It’s about remembering and forgetting; about scars both physical and psychological; about a loss of and then a return to faith (in another form). Finally, this book is also a kind of love letter to the women in your life: to your mother and wife who have sat beside you as you weathered storm after storm.

Thank you for talking to me about your book.

Fractals is a great title for an essay collection. A fractal is, of course, a never-ending pattern that repeats across different scales. Here, we see big and small essays, each of which circles similar but not identical territory to its adjacent texts. The collection has a looping structure or, as Benoit Mandelbrot described it, a cauliflower-like one. Can you talk a bit about how you pulled these pieces together and came to a final form? What was your guiding principle? Did you write any of the essays specifically for the collection? Can you tell us about essays that didn’t make the cut?

William Bradley: I didn’t know about fractals at all for the longest time. I was a very poor math student when I was a kid—it took me five years to get through three years of high school-level math because I kept failing—so I think maybe other people knew this stuff before I did. But once I did read someone referencing fractals, I started reading up on them even more, because I found the idea of the small thing containing the aspects of the larger thing kind of fit in with a belief system I was kind of clumsily assembling for myself—it seemed like it was Montaigne’s idea of each of us carrying the entirety of the human condition expressed in mathematical terms. So I loved that. I also loved the idea of each essay being a fractal, every book being a fractal. Once I started learning about fractals I started seeing them everywhere.

The book itself has taken many forms before I found the one that worked. Once upon a time, it was a much more conventional cancer memoir. I sort of gravitated away from memoir and towards essays in graduate school, though I didn’t realize I should be writing an essay collection and not a memoir for another several years.

I started writing an essay about fractals while also working on the cancer memoir, but it gradually seemed to me that some of the “chapters” in the memoir would work better as distinct essays, and that a lot of the “connective tissue” linking them together was actually pretty bad. So I got rid of that, and suddenly they seemed to have more in common with the essay about fractals—“Self-Similar” in the collection.

I do have other essays that at one point might have been part of the collection, but ultimately didn’t seem to belong. Some of these were more political, or were kind of off-puttingly angry, or just kind of argumentative. I’m working on another essay collection focused on masculinity and violence right now, and some of those seem to fit better with that collection.

In “Nana,” you explore the issue of writing and silence in a really thoughtful way. I’d like to have you share some thoughts on writers’ responsibilities to loved ones and ancestors.

“Nana” starts out:

I had promised my mother I wouldn’t write an essay about her mother until the old lady died. . . . [S]he made me promise that I would not reveal to the world that my grandmother had once, over a breakfast of coffee and English muffins, wished out loud that I would die in order to teach my mother a lesson about grief.

Just as we think you’re going to spill the beans (and you sort of almost do…), this essay ends up being about not writing the threatened piece (except that in not writing it, you’ve also already written it!). Can you talk a bit about negotiating with the dead and how you determine which silences to break, which secrets to keep, and which wounds it’s best to leave undisturbed? Do you have other ground rules for writing about your family, about your wife Emily, for example?

My biggest rule is that my essays are about myself—I don’t usually try to tell other people’s stories. Other people appear in my stories, but the reflection should always be about my relationship with them, my thoughts about them. So I might write about an experience my wife and I share, but I wouldn’t try to write about her relationship with her beloved grandmother, because that’s her story to tell.

But generally, I don’t think I need anyone’s permission to write about my own thoughts. That’s why “Nana” is written the way it is—all these things I don’t really know about my grandmother, but suspect may be true. In fact I recently talked to my mother about this essay and learned that I got most of it right, but some of it wrong—my grandmother did not find her father-in-law’s dead body, the way I thought she had. But her frustration with her husband’s refusal to talk about his suicide was real. But again, the essay really winds up being about my own desire to spare my mom’s feelings rather than the story of this troubled woman who said really mean things to people.

I didn’t actually set out to write an essay about my relationship with my mom when I started writing about what my grandmother said, but I actually learned a lot about myself as I was writing that very short essay.

You use the word “chrononaut” in your collection. I love this word – it suggests an image of writer as time traveler, but also as adventurer. “Cathode,” the essay that felt most like a trip back in time was for me, was amongst the most gutting in the collection (it felt like we were spying on a past version of you). In this piece you look back at a friendship – a not-quite-sincere friendship – with a boy in your youth. So much is intriguing about this text: its lack of resolution, its questioning of memory, and of the facts. The reader gets a sense of how the past versions of ourselves can seem foreign when we look back on them (ourselves). It’s infused with cringe-worthy regret and maybe even shame. Very powerful.

How did the essay come to be so short – was this its original form or did you whittle it down from something larger? Do you think its power comes from its form? (I do…)

Oddly enough, given the essay’s preoccupation with memory, I don’t remember how I went about writing “Cathode.” I think maybe some magazine or journal had a call for essays about memory, and I came up with this idea of my memory being like an old television set where the picture slowly came into view. But I also think I was probably trying to imitate Nabokov, who wrote about memories being projected onto a movie screen.

And yeah. That essay’s really about my own shame at how cruel I could be as a kid, even though I thought I was the hero of the story I was writing for myself. I think most boys are probably similarly cruel—even when we see someone in pain and know we should offer some type of support or comfort, we don’t because we don’t want to become the ones who are picked on or ostracized. Or at least that’s how it felt for me.

It was definitely designed to be short. I don’t think the idea of the television image that sort of bookends the essay would work if I’d put, like, 3,000 words between those sequences. And it’s true that I don’t really remember much of the event—just the image of this sad boy making an obscene gesture at the kids who are supposed to be his friends, and the feeling that I should have been nicer.

Why did you call this text “Cathode”?

I don’t really remember why I titled the essay “Cathode,” but I suspect it was because I liked the idea of my memory working like an old cathode ray tube television set, like the one I’m watching towards the end of the essay. I do remember looking up old television sets and how they worked, and obviously something about the word “cathode” appealed to me. I think because it’s something I associate with a past that I’m sometimes nostalgic for but that I know wasn’t actually better than the present moment (in much the same way that cathode ray televisions are not, in fact, better than the LCD and plasma screen televisions we have today).

Given the book’s obsession with the pop culture I watched on old television sets– soap operas, game shows, horror movies– it seems kind of appropriate for the entire book, too, though I admit that idea just occurred to me because you asked about it.

Continue reading

Share

CNF Conversations: An Interview with Essayist Chris Arthur, Part II

Chris Arthur, On the Shoreline of Knowledge: Irish Wanderings. Iowa City: Shoreline Books, 2012.

This is Part II of a two-part interview with Chris Arthur. Click here to access Part I.

Julija Šukys: Like you, I’m obsessed with the writing of ordinary lives. The following passage is marked in pencil and with exclamation marks in my now dog-eared copy of your book: “History is determined by the inky regimen of print. But ordinary lives happen more in the key set by a pencil: fainter, less permanent, more tentative, easily erased. [. . .] I prefer to take the back routes, to look at littler events, the stories of the day to day, of families and their places. These, more than any headline, are what make us who we are.” I write ordinary lives in order to create a trace for those I fear will (unjustly) be forgotten. By contrast, though, I get the sense from your work, and the ways in which you reach so far back (to Neanderthal mourning rituals, for example) that you write with the consciousness that this too, this trace of yours, will fade. Am I right about this?

Chris Arthur: Yes! I think all the traces we leave, all the traces we write, will vanish. According to Buddhist teaching, by which I’ve been more than a little influenced, one of the three marks of existence – that is, one of the three absolutely fundamental features of our world – is what’s termed “anicca,” or impermanence. That strikes me as highly plausible. I think everything passes. Nothing humans do – still less who they are – is permanent, however much we may rail against this unpalatable fact. When I read your question I was reminded of an early essay I wrote entitled “Ne Obliviscaris” (= “lest we forget”). It emphasizes, more explicitly than the other essays do, the way in which anicca claims us all:

If the mind cannot immediately encompass the idea of its own complete annihilation, the fact that soon there will be no one who remembers us, ask what remains – beyond the dumb inheritance of flesh – of the people who were our great-great-grandparents. Or, if that is still too close, ask what now remains upon the shifting network of human memory of the ten-year-old Iron Age girl drowned as she helped her mother collect mussels from along some windswept northern shore. Let her act as symbol for the millions of strangers unknown to us, unremembered by anyone, who have vanished without trace in history’s wake and are recoverable only through the imagination.

Loss and transience are, I think, important motifs that recur throughout my five essay collections. This may make them sound rather sombre, if not grim – but I don’t think they are; I hope they’re not. It’s transience, after all, that underscores a lot of life’s beauty, what helps to make it beautiful.

In “Kyklos” you write about the way your essay has “spiralled away, evolved and developed, meandered unpredictably from its initial point of origin.” A great topic for discussion over the course of my fall workshop has been precisely this aspect of essay writing: the fact that you may not (almost certainly don’t) know where you’re going. Essays wander. They are experiments. They take us off into unexpected territory. And this frustrates beginning writers, because it feels difficult and therefore they begin to believe they’re doing something wrong. I wonder if you could talk about how you write essays. Do they come quickly? Are they hard-fought? Do they come slowly over years? What is the role of rewriting in your work? Do you have faithful friends or editors whom you trust with drafts? Do you have any words of wisdom for those of us stuck inside an unfinished and uncooperative essay (as I am now)?

This reminds me of a piece of wisdom about essays from one of my mentors in the genre, Lydia Fakundiny. She says that if at some point in its composition an essay doesn’t surprise the writer, it probably isn’t worth writing. I agree with that. Of course when I start to write a piece I have some idea of where it’s headed – but not much. The discovery is in the writing and the pieces that have pleased me most are those where surprise is a key element, where insights and connections happen that I couldn’t have predicted when I set out. Yes, absolutely, essays are experiments – I sometimes refer to them as wonderings and wanderings in prose. If they don’t take us into unexpected territory they quickly become tedious. This means there’s a strong element of unpredictability about them, which can be frustrating – because sometimes they don’t work, and because they’re resistant to planning. I think beginning writers are sometimes approaching essays with a one-size-fits-all blueprint in mind for how to structure them. That strikes me as desperately wrong-headed. A useful initial exercise for anyone starting out is to read the Best American Essays series and get a sense of just how varied essays can be.

I wouldn’t like to give the impression, though, from this emphasis I’ve put on unpredictability, surprise and not knowing where a piece is going, that there’s any lack of care or precision in an essay’s composition. Good essays are carefully crafted (and again a reading of Best American Essays soon makes this very apparent).

It takes me weeks to complete an essay and almost every one goes through numerous rewrites as I hone it and fine tune it and try to get it into the shape I want. Very occasionally, a piece will emerge quickly. It seems to fall on the page pretty much in its final form. But that’s rare. Mostly my initial scribbles are crude, tentative, unfinished and miles away from the final version. It takes me a long while to get from inception to completion – and it can be struggle. Readers are oblivious, of course, to the huge amount of work involved in moving from first draft to final finished form – in this as in other genres. That’s the part of writing that’s only visible to the author – and rightly so, I think. I mean, no one wants to look at the rubble of unrefined material and what’s been discarded. Readers want to taste the finished dish, not your raw ingredients. But it can be highly problematic if beginning writers aren’t aware of this dimension and imagine that composition happens in one unrevised burst that’s perfect at the outset. I don’t know anyone who writes like that. Wasn’t it E.B. White who said “The best writing is rewriting”?

I don’t share work in draft form with anyone, but I’m more than willing to listen to suggestions from a handful of journal editors whose judgment I’ve learned to trust. When they suggest changes to what I’ve presented to them as an essay’s final form I’ll often make the recommended change – or, prompted by it, come up with some revision of my own. Once an essay has been published, though, I tend to rule a line under it and not look at it again – otherwise I might want to make yet more changes. Paul Valéry’s famous observation that “a poem is never finished, only abandoned” applies to essays too, I think. It’s interesting that Patrick Madden, an essayist whose work I admire, says quite explicitly in one of the essays in his book Quotidiana (2010), “The danger of writing an essay like this: there is nowhere to end.” But for practical purposes you need to draw the line and end things, or abandon things, somewhere – otherwise what you’re working on will eventually start to get in the way of new ideas, new pieces.

You ask about words of wisdom for those stuck inside an unfinished and uncooperative essay. Well, the first thing I’d say is I’m glad I’m not there! Because I have been there frequently and I know how frustrating it can be. When I get into this situation with a piece of work I’ll sometimes give up and trash it – and it’s better to do that before you expend massive amounts of time and energy trying to fix the unfixable. But of course I’m reluctant to abandon something once I’ve started to write it, and it can be well-nigh impossible at some stages to tell if something just needs more revision and refinement or if it’s something that’s terminally flawed. One thing that’s worth considering is whether the recalcitrant piece is two (or three) essays rather than the single one you think you’re operating with. I know I’ve escaped from several tangles by realizing that I was trying to write two essays simultaneously. Separating them and working on them separately solved the problem. It’s also sometimes worth bringing some radical editing to bear. Trying to begin three paragraphs (or pages) in and ditching what goes before that can help to get things moving, or reorganizing the order of the sections. Writing a piece to a strict word limit that’s lower than what you normally work with can occasionally be effective. Sometimes it helps – if there isn’t a deadline looming – to put the piece aside for a few weeks or months and look at it again after a break. I also like to have several pieces of work on the go at the same time, at different stages of completion, so as I can switch mental gears between the different demands of initial sketch, rough draft, first draft and final draft (and all the rewritings and revisions in between). So, if I’m stuck with one piece at one phase of its writing, shifting to another piece at another phase can help. It can also be helpful to move between working on single pieces and a collection. Sometimes when things don’t work it’s just a case of being stale and needing to go out for a walk or a swim or a cycle – a change of scene, getting away from the screen or the page. And of course writers, given what they do, sometimes spend too much time in their own company. Sometimes all an essay that isn’t working needs is some good company and conversation, rather than any kind of further emphasis on the solitary business of trying to get sentences to behave the way you want them to. But sometimes none of these strategies work. I don’t mean to be pessimistic in saying that, I think it’s just being realistic. I’ve certainly experienced the wretched business of a piece of writing that promises to be good, claims lots of time, is something that keeps drawing me back, but in the end I just can’t figure out how to get it into a form I’m happy with. Maybe in order to have success with writing you need to experience a few failures along the way. But here’s hoping your unfinished/uncooperative essay is one that responds to treatment and ends up being something you’re pleased with.

Finally, if an essay looks at a question or a thing or a memory from all angles, then perhaps an essay collection can be said to do the same, but on a bigger scale. Having never written a collection myself, I’m intrigued to hear about the process of putting together such a book. What comes first – the essays or the themes? Do you bring together pieces that seem to interconnect or do you set out to write complementary essays? Or a combination of the two?

The essays come first. Then, as I start to think of them together, themes emerge that make it clear which ones work together. At that point it’s easy enough to decide what to include in a collection and what doesn’t belong there. Likewise the running order of the selected pieces, though it may initially seem hard to call, becomes obvious as I work on the essays together and think of them as a collection, not just as individual pieces. I never set out to write complementary essays. The books evolve out of the essays I write, but I don’t write them with a view to writing a book. When I’m writing an essay, it’s just that particular essay that I’m thinking about.

Richard Chadbourne says something interesting about essays considered singly and put together as a collection. His comment is included in the course of what I think is a good characterization of the genre as a whole:

The essay is a brief, highly polished piece of prose that is often poetic, often marked by an artful disorder in its composition, and that is both fragmentary and complete in itself, capable both of standing on its own and of forming a kind of ‘higher organism’ when assembled with other essays by its author.

I’d like to think that my essays are capable of standing on their own – but that the collections work as “higher organisms” so that reading them together in a book sees them acting in the kind of mutually enriching/reinforcing way that Chabdourne has in mind. Incidentally, he goes on to say of the essay that:

Like most poems or short stories it should be readable at a single sitting; readable but not entirely understandable the first or even second time, and re-readable more or less forever.

And he concludes: “the essay, in other words, belongs to imaginative literature.”  I’d agree wholeheartedly with that. (His comments are made in an excellent article, “A Puzzling Literary Genre; Comparative Views of the Essay,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 20 no. 1 (1983), p.149-50.)

A parallel to thinking about making collections of essays is thinking about the different ways in which a selection of those already published in book form might be arranged. I did this with Words of the Grey Wind, of course, but it’s something I’d like to do again. For instance, I’ve several times thought of putting a book together that draws the various “bird essays” I’ve written – “Kingfishers” and the “Last Corncrake” from Irish Nocturnes, “Swan Song” and “Beginning by Blackbird” from Irish Haiku, “Waxwings” from Words of the Grey Wind and three that are in the collection I’m just completing now. That’s the kind of thing that might tempt me to try to write “complementary essays.” Of course the birds themselves are not the main subject. It’s more that they offer a way into what I want to write about. I’d also like to explore arranging essays around the theme of different varieties of looking, grouping them according to whether they look at natural objects, manufactured things, paintings, books, photographs, sayings, or memory. I even have a tentative title and subtitle for such a volume: How to See a Horse and Other Lessons for the (Mind’s) Eye. But I think it’s highly unlikely that any publisher would want to take on something like this, so I suspect these imagined rationales for selection.

Share

Post-Publication Projects: On Returning to Small Forms

Different sizes by Funchye

I’m leading a writer’s workshop on the personal essay in the fall. I’m happy about it, because the essay is a form I love.

I tend to write essays at the beginning of a bigger project, and use them as a way to test out ideas and to work through central questions of longer projects. But since I’ve been, on the one hand, shepherding out my new book, and on the other, slogging through the final third of a new book manuscript, I haven’t actually written an essay for a while. Bigness has consumed my writing life. Yet, seeing as I’m going to be trying to offer some insights into the form, I decided it was time I sat down to another one.

When we first arrived in Gozo (Malta’s sister island), where my husband, son, and I are spending an 8-month sabbatical (only 7 weeks until we head home), I had all kinds of ideas for a book I would write about this place. “Botany!” I thought, “There’s got to be a story in all this plant life and especially that weirdly named Fungus Rock.” Then, later, “Saints and healers!” Then,” Knights of Malta!” And finally, “A travel memoir about our time here…” None of these books have come to fruition.

Instead, as is my habit, I’m starting with an essay. Perhaps a book will follow.

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been corresponding with an editor at a reasonably mainstream magazine. I originally sent a pitch for a long piece — 5,000 words — about Gozo, the naming of places, and the idea of home. It’s a length I like because you can say a lot in 5,000 words, but it’s still short enough to be read in one sitting. The editor came back to me with good news. She liked the idea, but asked that I revise the pitch and shrink the envisioned essay down to no more than 1,000 words.

Now, for someone who’s been writing books, 1,000 words is very short indeed. (Just to give an idea: this blog post is over 700 words long!)

No problem, I said. I’m up for the challenge.

This is where the process got complicated (that is to say, I learned something about myself).

For 5,000 words, I can lay out a structure and map out ideas in advance. I have enough room to look ahead and plot which move will come after which. Not so for 1,000 words. Perhaps it’s a personal failing, but I feel like the only way for me to plan out an essay that short is not to. I have to feel my way through while writing a first draft, then cut, cut, cut, until I’ve smoothed the text down to its kernel.

Unsurprisingly, my reworked pitch didn’t impress the magazine editor. It was too vague and too general. I’m sure others know how to pitch a mere 1,000 words, but I, big-heavy-text-writer that I am, evidently failed miserably. Like a large-animal vet trying to write a care manual for rabbits and gerbils.

But to her credit, the editor hasn’t given up on me. She still likes the original concept, is willing to see how I can make it work as a tiny text, and is waiting for a draft.

Tiny-essay writing is a process that is so different from book writing. With the latter, there’s breathing room. You can use your whole self, your whole past, and explore connections big and small. You can make mistakes and edit them out without throwing the whole thing off. But in a tiny essay, you have to choose your moves carefully. Any misstep, and it’s over.

The Rumpus‘s fantastic advice columnist Sugar recently came out. That is, she revealed her true identity — that of a writer named Cheryl Strayed. Strayed will soon release a collection of her Dear Sugar columns as a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. It’s a formulation I love.

That’s what I think 1,000-word essay has to strive to be: a tiny beautiful thing. Tight, strong, economic, and without a word out of place.

A bit like the island of Gozo itself.

So here’s to moving back from the big to the small.

Wish me luck.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

[Photo: Funchye]

Share

On Chronology and Necessary Abandonment: Working with Letters and Diaries

Broken by MarcelGermain

The first review of Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė appeared a few days ago. And even though this isn’t my first book or review, it’s still a wild ride to have strangers reading my work.

In her review of the book, Claire Posner points to a major challenge that I faced writing this book: chronology.

Perhaps reflecting the uneven records that Šimaitė left behind, Epistolophilia‘s chapters are grouped by subject matter rather than in chronological order.

She’s right: rather than telling Šimaitė’s story from beginning to end in a clean and linear fashion, I attacked the librarian’s life by topic, and attempted to answer the questions that the process of piecing her story together raised for me.

This book, as many of you know by now, was a struggle to write. The archival materials I was working with (letters and diaries) resisted my efforts to tame them. I simultaneously had too much and too little to work with. Only after a long internal battle and after putting aside some of my ideas about how this book should look did Epistolophilia finally come together.

The funny thing is that despite its being such a major obstacle, I’d pretty much forgotten about the issue of chronology and how much pain it had caused me, until I read the ForeWord review.

So what did I learn from writing Šimaitė’s life? For one: we don’t actually live our lives chronologically. Two: we certainly don’t record them that way. Rather, we move continually back and forth between the past and present, reinterpreting, forgetting, remembering, inventing, telling ourselves our own histories, then (in the best cases) turning around and recounting those histories to our children, our loved ones, and our readers.

So, when I was recently asked by a fellow writer how she should tackle a large collection of letters in her possession, I had to stop and think. The obvious advice is to organize and read the letters and diaries chronologically (if they come from different archives, be sure to devise a system to identify the source of each letter before mixing documents up — I used coloured star stickers). Then, the second most obvious piece of advice would perhaps be to abandon chronology altogether.

The difficulty lies in the fact that you’ve got to make order from chaos to start. But then you may realize that the order has created a new kind of chaos. Do not confuse mere chronology with structure. Chronology may be a start, but it may not be a solution. It may even be a problem.

I suspect that each body of correspondence or life writing demands its own structure when being reworked for a book. This is great, because it means that there are no rules. (But the bad news too is that there are no rules.) You have to pay close attention to your material and tease out its meaning. With luck, once you have meaning, structure should follow. By this I mean that once you see a story emerging from a pile of documents, chances are you can also see how to tell it.

The best I can offer for now, in terms of a method, is this:

  1. Organize your materials chronologically.
  2. Read them chronologically
  3. Track the story they tell. (Find their meaning)
  4. Abandon chronology if necessary. (Build a structure)
  5. Tell the story as the material demands.

I’d love to hear from others working with letters and diaries. How have you coped with an embarrassment of riches that resists structure? How do you organize your material and tame it? What is your relationship to chronology and the material traces of lives lived?

Share your thoughts and experiences. Perhaps we can learn from one another.

[Photo: MarcelGermain]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

Share