CNF Conversations: An Interview with Patrick Madden

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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.

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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

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with William Bradley

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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.

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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.

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On Research: Examining One Point in the Holy Trinity of CNF

HolyTrinity

The holy trinity of creative nonfiction, I told my students recently, is SCENE + RESEARCH + REFLECTION.

Most of my students get the first scene piece: since high school, they’ve doubtless heard the mantra “show don’t tell.” Generally speaking, showing is not a problem for them, especially those who come from a fiction background.

The third point of the trinity (we’ll come back to the second momentarily), reflection, is more complex and requires an intellectual leap: writers must not only recount the past, but think on the page and interpret the meaning of what they create as they do so. Thus far, the most eloquent argument I’ve found for the necessity of this process in memoir and other forms of CNF comes from Phillip Lopate in “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” (Fourth Genre 7.1, 2005, pp. 143-156.) I highly recommend it — so much so that I keep foisting this essay into the hands of all my students.

The question is: how do you get from SCENE to meaningful (non-navel-gazing) REFLECTION?

My answer: RESEARCH

By research I mean anything that helps further your understanding of whatever it is that you’re trying to figure out. It can be book or scholarly learning, like exploring the history of Négritude as one of my students has done or by reading Anne Sexton’s archive, as another did (I’ll return to the importance of library research shortly), but it can also be something like going on a train trip to watch how the landscape changes. It can be having a conversation with someone who knows more about a topic than you do (for a example, with a historian or a scientist) or simply standing in front of a painting in a museum. I, for one,  have traveled to places where the people I’m writing about once lived: weird little Siberian villages or forgotten industrial towns in France, for example. This past summer I walked through Lithuanian forests in search of mass graves; I stood and contemplated the house that once belonged to an important “character” in my manuscript.

I think of this kind of work as environmental or perhaps experiential research, but often it is this human gaze and journey and reality (everything on a human scale) that gives CNF energy, gravitas, life, and beauty.

Even if you’re writing about the past, or perhaps especially if you’re doing so, revisiting sites from that past can be incredibly powerful. When I venture to these kinds of places, I spend my time gazing at a building; I collect stones and put them in my pockets to bring home; I pay attention to the insects that buzz around me; I talk to cows; I think about and note change, impermanence; I ask what remains; I watch those around me; I chat with strangers about their lives and homes; I accept every invitation to tea or a meal; I photograph everything I can; I contemplate the sky; I take tons and tons of notes.

To me, all this staring, wandering, and chatting is as valuable as a trip to the library (where I spend a great deal of time too): the trick is to pay attention and record all the details along the way.

But be warned: all this staring and wandering and chatting may only be the first level of research. For example, I have a student who has recently returned from a life-changing trip to Iceland, and he’s now starting to write about it. His first level of research is complete, but  more work lies ahead. The second level and stage of research might mean his going to the library and reading tons about sagas and Icelandic history until this writer has mastered his subject enough to distill and retell with energy and spontaneity. Once this learning starts to belong to him in some way (as family history does) — that is, once he’s achieved a kind of deep learning — then he’ll likely find organic ways of engaging with the necessary literary-historical material and, in turn, of teaching his reader.

When I’m talking about this process of deep learning, I tend to call it “digestion.” You have to let the facts and history work their through you, I say (though I try not to follow the metaphor through to its logical ends, ahem). The research has to become part of you so that you can put it back out onto the page and into the world in a form that won’t fight the story that you’re trying to tell.

This, I believe, is the most difficult aspect of writing good CNF: figuring out how to teach the reader; how to give enough background history, facts, and evidence but without deadening your text.

Once you do the research, you reflect and figure out what the research tells you about the primary journey you’re on: for one of my students, the question is what Anne Sexton’s archives can teach her about a mother’s death. For another, the question is what the slave ships of Nantes have to do with her search for home and belonging.

Research will help you interpret the scenes you write and details you put to paper and it will help you get closer to an answer to whatever question drives you and makes your text vibrate. It will deepen your text and make it larger than your sad little story of loss (I don’t mean to minimize, not at all; we all have these). Most CNF undulates in some way between the big and the small. The writer’s sad little story is the small of the piece: all our mothers will die one day. The reflection and understanding that grows out of research (in whatever form it might take) will constitute the large. It is in going beyond ourselves, beyond our own smallness that we can learn something and then give that lesson over to a reader — what is the big thing that I can learn from my smallness? That’s the great question, gift, challenge, and mystery of CNF.

[Photo: angelofsweetbitter2009]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Joy Castro

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Joy Castro, ed. Family Trouble. University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

Joy Castro http://www.joycastro.com is the author of the memoir The Truth Book (Arcade, 2005) and the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water (St. Martin’s, 2012) and Nearer Home (St. Martin’s, 2013). Her essay collection Island of Bones (U of Nebraska, 2012) is a PEN Finalist and the winner of an International Latino Book Award. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, Brevity, North American Review, and The New York Times Magazine. An associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she teaches literature, creative writing, and Latino studies.

Essays by twenty-five memoirists explore the fraught territory of family history, analyzing the ethical dilemmas of writing about family and offering practical strategies for navigating this tricky but necessary material. A sustained and eminently readable lesson in the craft of memoir, Family Trouble serves as a practical guide for writers who want to narrate their own versions of the truth while still acknowledging family boundaries.

The 25 distinguished, award-winning memoirists who contributed to Family Trouble come from a wide array of cultural backgrounds and family configurations. They include college and university educators, many of whom have published craft texts.

The contributors, with links to their author websites, are listed here: http://www.joycastro.com/FamilyTrouble.htm.

Family Trouble cover

Julija Šukys: Joy, I’m so happy to have the opportunity to discuss your recent edited anthology, Family Trouble. I myself am working on a project that tells the story of my family’s history, and I’m grateful for the chance to have a conversation with you about it here and with the authors whose works you gathered via the pages of your book.

Tell me a bit about yourself. What is your writing background, and how did you come to want to put together this collection about the challenges of writing about family? How did you find the contributors to this book, who are many and varied?

Joy Castro: First of all, thank you so much for your interest in this book. I’m grateful. I hope Family Trouble will help many writers, aspiring writers, and teachers of writing as they think through these tricky issues.

I’ve published two books of memoir, The Truth Book (2005) and Island of Bones (2012), both from University of Nebraska Press, which also brought out Family Trouble. I’m also a writer of literary thrillers: Hell or High Water (2012) and Nearer Home, both set in New Orleans and both from St. Martin’s Press, and they’ve been optioned for film or television. I publish essays, short fiction, and poetry. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I teach fiction and creative nonfiction in the graduate program.

The idea for this particular collection began to grow when I was touring with The Truth Book. After I read, audiences always wanted to know how my family felt about the revelations it contained. That surprised me. I knew how carefully I’d thought through those issues of respect, privacy, and artistic license, but I hadn’t realized that anyone else would be interested.

At the AWP conference in 2008, I coordinated a panel on the topic—mostly due to my own curiosity, and so that I could hear what the other four panelists thought about it.  I thought 20 or 30 people might show up.  But over 400 came.  I knew then that I’d stumbled onto something that was an issue of real urgency for many people, so I decided to try gathering a collection of diverse views on the topic.

A few of the contributors were memoirists I knew personally whose work I admired.  Others were writers whose work alone I knew and admired, and I e-mailed them with an invitation to contribute. A very few, like Paul Lisicky and Susan Olding, were writers whose work I didn’t previously know but who were recommended to me by contributors whose work I’d already accepted, and their essays were really great and fit the collection’s topic well. In one case, I went after a published essay I’d read online, the piece by Alison Bechdel, because it spoke so beautifully (and succinctly) to the topic.

In gathering the pieces, I wanted to include memoirists whose opinions, aesthetics, and strategies diverged significantly, so the collection could examine the issue from a variety of perspectives.  No easy consensus emerges, and I think that’s a healthy, lively, challenging thing for readers to experience.

I also wanted other kinds of diversity:  cultural, sexual, racial, class, family itself.  There are several pieces by memoirists who occupy positions in the adoption triad, for example. These social, experiential factors inflect how we approach the issue of writing about family, so I wanted to try to include a broad range of standpoints.

Writing about family, just about everyone agrees, is problematic because it involves telling the stories of others. There is almost a necessary appropriation that happens in the writing of family stories, since families are, by definition, networks of relationships and of love, resentment, competing memories, and allegiances. “The details might be a part of my story,” writes Ariel Gore, “but it is not my story alone” (65). Similarly, Heather Sellers suggests in the last essay in the collection: “To write about family is to plagiarize life. I believe it can be done with grace. I believe, in my case, it has been the right thing to do. But it’s still stealing” (211). What do you think of Sellers’ use of plagiarism and theft as ways of talking about the theme at hand? Is writing about family always transgressive?

I was happy to get to write the introduction to the collection, which gave me the opportunity to lay out my own point of view on these matters at length. Here, I’ll just say that I respect, have learned from, and enjoy all the different essayists’ perspectives, but my own is that writing memoir is a search for understanding. For me, if I’m immersed in answering urgent questions that move and hurt me, and I include nothing irrelevant to those questions, nothing gratuitous, then the work is not transgressive or exploitative.

I understand, though, that the people about whom I’ve written may take a different view.

And to be frank, I understand that. When I’ve seen myself written about (as in a newspaper, for example), I often cringe a little, feeling as though a partial, and thus distorting, portrait has been drawn. This has come to seem perhaps inevitable, since we humans intersect with each other in such incomplete ways. Yet I still often find those public depictions uncomfortable and inaccurate. So I understand that people who’ve found themselves depicted in memoir might feel quite the same way—and even more strongly, since memoir often reveals painful material.

I wholly support writers’ right to explore such material, but I also empathize with people who don’t like seeing themselves in print.

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Julija Sukys Talks to CKUT Radio About Creative Nonfiction and Canada Writes

Canada Writes

I was honoured to be chosen as a reader for the Canada Writes creative nonfiction competition for 2013. Over the winter months, I sifted through hundreds of submissions that arrived at my door every few days in fat yellow envelopes. Now, at long last, the shortlist and winner have been announced.

Last week, I talked to Anne Malcolm, host of The Monday Morning After at CKUT Radio in Montreal, about creative nonfiction in general and about being a Canada Writes reader in particular. Even though I have a bit of a phobia of hearing to audio of myself, I took the plunge and sat down to take a listen to the interview and decided it wasn’t so bad.

You can listen to the CKUT interview with Anne Malcolm here.

You can read my Q & A (the one I refer to in the radio interview) about being a Canada Writes judge here. 

[Photo: .sarahwynne.]

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

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

The carefully crafted, meditative essays in On the Shoreline of Knowledge sometimes start from unlikely objects or thoughts, a pencil or some fragments of commonplace conversation, but they soon lead the reader to consider fundamental themes in human experience. The unexpected circumnavigation of the ordinary unerringly gets to the heart of the matter. Bringing a diverse range of material into play, from fifteenth-century Japanese Zen Buddhism to how we look at paintings, and from the nature of a briefcase to the ancient nest-sites of gyrfalcons, Chris Arthur reveals the extraordinary dimensions woven invisibly into the ordinary things around us. Compared to Loren Eiseley, George Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Aldo Leopold, V. S. Naipaul, W. G. Sebald, W. B. Yeats, and other literary luminaries, he is a master essayist whose work has quietly been gathering an impressive cargo of critical acclaim. Arthur speaks with an Irish accent, rooting the book in his own unique vision of the world, but he addresses elemental issues of life and death, love and loss, that circle the world and entwine us all.

“Chris Arthur is among the very best essayists in the English language today. He is ever mindful of the genre’s long literary tradition and understands—as did his great predecessors—that the genuine essay is grounded in the imagination, in our quest for art and beauty, as deeply as is poetry or painting. Every young writer who wants to experience the creative possibilities of the essay form must read Chris Arthur—it isn’t an option.”—Robert Atwan, series editor, The Best American Essays.

Chris Arthur lives in Fife, Scotland. He has published several books of essays, including Irish Nocturnes, Irish Willow, Irish Haiku, Irish Elegies, and Words of the Grey Wind. His work has appeared in Best American Essays, American Scholar, Irish Pages, Northwest Review, and Threepenny Review, among others. He is a member of Irish PEN, and his numerous awards include the Akegarasu Haya International Essay Prize, the Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award, and the Gandhi Foundation’s Rodney Aitchtey Memorial Essay Prize. Visit www.chrisarthur.org to find out more about the author and his writing.

Julija Šukys: Your essays often take the meditation of familiar objects as their starting points. For example, you reflect on a seed found in your mother’s coat pocket and use it as way of contemplating her passage and of wondering about sides of her personality that you never saw. In essays that follow that first (I must say, masterful) piece, you take a pencil, a family painting, your father’s briefcase (a varied “silent symphony of objects”) as starting points. Your contemplation of these things then takes you on journeys of remembrance, of speculation, of mourning, and of historical clarification (by this I mean the ways in which you translate the Troubles and your experience of growing up in Ulster through seemingly trivial material objects and inconsequential places). The result is this incredibly rich and dense collection, On the Shoreline of Knowledge. I confess to being a slow reader on the best of days, but it took me forever to finish your book. This is not a because of some fault in your work, but rather a function of its density and richness. Each essay is a kind of polished stone, or perhaps like that drop of dew you write about with so many images and stories contained within it. Congratulations on an extraordinary accomplishment.

This past fall, I’ve been leading a writers’ workshop on the personal essay. We’ve talked a lot about the ways in which the best essays contain the large and the small – or rather the large within the small. Your essays seem to me to be some of the most dramatic illustrations of the principles that I’ve come across. I wonder if you could talk a little about your approach to writing and thinking your way from the small to the big and back again.

Chris Arthur: I’m fascinated by what I suppose you might call the dual nature of things – though that’s something of a misnomer. The duality is more apparent than real and lies in us, and how we observe things, rather than in the things themselves. I guess in some ways it’s a kind of defense-mechanism to stop ourselves being overwhelmed. What I mean by dual nature is the way in which something can be seen in such different perspectives, how we can measure it according to such enormously varied scales. For instance, my first book, Irish Nocturnes (1999) begins with an essay entitled “Linen.” Its point of departure is a small piece of embroidered linen cloth. At first glance it seems entirely ordinary – something easily overlooked or just dismissed as uninteresting. But when you start to examine it, think about it, you’ll find that it’s densely packed with all sorts of interrelated stories – the story of flax and its cultivation; the story of the individual who made it; the story of linen manufacture, in particular the ways this developed in the part of Ireland where the piece of linen is from; the story of the metaphors and symbols that can be derived from linen; the story of this fabric’s use from ancient times until the present. Teasing out some of the storylines embedded in this one small piece of cloth you soon find far wider vistas opening up than are immediately apparent when you first look at it.

I was pleased that a reviewer specifically flagged up the way “Linen” moves from the small-scale to the large-scale. Writing in The Literary Review (Vol. 44 no. 3 [2001], pp. 602-03) Thomas E. Kennedy said this:

I started the first essay, “Linen,” with a fear that I would be subjected to one of those wearying parsings of technique too often serving as essays (how neon is made; how the horned beetle mates), in which one learns industrial or biological detail one is never likely to have use for and which, in the words of Dylan Thomas, “tell us everything about the wasp but why.” But no, Arthur moves from the tradition of linen to the strands of history and the sorrows of those who have come before us—a movement back in time that he conjures on the flying carpet of a single piece of antique linen … In a mere fourteen pages we have surveyed the history of mankind through a piece of stuff that lies beneath the author’s computer, and we—I—find a new way to meditate existence.

Of course it’s not just bits of linen that offer the essayist flying carpets by which to get to interesting places. All sorts of objects and experiences have this same potential. In fact I’m almost tempted to say that everything has. I love John Muir’s comment that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” From an everyday, commonsense perspective, of course, we turn our back on Muir’s insight and behave as if we can consider things singly and separately. My essays are in the business of reminding us about their hitching to everything else. I try to highlight and follow for a way some of the intricate mesh of connections in which things are embedded.

Your point about essays containing the large within the small is a good one and points to an important theme in many essayists’ work. But moving between the scales is not something I try to do consciously. I don’t have to think my way from the small to the large and back, its more like noticing a rhythm or a dynamic that seems implicit in things – or in the way I see things. It’s almost like the heartbeat of perception. Maybe writing essays is a kind of taking of this pulse.

I’ve learned a lot from what reviewers (and interviewers) have said about my writing. They’ve often made me aware of things I’ve been doing without consciously realizing I’ve been doing them. For instance, when I read Graham Good’s review of my first three collections considered together (this appeared in the Southern Humanities Review Vol. 41 no. 4 (2007), pp. 390-94), I thought “Ah, so that’s what I’m trying to do” when he said:

Arthur’s aim in his essays is to move from immediacy to immensity, from the vivid concrete particulars of an incident, an object, or a sight, to the most universal ideas: the human condition, the infinity of space and time, the complexity and connexity of the world.

John Stewart Collis talks about “the extraordinary nature of the ordinary.” Georgia O’Keefe refers to the “faraway nearby.” I like to start with nearby, ordinary things – what lies close to hand and seems commonplace and familiar – and then see the incredible faraway destinations that are led to as soon as you start to think about what’s involved. I’m just amazed at the complexity and depth that’s wired into the everyday things around us. I suppose my essays try to open a window onto that. But it’s not as if I set out to do this. I don’t sit down at my desk and say “Right, it’s time to move from immediacy to immensity,” it’s more something that just happens because of the way I read the world, because of how things fall on the fabric of my consciousness and how I want to write about them as a result.

But when someone like Graham Good comes along and points out what I’m doing, I’m pleased to have what I’m about identified so clearly. (I have, incidentally, been incredibly fortunate in the reviewers who’ve commented on my work. There’s been a real generosity of spirit evident alongside the many perceptive comments they’ve made.)

Just before leaving the movement between small and large, let me make a couple of book recommendations that I think should be on any essayist’s reading list: Henry Petroski’s The Pencil (1989), and Jan Zalasiewicz’s The Planet in a Pebble (2010). These are both wonderful examples of how, starting with something that’s seemingly completely ordinary, you can reach all kinds of unexpected destinations. Both of these books exemplify what Alexander Smith called “the infinite suggestiveness of common things.”  That’s something I think essayists need to be alert to. I guess in a sense it’s what they try to transcribe. Smith – whose Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country (1863) is well worth reading for what he says about the genre – also suggested that “the world is everywhere whispering essays and one need only be the world’s amanuensis.” Not infrequently I feel like a kind of harassed scribe attempting to note down the whispered symphonies issuing from the things around me.

You write that essays are like bicycles, “in that they allow us to get close to elusive things.” How does this work in practice for you? Do you sneak up on an idea or does it sneak up on you?

To some extent, I see cars and motorways as emblematic of the objective/academic approach of an article; bicycles and meandering country roads as emblematic of the personal/reflective nature of an essay. This is not to say I always prefer the bicycle – if I want to cover a lot of distance quickly I’d opt for a car. Bicycles are good when you’ve got a shorter journey, when you’ve time to look around and consider things. Just as different vehicles are good for different types of journey, so are different modes of writing. The way an essay unfolds itself wouldn’t fit every occasion. I guess the comparison was in part occasioned because of the way in which cycling allows you to follow all kinds of unnoticed paths and unfrequented byways; how you can easily stop to look at and investigate things, or wheel round and retrace your route to enjoy the view again. If there are roadworks and a red traffic light, you can walk, or cycle on the pavement, instead of waiting in a queue. Cycling seems more in tune with the essay’s individuality than the anonymity of a car. Its pace seems more attuned to the genre’s reflective mood. You can hear things and smell things you’re not aware of when you’re enclosed in a car. But I’m not sure how far the bicycle/essay comparison can be pushed. Maybe I’m particularly susceptible to it because I like to start my writing day by cycling.

As for whether I sneak up on ideas or they sneak up on me, it’s probably a case of my being initially ambushed by an idea and then, when I start to write about it, it’s me who’s trying to hunt down related ideas – though of course it’s not as neat or predictable as this might make it sound. I’m frequently ambushed by ideas that have sneaked up on me as I’m writing. And using “ideas” here maybe gives too intellectual a view of things. My essays often start from things rather than from thoughts, albeit things that are laden with ideas. If you asked me for the ideas that lie at the root of my writing, I’d be hard put to answer (a reviewer like Graham Good would be a better person to ask). But if you asked about the things that spark my writing, that would be easy. Among the objects that have led to essays are: pencils, old photographs, pieces of linen, briefcases, a pelvis bone, the ferrule at the end of a walking stick, some fragments of willow pattern china – all sorts of things.

Adam Gopnik, who guest edited the 2008 edition of that wonderful annual series, The Best American Essays, identifies three types of essay: review essays, memoir essays and what he calls “odd object” essays. This third type, which he claims is “the oldest of all essay forms,” is the kind that “takes a small, specific object, a bit of material minutia….and finds in it a path not just to a large point but also to an entirely different subject.” Many of my essays are indeed concerned with finding paths to unexpected destinations in “material minutia” – we’re back to the large-in-the-small. But, for me, it’s not so much the “odd-object” that needs to be emphasized, more the ordinary object that, once examined, once made the focus for a piece of writing – once essayed – comes to seem odd. Estranging the familiar, helping us see the extraordinary in the everyday, is more what I’m about than offering some kind of peep show into what’s just plain weird.

When you think in terms of things rather than ideas, it’s certainly more a case of objects creeping up on me than my doing so on them – or, since this might seem to bestow an improbable intentionality on what’s inanimate, maybe it would be better to say that it’s more a case of my stumbling across things that have something about them that sparks the desire to write. I don’t go out to look for them in any kind of deliberate, systematic way – they’re all accidental discoveries.

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

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