Disparates: Essays

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Creating Wider, Deeper, Better Realities: The Millions Interviews Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden begins the acknowledgements to Disparates, his new book of essays, with a quote from the Spanish mystic St. Teresa de Ávila: “The true proficiency of the soul consists not so much in deep thinking or eloquent speaking or beautiful writing as in much and warm loving.” It’s a pleasant thought on its own, but it is especially welcome—and gently radical—as the preface to a book of thinking and writing.

The quote is also apt because Madden’s essays are self-aware, self-critical, inquisitive, encyclopedic, and ultimately what the essayist Brian Doyle called “songs of the small that is not small at all.” The essay as a work of thought, yes, but also as a certain balm for weary times.

Madden’s previous books of essays include Sublime Physick and Quotidiana. He co-edited After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays, and co-translated Eduardo Milán’s Selected Poems. His essays have appeared in Iowa Review, Portland Magazine, and TriQuarterly, and in the Best Creative Nonfiction and Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. He co-edits the journal Fourth Genre and teaches creative nonfiction at Brigham Young University.

We spoke about his affinity for the essay form, his background in physics, and how Eduardo Galeano says our experiences are “transfigured in the process of creation.”

The Millions: In the introductory essay to Disparates, you write that essays have “always been concerned with disparates: (seeming) trivialities, absurdities, inanities, flippancies.” You affirm that this book is an “attempt to reassert the value of the disparate, which controverts reason, which shakes our certainties, which lightens our burdens, which alleviates our sorrows and brings us to laughter (of insight or humor).” In a nod to the realities of the publishing world, you acknowledge that disparate essay collections have a stubborn staying power. When I think of genres that, unfortunately, need to continually reaffirm their relevance, I do think of the novella, the short story collection, and the essay collection. Why, in particular, do you think these genres are met with skepticism—and by whom?  

Patrick Madden: This feels a bit like a chicken-egg problem in how marketers want to gauge what sells and focus on that, but what sells is always a function of what is available (and most visible), which is, of course, a function of what the marketers expend their efforts (and money) on. So much in life pretends to reflect people’s “unbiased” and organic preferences, their likes and desires, without recognizing (whether because of ignorance or conniving) that our desires are always a reflection of and response to our culture, which is always relative and can be manipulated (the Payola radio scandal is one instance; the obscene money still spent on advertising is ongoing evidence). I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s example of Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister, who was never given a chance to learn or write or express her creative self because her culture believed that women were inferior to men and therefore could not succeed at “men’s work,” and thus created or perpetuated the conditions to ensure her (and other women’s) failure. I believe that a similar (certainly less damaging and far-ranging) cycle of expectation/acceptance/confirmation perpetuates the scarcity of these literary forms. As far as the essay goes, though, I’ve been quite encouraged by trends over the past two decades, at least generally. When I was in graduate school, nobody I met believed that publishers would publish an essay collection (especially by an unknown writer like myself), and many such books had to hide their essayness. But nowadays, you see the word “Essays” on all sorts of books, even on front covers, from David Sedaris to hip coastal writers to lots of folks you’ve never heard of before. I think this is great. “Essay” is no longer a kiss of death for a book. The term speaks to a growing contingent of savvy, with-it readers, who’re drawn to the genre, instead of repelled by it. I’m really grateful to be among the beneficiaries of this resurgence in essay-interest.

TM: “Life doesn’t always happen in the best order or with the best details for a story. Fiction writers can simply rearrange and embellish to craft the story they want. For a truth-teller essayist, this is not an option, unless the essayist indicates clearly the manipulations and perhaps offers them to the contemplative reader as fodder for a rumination on the nature of truth or reality or the essay genre.” This is a prefatory note at the start of your essay “Order,” and prompts me to ask two questions: How did you, a physics major at Notre Dame, first become an essayist? And as an essayist, what interests you more: truth (however subjective), or the artifice of literary truth? 

PM: I have to laugh, considering my “essayist origin story.” You’re right that I studied physics, all the way to my B.S. I loved the way physics could explain the workings of the natural world with precision. Within the scientific paradigm, things felt knowable and, by extension, controllable. Unfortunately, real physicists no longer work testing Newton’s mechanical laws, which are already well established. So they tend to specialize in very narrow areas, and some of them spend entire careers colliding subatomic particles deep beneath the earth and then analyzing computer readouts of what other subatomic particles flashed into existence for a nanosecond before disappearing. This did not seem appealing to me. I wanted very much to open outward, instead of collapse inward, and to pursue as an amateur all kinds of interesting ideas. I had the good fortune of leaving on a two-year Latter-day Saint mission to Uruguay soon after graduation, during which time I effectively stripped away most of the buzzing distractions in my life (and this was the mid-90s, long before our hyperdistracted present), so I had plenty of time to ponder anything and everything (it seemed). I came to the conclusion that what I loved more than anything, and what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, was to think. Period. Just to think, without any particular object or discipline (I meant this as in “branch of knowledge,” but I like it, too, as “controlled behavior”). When I returned from Uruguay, I cast about a bit, doing temp jobs, long-distance courting Karina (who would agree to marry me soon enough; hooray!), and my mother bought me The Best American Essays 1996, where I found Ian Frazier’s “Take the F,” and I thought “That’s what I want to do: write essays.” I got very lucky to study at BYU for a master’s degree, and then Ohio University for a PhD, and then got hired back at BYU, where I’ve been teaching and writing for 16 years now.

Maybe I should end my story here, but I think it matters, and gets me to your second question, to say that while my worldview prior to taking up the essay was rather binary (and my novice understanding of physics supported this view: that if you but knew the formula, you could predict the results with absolute accuracy), my studies in the essay completely upended all of my unearned certainties. From Montaigne on, essayists have sought and often successfully revealed an expansive, probing, meandering humility in the face of the vast unknowability of the universe. The essay paradigm is filled with both doubt and wonder, seeking not a dominion over but harmony with the world, a recognition of each individual’s insignificance and the mind’s inability to do more than make limited and subjective tests of truth. I’m not sure if this is pointing to (subjective) “truth” or “the artifice of literary truth,” but maybe here those concepts overlap. I’m certainly interested in the ways literature aims at truth, recognizing no unequivocal or oppressively universal truths but instead suggesting that truth is always contextual, limited, a function of interpretation. It is worth noting, too, that even physics, in more recent times, has recognized some fundamental uncertainties (the best known of which, according to Werner Heisenberg, almost a century ago, states that a particle’s location and velocity cannot be known simultaneously, not even with “perfect” instruments for measurement), so I’ve learned that “real physics” does not even conform to my abandoned worldview.

TM: We are both from Whippany, N.J: we went to the same high school, our families went to the same church. How would you describe that place to those who have never been there? How has it found its way into your writing?

PM: Right! I mention this fact (of our shared hometown) in the essay on “Happiness” in the book. I really love Whippany and am happy to have grown up there. My father still lives in the home I grew up in on Clemens Terrace (my mother passed away four years ago; my siblings, like me, have moved to other states). But I find it really difficult to describe the place. Superficially, it’s a Revolutionary War-era town along a river, with streets cradled by trees and lots of tract houses surrounding the few remaining 18th-century mansions. Lots of winding streets and hills and trees and no real “downtown” to speak of. Intersected by a few highways, but home to abundant wildlife (deer, of course, squirrels, turkeys, bears sometimes). During the mid-20th century it was a working-class town with a few industries that expanded the population. By the time my family arrived in 1979 (I was eight), it was a pleasant suburban town, home to lots of commuters. In some ways, Whippany seems indistinguishable from surrounding towns (once I was driving somewhere with my visiting college roommate, who grew up on a chicken farm in Ohio, and he asked “Where does your town end?” and I had to laugh and tell him “We’re four towns away from my town!”). I grew up with a backyard that led to a large tract of woods near the Whippany River, where my friends and I would build forts and bike trails and explore abandoned cars and catch tadpoles and sled down hills and shuffle across a dam to the abandoned Whippany Paper Board factory and climb on rotted-out roofs and explore underground passages and get chased by police and…There’s really so much I can say about Whippany, the place that nurtured me, imbued me with a spirit of adventure and affirmed my best qualities, really formed me in so many ways. But I haven’t written much directly about Whippany. Certainly it finds its way into my writing as a setting for my childhood experiences, but I rarely name it, and, as I say, I haven’t set out to explore it in writing as systematically as I might. Still, I think I’m so deeply shaped by Whippany that its spirit infiltrates my way of being: curious, adventurous, quirky, subversive, a bit pranky, pseudo-intellectual. All that. Oh! And since everybody who grew up in Whippany in the 1980s is a Rush fan, so am I. Big time. And Rush pervades my writing.

TM: There’s a funny scene in “Memory” of you and your childhood friend John eating slices of smoked sausage samples at FoodTown, a local supermarket. At some point, the woman distributing the samples says “You boys are eating up all of my profits.” In the essay, you reflect on how it “seems strange to me that I should remember such an inanity, even more so because I didn’t really understand what she meant. But the phrase stuck, stayed intact, verbatim, somewhere in my mind amidst the millions of other things people have said to me, sometimes people who mean a great deal to me, whom I love, yet whose sayings have gone utterly lost from my brain.” Is this, in some measure, why you write essays? Is this a sense that you get from other essayists—this reckoning with the oddities and confounding grace of existence?

PM: I’m glad you put that into words with your questions, Nick. Yes, I write essays to reckon with oddities and confounding grace, which it seems to me are ever present, if only we’re attentive to them. Or, to think of it another way: the externalities of life come at us not quite arbitrarily, but unpredictably, and they land and generate effects both short- and long-term (which suggests a dichotomy of time, which is not accurate), and we cannot know, nor can we control, how they’ll resonate or return to us, but we may have some control over what (or how) they mean. I think we’re surrounded by ready-made categories of meaning, which can be a good thing, such as when someone tells you that one of their family members has died, you know the default response is to express sympathy, even if you don’t know their family member well or at all. Certain communal or universal experiences, too, come attached to a common and easily available set of meanings, such that right now, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we all seem to understand the general anxieties and hardships and experiences of our fellows, and we are equipped to interact with each other from some baseline assumptions about how others are feeling (granted, some of us, unaccountably, choose to respond with callousness and disdain). But essayists have long seemed to recognize that experience does not come attached to meaning, or not to preset meanings at least, and if we can be even a little bit conscious in our engagements with life (usually after the fact, in moments of reflection, often when writing and reading), then we can shape and share our responses in beneficial ways, ways that recognize grace and oddity and see their connections, to each other and to everything. This is one of the many wonders of essays, I think: how they nudge our perceptions and create for us new (wider, deeper, perhaps even “better”) realities.

TM: In “Solstice,” you include some lines from your first conversation with Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, in which he says that our writing itself—in addition to the real thing we writing about—is also real: “The original act, which comes directly or indirectly from reality, is transfigured in the process of creation.” I’m especially drawn to transfigured here. First, a practical question: what is your “process of creation” for essays like the ones in this new collection? Then, considering the connotations of transfigured, do essays have any semblance of spiritual work or action for you?

PM: I’ve just revisited my transcription of that interview, which was conducted in Spanish, to check on Galeano’s original wording, and sure enough, he said, “Ese hecho que viene directa- o indirectamente de la realidad se transfigura en el proceso de creación.” He reiterates in the next sentence, that “Es inevitable que se transfigure,” or “It’s inevitable that it’s transfigured.” So let’s talk confidently about transfiguration, which Galeano, who was raised Catholic in a country steeped in traditional Catholicism, would surely have understood in its mystical, spiritual senses. Regarding process of creation, I suspect that I’m much the same as you and every other writer of nonfiction: I try to remain attentive to what’s going on, not so much to happenings (though they are important) as to ideas that flit through my consciousness as I’m going about my day. I often take brief notes to jog my memory later, or to spark connections to other ideas. The notes accumulate and call up related ideas, though most of the things I note never grow into essays; they remain jotted in notebooks or in a file on my phone. When I can find a free moment (like now, it occurs to me, sitting in the early morning before anybody’s up, with the faint hum of tires on the nearby roads and the fragrant floral smell of blossoming trees, a slowly brightening, sharpening light as an unseen cloud wafts out of the path of the sun’s rays behind me), I write in binges and for long stretches, attuned to the music of language more than any unfolding narrative, and I seek discovery or surprise with the associations my mind makes when it’s allowed to work free from the usual demands and distractions of harried life. In this sense, absolutely, essays feel deeply spiritual, at times more spiritual than any rite or ritual I’ve participated in. In both reading and writing essays, I find that I am opened, enlarged, elevated from the norms of my life. Essays provide a respite from the systems wherein value is determined monetarily and people are viewed (even view themselves) as cogs in an economic machine. If one accepted binary to understand our lives is material/spiritual, and if “materialism” branches to mean both a philosophy that reduces everything to matter and a system that values only possessions, and if materialism tends to engender a toxic individuality, then essays often successfully break out of those systems and point to something more ephemeral, less tangible, more essential and connected and deeply valuable about us. They gently brush the edge of the cloak of what I believe to be our innermost and truest selves. When I am in an essay, caught up in attentiveness, in interconnectedness, in realizing (both “becoming aware” and “making real”) something never before seen or heard or understood, I feel that not only the essay’s “material” but I myself am transfigured. And I believe this transfiguration is available to others, too, when they read. This feels utterly spiritual to me.

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