Explaining Ourselves to Ourselves




PATRICK MADDEN, a certain descendent of classical essayists Michel de Montaigne, Alexander Smith, and Charles Lamb, finds worthy subjects in all kinds of places. His debut collection, Quotidiana, contained essays on laughter, garlic, and singing, for example; and his new book, Sublime Physick: Essays, picks up where he left off, with meditations on topics as different from each other as empathy and spitting. He begins the new book with epigraphs from Léon Bloy, Alexander Smith, and Montaigne, of course, who wrote: “I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.”

Madden and I discussed how he came to the essay genre, and how he thinks of himself as a writer in conversation with the considerations of others.

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MICAH MCCRARY: You tell us in Sublime Physick that physics was your “first love.” But how did you move from a love of physics to loving the essay?

PATRICK MADDEN: I loved physics (I still do, or I still love its implications and its stories) because it made sense of the world in a way that matched my way of seeing. Like most teenagers, I was dualistic, and much of the physics we learned in high school (Newtonian, mechanical) was formulaic, granting understanding and correct, provable answers. This was comforting. But as I got older I found that, first, physics in the 20th century was not at all dualistic; it was probabilistic, meaning that some things were fundamentally unknowable and the observer always affected the observed. Second, the modern-day physicist’s real work was often boring — crunching numbers or sifting through computer readouts to find ephemeral, invisible particles that flashed into existence in the nanoseconds following a collision deep inside an accelerator. And third, I began to understand nuance and complexity in ways I hadn’t before.

So I decided not to pursue physics, but to pursue essay writing, because, I reasoned or hoped, this would allow me to think deeply but also widely. I could be an amateur, chasing my curiosities as far and as long as each subject held my interest. And I could embrace unknowability. I could pose interesting questions and answer honestly that I simply didn’t know. 

And what ignited your interest in the essay? Was there a class you took or a writer you read who inspired your decision to write?

When I think back, I can locate a particular essay that sparked my interest, though I didn’t quite realize it at the time: during my sophomore year of high school, my English class read The Essay Connection, an anthology edited by Lynn Z. Bloom. I’ve forgotten most of it, but John Leonard’s “The Only Child,” really struck me, with its vivid character description and surprise turn at the end. As far as I know, this is not a canonical essay, and its author is not generally known as a personal essayist (though he was and is still regarded as an incisive cultural critic). Several years later, having graduated with my physics degree and served a Mormon mission to Uruguay, I was casting about directionless when my mother bought me The Best American Essays 1996, and Ian Frazier’s “Take the F” bowled me over. This coincided with my realization that I wanted to be free to think unrestrainedly — that I didn’t want a life focused solely on one aspect of knowledge. I reasoned that if I could learn how to write, I might become an essayist, and thereby keep my mind fluidly engaged with a wide variety of things. Thankfully (since most essayists can’t make a living with their writing), as a missionary I had also learned that I loved teaching. So I gambled at becoming a professor, and I’ve been lucky.

You write in your essay “Spit” that “many of us, the artists and writers and musicians, spend so much effort to see things unclearly again.” Do you mean that seeing things unclearly might be crucial to all writing, or only to the essay?

In terms of art — whether sounded or painted or written — a big part of making it is getting beyond the seeming clarity, or admitting that clarity isn’t possible, seeing things in new ways that give hearers, viewers, readers access to a beauty they’ve not experienced before. Often, with writing, this is beauty that’s been right in front of them, but which they’ve not recognized because of the way their minds organize experience.

In this book you refer to Alexander Smith a lot. Why Smith here — over, say, Hazlitt or Lamb or Montaigne?

I have learned a lot from Alexander Smith, and I really appreciate his insights into essay writing. He was a 19th-century Scottish “spasmodic” poet (an epithet given him and other popular poets by William Edmondstoune Aytoun, a poet and Blackwood’s writer) and a really fine essayist. Like so many brilliant writers of his time, he died young, at age 37, from typhus. Besides his poetry, he wrote two books of essays, which I discovered in Project Gutenberg by searching for books with the word “essays” in their titles. Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country is filled with quotidian insights about living in a small town; plus, it contains a masterly essay on the essay, which I use for teaching and return to often for my own edification. Nearly all the quotes I borrow from him in Sublime Physick come from “On the Writing of Essays.” I should add that my wife has a crush on him:

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In any case, I don’t think I’ve neglected the other three. I find over 40 references to Montaigne and about 20 each to Lamb and Hazlitt, and fewer than 10 references to Smith — perhaps he sticks out because you’d expect to find him much less than the others.

An essay on the essay in Dreamthorp? Which essay is it, and how do you use it in your teaching?

While the book is nominally a profile of the town of Dreamthorp (Smith’s invented name for Linlithgow in Scotland), it kind of loses that premise after the first chapter and becomes truly miscellaneous (with essays about capital punishment, the fear of dying, books, libraries, writers William Dunbar and Geoffrey Chaucer, and other subjects). The second essay is “On the Writing of Essays,” a kind of introduction to the rest of the book with embedded instructions for how to read it. It’s a great essay to teach because it’s personal and critical, offering plenty of examples alongside direct advice about the writing process, like:

The essay-writer has no lack of subject-matter. He has the day that is passing over his head; and, if unsatisfied with that, he has the world’s six thousand years to depasture his gay or serious humour upon. I idle away my time here, and I am finding new subjects every hour. Everything I see or hear is an essay in bud. The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one need only be the world’s amanuensis.

(Which I used in Quotidiana.) Or, like this:

A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit, are all that the essayist requires to start business with.

Which gave me the title for my introductory chapter in my first book. Or, like this:

The essayist’s habit of not only giving you his thoughts, but telling you how he came by them, is interesting, because it shows you by what alchemy the ruder world becomes transmuted into the finer.

Which I used as an epigraph for Sublime Physick (alongside Montaigne and Léon Bloy). Smith’s piece is full of elegant expressions of the essay’s art, and I find that he challenges students without overwhelming them.

Which other long-dead essayists do you think might be challenging, without being overwhelming?

Since there are so many wonderful essayists of the past, here I’ll mention only a handful. And I’ll focus on women, mostly writing in the late 19th century, who are largely absent (perhaps completely) from current anthologies: Alice Meynell and Vernon Lee (pen name for Violet Paget) are British. Grace Little Rhys is Irish. And Louise Imogen Guiney, Agnes Repplier, Elisabeth Woodbridge Morris, and Katharine Fullerton Gerould are American. Each of these writers is accessible to contemporary students, though each also requires our attention to analyze her artful sentences, and attention will bring us insight and aesthetic pleasures. 

In what way or ways do you see essays as palliative, as you say in your essay “Fisica Sublime”?

Palliative is a complicated term, in that it suggests something that relieves symptoms without eliminating the root problem, and I do wish (even sometimes believe) that essays could eliminate poverty or xenophobia or depression or anxiety, but mostly I think that they provide a respite from our habitual life, which, for me, is often too hectic and stressful. So palliative is probably right. While I love reading and writing essays, because they give me peace and contentment, when I have to get back to work, I find that the shoemaker’s elves have once again neglected to do my grading for me, and I’ve still got a sick child and myriad obligations and adjurations and divagations and when ever will I find the time to write again?!

Really, though, I live a charmed life, so I shouldn’t complain. My job is to teach interested and interesting people to write essays! And to read and write essays myself! Wow. But for those times when I feel that the world is too much with me, essays can help because they grant me time apart from the hustle and bustle while they grant me access to another mind thinking deep and long about the human condition. This brings me a measure of joy, though usually it’s a tranquil joy, a joy that sits a while (doesn’t bound off, beckoning). I feel, like Lamb, that my mind is painfully introspective, and, like Johnson, that I am addicted to speculation. Thus essays give me a way to speculate, to “lose myself in others’ minds,” and to engage my own mind in introspection.

Don’t we all feel this way? I mean, anybody who’s made it this far into the interview and is still reading must love essays, right?

Your bringing up Project Gutenberg earlier makes me curious to hear about the projects of yours that don’t involve your own writing. What was it that inspired your involvement in projects like Quotidiana.org or the Essay Genome Project? Do they inform your own work as a writer?

Quotidiana.org began as a teaching tool (and remains a teaching tool, for me and for many others). When I was in graduate school at Ohio University, I took a history and theory of the essay class with David Lazar. Because I learned a great deal in that class that influenced my writing, I wanted to teach my students a variety of classical essays, most of which would be new to them, in hopes that they’d receive a similar benefit to their writing. No book contained everything I wanted to teach them, and I wanted to vary my assignments from semester to semester, and to avoid a huge photocopied course pack. Since these essays are in the public domain, I could reproduce them without paying royalties, so I began gathering them to a website. I was especially interested in finding nearly forgotten essayists, and especially women, who, as I’ve mentioned, were underrepresented and undervalued in the current creative nonfiction zeitgeist. With some years of searching and some help from students and friends, the site became a decent resource for essay lovers. And because I’ve read everything on it, and taught many of its essays, the site has infiltrated my consciousness and affected my creative work in many ways.

As for the Essay Genome Project, this is a new pursuit, currently ongoing, which uses computer stylometric analysis to find commonalities among essays and essayists. Basically, computers can find textual patterns that our minds can’t (though, of course, our minds can read for beauty and art in ways a computer can’t), and they can chart stylistic similarities among texts. I want to see what computers can tell us about, for instance, what constitutes an essay (an age-old theoretical question, addressed repeatedly by essayists), or whether “lyric essay” can be differentiated stylistically from other forms of essay, for example. Because this project is still so new, I don’t know if it has influenced my writing yet. But one simple experiment anybody can do (right now, by clicking on the link above) is to upload their own essays and get a comparison graph to find essayists who write similarly.

What are some of the most surprising findings you’ve had with the Essay Genome Project? What have your analyses shown you about genre/subgenre/style, for example?

We’re still in the early stages, and things are more difficult than I’d initially (naïvely) hoped. For instance, I thought that we could just feed the program all of Charles Lamb’s confirmed essays, then plug in the supposedly-maybe-Lamb’s “A Few Words on Christmas,” and the computer would tell us unequivocally whether Lamb wrote it or not. But it’s not that simple. So we’re trying out a lot of different ways of approaching the various questions we’ve been asking. But one interesting possible result is that Elia, Lamb’s essay-persona, seems to be a “real” person, different from Lamb in writing style. We are starting to believe this because we’ve entered in all of the Elia essays and most of the essays Lamb published before or after he created Elia, as well as many of Lamb’s letters, and the graphical representation of these shows his letters on one side of the graph and all his essays on the other. But the two books of Elia essays land in one quadrant of the “essay” half of the graph, while the non-Elia essays show up in the other. Obviously, this is an initial, crude result, but as I said, it seems to suggest that Elia is a different character from Lamb. Other early results seem to suggest that contemporary lyric essays share many stylistic characteristics with early 20th-century journalistic essays, possibly because each subgenre tends to focus outward, utilizing, for instance, the first-person singular pronoun less often than other forms of essay. (I should mention that the primary analysis we’re using has to do mostly with tracking the 100 most common words in a piece, then comparing the frequency of those words with other texts’ most frequent words. We sometimes try other methods, but that’s our primary one.)

Would you mind giving a shout-out to those “favorite living essayists” you mentioned earlier, as a sort of recommended reading list?

Knowing that I will forget important writers and, sometimes, friends, and knowing that there are a large number of wonderful essayists writing today, perhaps an increasing number (a great trend!), I will nevertheless mention a few, focusing on those who are heavy researchers and who create hybrid experiential-meditative essays. I highly recommend Mary Cappello, Chris Arthur, David Lazar, Phillip Lopate, Joni Tevis, Steven Church, Elena Passarello, Amy Leach, Zadie Smith, Valeria Luiselli, Kim Dana Kupperman, William Gass, Scott Russell Sanders, Ander Monson, Matthew Gavin Frank. These are all writers who would make a certain kind of reader ask, “where’s the plot?” But not me. I don’t miss plot. I love mental meandering through complex ideas. Within the next year, the world will also see debut essay collections from Lina Ferreira and Desirae Matherly, two masterly essayists. And I’ll add two recently deceased writers whom I love deeply and have learned so much from: Eduardo Galeano and W. G. Sebald.

You write that, definitionally, in creative nonfiction “we explore our memory, grasping at meaning, to explain ourselves to ourselves.” How might you pair your own assertion with Didion’s, that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”?

I love Joan Didion, and that quote is quite pervasive (I read it on Facebook every few weeks), used almost exclusively as an affirmation of the power of stories. And while I don’t disagree that stories are important, I find it curious that people seem not to read past that line (which opens “The White Album”) to the rest of the paragraph, which undermines the statement. After giving some examples from myth and from the recent news, she writes,

We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

Or at least we do for a while. I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself …

This seems to me like a critique of a certain kind of storytelling, the kind that shelters us from harsh realities and gives us acceptable reasons for happenings we don’t want to face. Didion seems not to praise this kind of writing but to find its faults, even while she admits that she, too, has participated in it. In essence, she says that we mask the evil of the world with stories in order to keep ourselves from despair.

At any rate, my statement is similar, as you point out. I was simply trying to express the way writing (especially personal writing, essay writing) allows us to reflect on our experiences and thoughts and to gain perspective that we normally wouldn’t get, simply because life keeps coming at us so relentlessly. Also, no matter how interesting and valuable an essay might be to a reader, I figure it should always be (and probably is) more interesting and valuable to its writer. Montaigne said, “What I write is not my teaching, but my study; it is not a lesson for others, but for me. And yet … what is useful to me may also by accident be useful to another.” I feel the same way, which is why I think we “explain ourselves to ourselves” first and foremost.

In one of my favorite excerpts of Sublime Physick, in the essay “Miser’s Farthings,” you write, “How much time and effort our species has spent trying to freeze time, revisit and reimagine the past, translate it into other, more durable forms. We tell stories, we draw pictures, we write letters and essays and books. We snap photographs, film videos, record speeches and songs. We want to share our lives with others, including our future selves. We want to leave a trace. We want to matter. Our feelings reach out beyond us.” How often do your essays feel to you like ways of freezing time? Or, conversely, as a way of speaking with your future self?

Pretty much always, at least nowadays, except I’d say that I’m not trying to freeze moments or events so much as ideas, and maybe I’m not freezing them so much as holding them suspended and waiting to be read, so they can leap to life in other minds. And since I do reread my essays sometimes, and my children sometimes read my essays (and I hope they will do so more often as they age), I do think of my writing as containing temporal bits of myself, even if the self in text is constructed and composite, made up across time instead of grasped wholesale in a moment. I think all writers do this (and all photographers and artists and musicians, in different ways), but among writers, essayists do it most explicitly, because they filter less, and their texts exist at a smaller distance from the self.

As noted, you engage pretty heavily in Sublime Physick with other voices, other thinkers’ quotes. How do the voices help you think?

Maybe I can best answer this question with a quote from Charles Lamb (a quote that appears in Sublime Physick, as it happens):

At the hazard of losing some credit … I must confess that I dedicate no inconsiderable portion of my time to other people’s thoughts. I dream away my life in others’ speculations. I love to lose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.

Lamb was responding to a friend who’d “left off reading altogether” in hopes of becoming more original, so he was probably being a bit facetious, but the basic idea holds, for me at least. How have I learned to think? Through others, whether family members or teachers or leaders or, most often nowadays, writers. This doesn’t mean that I surrender my will to others. Often I’ve rebelled against what I’ve heard or read. Still, ideas generate ideas, and conversation (even conversation with books, even with dead authors) engenders new thoughts. Like you, I’ve noted the preponderance of quoted material in classical essays, but I’ve also noted that quotation doesn’t serve to bolster the essayist’s ethos, as it does in student academic writing. Essayists are not saying, “If you don’t believe me, then listen to what Expert X has to say! And she should know!” Essayists, instead, are inviting other voices into the room to discuss interesting ideas. In direct contradiction to the common “egotism” accusation —

The essayist who feeds his thoughts upon the segment of the world which surrounds him cannot avoid being an egotist; but then his egotism is not unpleasing. If he be without taint of boastfulness, of self-sufficiency, of hungry vanity, the world will not press the charge home. (Alexander Smith)

— the quotophile essayist shares space with like- (and unlike-) minded others, in order to challenge received notions and push his/her thinking beyond what it would be as transcribed from the pre-writing mind. As Montaigne said, “I have no more made my book than my book has made me,” but not only because of the writing; it’s also because of the engagement with others, whose ideas help shape our own.

P.S. I suppose it might be expected that in answering this question, I’d involve a number of quotes, and yet this answer wasn’t contrived to be cute. It just happened to come out that way.

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Micah McCrary is a contributor to Bookslut. He co-edits con•text, is a doctoral student in English at Ohio University, and holds an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago.



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