October 5, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Natalie Johansen
I know I am not alone in noticing recent trends toward divisiveness as we move further from the ideals of civil discourse. It’s disheartening how often conversations with my family and friends, no matter how innocently begun, end in tension. When I picked up Patrick Madden’s recent essay collection, Disparates, however, I found an immense reprieve from rigidity. Madden’s essays offer relief—they offer laughter, provoke pondering, and delight in playfulness. In his collection, Madden posits questions and complications but doesn’t feel obligated to provide all the answers. He holds with Montaigne’s philosophy: “I do not understand; I pause; I examine.” These essays tend toward reflection and sly away from polarization, which is, in part, what makes the collection so refreshing.
Madden’s collection begins with a preface that offers two dictionary entries for “disparate.” In one sense, “disparate” refers to things that are incongruous or miscellaneous—pieces that don’t neatly fit together. Madden applies this definition to essay collections generally, writing that collections are usually disparate pieces held together by theme or style; by titling his own word Disparates, however, Madden tells the reader not to expect a common thread running throughout his collection: “…what follows herein is unavoidably disparate, whether by design or failure or authorial inability to meet the market’s demands.” Even though I read the collection in order (it’s the predictable rule follower in me), I imagine that the essays within could be read in any order without losing anything essential. In that sense, it’s kind of like a musical album; of course, I imagine artists spend time agonizing over the sequence of songs on a record, but how often does the reader obey that order? The title of Madden’s table of contents (correction: one of his tables of contents) supports this idea: “CONTENTS (MAY HAVE SHIFTED).”
The range of ideas explored in this collection support that sense of disparity. Madden cartwheels from meditating on inertia to mixing proverbs to creating a period-accurate Montaigne costume (the last one might be useful for students who ever wonder what professors do in their free time). As is true of his first two essay collections, readers are as likely to encounter quotations from classical essayists as they are to encounter lyrics from classic rock.
Despite the fact that his love of the classical essay is ever apparent, several works in the collection borrow forms that would be foreign to Madden’s literary forebearers. The first essay in the collection, “Writer Michael Martone’s Leftover Water” is an eBay listing for a partially consumed Dasani water bottle from a Michael Martone reading. Madden describes Martone’s habit of finishing leftover water from the readings that he hosts, so the lucky buyer would have the opportunity to imbibe the literary backwash from a herd of talented authors. Elsewhere in the collection, he creates an essay by feeding his first two collections into computer software that generates a predictive keyboard based on his previous work. One of my favorite form essays in the collection is “Repast,” a word search essay that doubles as a touching tribute to his mother. These form essays create playful tone that runs throughout the collection.
On that note, I return to the definitions of “disparate” Madden offers to preface his collection. For the second sense of the word, he draws on the Spanish language: “1. noun Absurdity, inanity, frivolity; nonsense, claptrap, rubbish; balderdash, malarkey, drivel.” What follows this definition is a meditation on the idea of disparate as folly; he points out that although this sense of the word is often derogative, his purpose is to reclaim the beauty of nonsense and frivolity as Madden “reassert[s] 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…”
In this collection, some essays take on the task of frivolity in obvious ways, while others carry more emotional weight; all are allergic to conflict and polarity. Disparates delights in the world and celebrates the essay. It was a joy to read.
Natalie Johansen teaches writing at Southern Utah University. Her work has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Eunoia Review, Segullah, and more.
November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
An illustrated NonfictioNow round-up from Rebecca Fish Ewan:
“Stories are food!” Brian Doyle shouted right before we all broke for lunch. Stories are food. He said this throughout his keynote address with the urgency of a preacher in a revivalist tent. In fact, his message was not unlike a religious one.
“Nonfiction is everywhere!”
“Every part of your life is an essay!”
Can I get an Amen?
As he spoke, I thought back to the last NonfictioNow conference I attended and why. I had just gobbled up Reality Hunger by David Shields and had developed a huge crush on his brain, so I submitted to be a panelist at the conference just to hear him deliver the keynote. Not very spiritual of me. That was Melbourne, 2012.
Now the leaves shimmer golden in the brilliant light of Flagstaff, Arizona, and I can sense change in the air, specifically with regard to form. As I move from session to session, my own panel included, a clear thread begins to emerge, though it goes by varying names—visual memoir, blended genres, side-stepped boundaries, hybrid essays. Stories are food and while truth is still on the menu, the variety of dishes now expands beyond traditional bounds of language.
Amen to that.
Never one to feel at the center of anything, I love witnessing the erosion of borders—between poetry and prose, between word and image, sound and story itself. Story-telling is embracing a synesthetic sense of the world, something Shields hinted at three years ago, but that now feels deep in the DNA of nonfiction. Panels include: Music and Writing, Making (Radio) Waves, Performing the Essay, Of Visual Essayistics, Mix It Up, Adventures in Poetic Biography, CNF and the Hybrid Form, the Poessaytics of Form, and my own Mixed Media Memoir. “One art form can explain another,” said Harrison Candelaria Fletcher while using Cornell’s shadow boxes to illustrate his thoughts and experience with the hybrid essay. “Writing is a script that can only be heard in the ear,” Will Jennings said as he discussed his interests in the link between music and memory. “Food is a mode of storytelling,” said Samantha van Zweden of using the lyric essay to write on memory, food and mental illness.
Brenda Miller offered calming options in talking about her experiments with poetic forms applied to the essay. “I have always believed that rules and constraint can be liberating,” she explained as she presented her prose villanelle about two cats and pantoum on ectopic pregnancy and her college roommate Francisco. Another structured approach to genre bending comes through pairing. “The most interesting thing is the technique of juxtaposition,” said Michael Martone in the session on creative facting with Dave Madden, Tim Denevi and Maggie Nelson. Martone later illustrated the richness of juxtaposition in the keynote on keys he performed in duet fashion with Ander Monson. Juxtaposition is one way that a writer can apply what Madden called the “nonfictive imagination.” Nelson talked of “modes of assembly” as a way to reach into this species of imagination to find the story.
But what about truth? Is all this fuzziness a kind of magician’s slight of hand to enable the writer to lie? These questions circle back to Doyle’s story sermon where he implored us to use our gifts to “catch and share” the stories that are out in the world. “Witness is the greatest single thing you can do with your work,” he said. A witness is not a fabricator, but any witness perceives with his or her particular lens and recounts the story with his or her unique voice. I return as well to Kafka’s 63rd reflection on sin, suffering, hope, and the true way, where he reminds us that “our art is a way of being dazzled by truth.”
I was curious how the event affected a newcomer to the conference. My co-panelists, Amy Silverman and Deborah Sussman, both seasoned nonfictionalists, had never attended a NonfictioNow conference. “I was struck by how much experimenting is going on,” said Silverman, “I love seeing that visual art and poetry are making more appearances, even though my own work blends memoir with journalism. It was a nice time to get out of the writing cave and hear what others are working on.”
The collective wisdom and experience shared over these past three days has been astounding. The organizers, an army led by Robin Hemley, David Carlin and Nicole Walker, amassed a humbling assembly of authors. After reading through the speaker bios, I felt both honored and intimidated to be among such a group of writers. Nicole Walker senses the gladness of this entourage of talent that permeates the air in Flagstaff. “I thought I was doing this to bring people together for collaboration and conversation,” said Walker, “I didn’t know how much joy people would get from the conference and that makes me very happy.”
Amen to that.
Rebecca Fish Ewan teaches landscape architecture at Arizona State University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. Author of A Land Between, her work has also appeared in Brevity, LA magazine, and Hip Mama. She just finished her hybrid memoir (free verse + cartoon) on a childhood friendship cut short by murder and is launching a mixed form zine, GRAPH(feeties): true stories of walking. More on her work and submission info at: www.rebeccafishewan.com
March 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
The next iteration of the popular NonfictioNow Conference will be hosted by Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ, from October 28-31st, 2015. The conference began in Iowa City in 2005, repeated twice in Iowa, and moved to Australia for 2012. This year’s conference – the fifth in an irregular series – is discussed by conference organizer Nicole Walker, in an interview conducted by Erica Trabold:
Erica Trabold: NonfictioNow is a relatively new conference for nonfiction writers. What do attendees typically find most appealing about the conference?
Nicole Walker: Although this conference is centered around nonfiction, nonfiction itself is a somewhat hybrid, inclusive, bending genre. Fiction writers, poets, essayists, and journalists gather to really consider what is nonfiction and how nonfiction is shaping and defining itself as its own genre and in a conversation with other genres. So in some ways, its exclusive title is just a tricky way to be incredibly inclusive. This conference, too, is working on establishing an international understanding of the genre— writers will be attending from Hong Kong and Singapore, among other places.
ET: In the call for proposals, you expressed interest in work that focuses on genre boundaries, tensions between art/facts/truth, and “forms beyond the strictly literary.” What can you tell us about the proposals you’ve read so far and, perhaps, selected?
NW: We haven’t selected proposals yet. We’re still compiling them. We’re received over a hundred panel proposals for about 50 spots, so the competition will be stiff this year. Still, glancing quickly at the spreadsheet that my MFA student and conference-organizing-assistant Stacy Murison has put together, I see excellent titles like “The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating The Animal World,” “The View from the ‘Slush Pile’,” “Author Versus Narrator,” “Rewriting Those We Love,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Perspective, Agency, and the Tools for Getting Both on the Page.”
ET: What might attendees recognize about this year’s conference, and what will be brand new?
NW: As in the past, we’ll have keynote speakers who are as diverse in content as they are in form. Roxane Gay, Ander Monson, Maggie Nelson, Tim Flannery, Brian Doyle and Michael Martone will bring their unique vision of what nonfiction is to the conference. We will have panels during the day and readings around town at night, integrating the town of Flagstaff with the conference, as happened in Melbourne and Iowa City.
For the first time, we are hosting a book fair. We’ve limited the book fair to 20 tables so attendees aren’t overwhelmed by the vast number of lit mags and presses out there. Those exhibitors will be able to promote their books, magazines, and commitment to publishing contemporary nonfiction.
We’ll also host a game show night— which happened before but will be a little more formal this year— with Patrick Madden and Elena Passarello. On opening night, Alison Deming and Joni Tevis will kick off the conference with a reading sponsored, we hope, by the Arizona Arts Commission. It’s going to be nonstop nonfiction, but, even more inclusively, we’ll have discussions about how fiction and poetry are informed by nonfiction.
ET: What part of this year’s conference has you the most excited?
NW: I’m incredibly excited how many speakers we have coming to the conference. Six! Plus two more on Wednesday. And readings hosted by Milkweed, Diagram and Hotel Amerika in spots around town. And the influx of editors from magazines and presses will add a new dimension to the conference. We’re hosting the conference in the High Country Conference Center, which is attached to the Drury Hotel, where a number of our guests will be staying. It will be great to have a centralized space for everyone to convene and hang out and attend the panels and the keynote speaker sessions. The conference center is only a couple blocks from downtown so it will be easy to connect Flagstaff businesses and restaurants with the conference, making it a destination conference as well as a professional one. And true to form, I care most about the food, so I’m excited to bring a number of local restaurants on board to help sponsor the conference by advertising their restaurants and offering deals to visitors. I want people to know how excellent Flagstaff’s restaurants are. (Hmm. That was a lot of “ands.” It was too hard to pick just one.)
Brevity blog readers can visit nonfictionow.org to register for the conference and learn more about confirmed panelists and speakers as information becomes available.
Erica Trabold’s (@ericatrabold) essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Weave, Seneca Review, Penumbra, and others. She writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction.
Nicole Walker is the author of the nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt which won the Zone 3 creative nonfiction prize, released in June 2013 and a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, published by Bloomsbury Press in 2013.
March 5, 2015 § 1 Comment
Assay, Karen Babine’s brilliant brainchild, a place to “test and analyze the nonfiction texts we read, to attempt our determinations of their ingredients and quality,” has birthed a second issue, and there is more good material than we can handle in one blog post. Meaning, you should go visit.
In addition to some of the highlights listed below, there’s a fascinating conversation between Paul Gruchow and Brian Turner on what happens when the Modernist essay goes Cubist, a mediation on aliased essayists from the uber-insightful Patrick Madden, and an interview with the sassy and brilliant essayist Michael Martone. Plus pedagogical discussions, a data bank of syllabi, and more resources than you can shake a stick at.
If you had a stick, that is.
Here are links to some of the main articles, but the whole site is chock-full of valuable resources:
What Lies Beside Gold
Ego, Trip: On Self-Construction–and Destruction–in Creative Nonfiction
Catherine K. Buni
December 5, 2013 § 1 Comment
If you haven’t yet discovered the Advent calendar of essays over at Essay Daily, let us be the first to show you the way. Smart thinkers who write well explore various facet of the form, each and every day of Advent.
Our favorites so far:
Pam Houston extolling the virtues of Rick Reilly’s Sports Illustrated profile of O.J. Simpson, suspected murderer and golf addict.
Michael Martone’s experimental look at the fictive essay, Billy Pilgrim, and Vonnegut.
And Ander Monson’s Short Lessons in Hybridity.
Well that’s three out of four, and the fourth, from Phillip Lopate himself, is pretty nifty as well. Bookmark the site — they’ll be adding new gifts every day for a few more weeks.
April 3, 2013 § 1 Comment
Author Blake Butler recently spread One Hundred Literary Rumors over on the Vice blog. Apparently, a few of our nonfiction brethren are a little wackier than we knew them to be. Or at least according to Butler:
— Though he can see fine, Michael Martone prefers to read braille.
— Steve Almond’s childhood nickname was “Winkles.”
— Cheryl Strayed suffered a three-week phase where she could eat nothing but chopped walnuts.
— Lorrie Moore won’t play Monopoly unless she can be both the banker and the iron.
Butler offers up lots of other juicy tidbits about our literary heroes and heroines, but there are many that he has missed. What (friendly, fictional) rumors do you think are missing about our prominent nonfiction brethren? Drop them below in the comments, if they aren’t too slanderous.
May 4, 2011 § 5 Comments
One week ago, a massive tornado tore through Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of a vibrant writing community associated with the U of A’s esteemed MFA program. Brevity has been gifted with stellar essays from Tuscaloosa students and alums over the years, and our next issue will feature essays from Michael Martone and Wendy Rawlings.
Martone’s essay was written just days after the deadly tornado touched down, killing at least 40 individuals and leaving many, town and gown alike, homeless; Rawlings’ poignant look at her Tuscaloosa neighborhood was written before the storm, and sat in our submissions queue on the evening the tornado turned the city’s neighborhoods inside out.
We’ve decided to extend the reach of our Tuscaloosa benefit by releasing these two essays one week early: MARTONE ESSAY and RAWLINGS ESSAY. Please spread the word via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, or whatever method you choose. These beautiful essays deserve as wide a readership as possible, and we hope that after reading them, you will make a donation to Give Tuscaloosa tornado relief or to the West Alabama Food Bank.
October 22, 2010 § 1 Comment
We love The Normal School, and we are occasionally fond of master essayist Patrick Madden (except he is too damn tall, and that ticks us off some times), and we think Michael Martone is clever as all get out (though we are very jealous of that gorgeous head of hair), and thus, we are just absolutely giddy (but envious) about this:
Michael Martone’s Backwash: http://www.thenormalschool.com/PDFs/madden_normal_school_fall10.pdf
August 26, 2008 § 5 Comments
From Dinty W. Moore, BREVITY EDITOR:
I am a staunch fan of Michael Martone — love his writing, love the way that he pushes the envelope for all of us. At the same time, I still think that genre — is this fiction or nonfiction — does matter, and I sink dejectedly into my seat every time Martone (pictured on the right, at a recent AWP Conference) suggests it does not. So he makes me uncomfortable, which, since we are in the business of making art, is actually a decidedly good thing.
So to keep the discomfort going, here’s an excerpt from a fascinating interview with Martone, wherein he makes some strong points suggesting that genre-conservatives like myself are all wrong-headed about this insistence on the ‘truth’ distinction:
“I want to think of what I do as writing and let the speciation to others. Many artists draw, use watercolor, paint in oils, sculpt, construct, assemble, paste. They mix their media but it is all seen as art, and issues of its fact or fiction seem beside the point to me. Well at least beside the point when the thing is in the making. I am in the fabrication business and there are different gradients on that scale of fiction and non-, I suppose, but none I worry about as I am doing them. I have a fiction in the voice of Dan Quayle who is writing an essay; a book about Michael Martone written by Michael Martone in the voice and form of his, Michael Martone’s, biographer; I have an essay in the voice of Michael Martone on the fictional creation of a character named Bobby Knight. To me the differences are in the details at a microscopic scale, not at the much larger one of genre.”
Read the rest of the interesting interview over at THE QUARTERLY CONVERSATION.