Writing the Quotidian

April 15, 2019 § 20 Comments

Iris Print Image 2By Iris Graville

Quotidian.  I read that word in an essay I critiqued during my first semester in my MFA in writing program. I had to look it up.  Ironically, it’s a fancy word for something that’s not, well, very fancy.  Here’s how the New Oxford American Dictionary defines it:

quotidian |kwōˈtidēən|
adjective [attrib.]

  • of or occurring every day; daily : the car sped noisily off through the quotidian traffic.
  • ordinary or everyday, esp. when mundane : his story is an achingly human one, mired in quotidian details.

While this word hasn’t become a regular part of my vocabulary, its meaning resonates for me.  Apparently it does for some other writers as well.

Patrick Madden wrote in praise of “Quotidian Nonfiction” in Issue #44, Spring 2012 – Creative Nonfiction:

I prefer, in both my writing and in my reading, meditative material that considers the quotidian, that pauses and ponders, moving slowly, calmly—the kind of work that would never incite a controversy, work that balances intellect and emotion, with perhaps a bit of spirit.

Madden, an essayist and writing teacher, claims to lean toward quotidian nonfiction “because my own life so rarely excites even me; I could never win over readers through shock or exoticism.”

I know the feeling.  It crops up often for me as I write personal essays and especially did so as I drafted my memoir, Hiking Naked (okay, that might not sound very quotidian, but the title is mostly a metaphor). My life has been shaped by ordinary experiences of birth, loss, work, parenting, friendship, and spiritual seeking. Experiences described by many of the synonyms that the New Oxford lists for quotidian:  typical, middle-of-the-road, unremarkable, unexceptional, workaday, commonplace, a dime a dozen.  In short, “nothing to write home about.”

And yet, I do write about these everyday experiences.  I’m compelled to craft essays about community, listening, patience, simplicity.  I’m led to tell the stories of “ordinary, everyday” people whose voices often aren’t heard.  Patrick Madden attests to the value of such writing:

This, for me, is the placid beauty of the best creative nonfiction writing: the opportunity to settle one’s buzzing mind for a few brief moments, to meditate on a focused subject, to escape the plangent assaults of the beeping, blinking world and find respite in the thoughts of another human being… I think we have a right to (and a hunger for) art that is quieter, more enlightening and uplifting.

Fortunately, an abundance of nonfiction writers create the kind of quiet and uplifting art that many of us yearn for.  One of them, Ana Maria Spagna, was my thesis advisor at the Whidbey Writers Workshop. She taught me in the classroom how to tell my story through well-crafted scenes, settings, and characters, as well as through her own “quiet” writing (such as her essay collection, Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness).

Another is Scott Russell Sanders, who I studied with one summer at Fishtrap on the Zumwalt Prairie in northeastern Oregon. I had met Sanders at my first residency in my MFA program and have become a devoted reader of his writing. Work that springs, as he explains in Writing from the Center, from accepting “the material that my life had given me, and… learning to say as directly as I could what I had to say.”

 Also on my list of quotidian writers are Kathleen Dean Moore , Brian Doyle, and Brenda Miller. All of them practice what Madden urges:

 …each of us, I dare say, can do with a little more wonder in our lives, can benefit by shunning the artificial and superficial to spend more time contemplating the quotidian miracles that surround us.

What quotidian miracles surround you? Perhaps it’s time to write about them.
___

Iris Graville is the author of three nonfiction books: Hands at Work, BOUNTY, and a memoir, Hiking Naked. She lives on Lopez Island, WA where she publishes SHARK REEF Literary Magazine, writes essays and blogs, and teaches. Sometimes you’ll find her on the interisland ferry, working on a new essay collection about the Salish Sea, climate change, and Washington State Ferries.

The Misprinted Card: Pat Madden’s eBay Essay Redux

July 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

If you enjoyed Patrick Madden’s playful, intriguing “Writer Michael Martone’s Leftover Water” eBay essay in The Normal School, or even if you somehow missed it, be sure to follow (and join in on) the action in Pat’s new eBay adventure, “Rare Misprinted Scott Russell Sanders Postcard,” bound to be its own odd experiment in assaying.  Here’s part of Pat’s perfect postcard pitch:

Justifiably you may want to know how rare the present item is. The seller has attempted to make contact with all the initial recipients of the “Scott Russell Sanders: A Conservationist” postcard to ascertain the current specimen’s rarity. Most of those contacted responded with a “What are you talking about?” Almost no one had any memory of the card. Some offered to rifle through their piles of papers to look for it, but the seller explained that no such efforts would be necessary.

… even if another misprinted postcard remains buried under a mound of papers on a professor’s desk or molding in a landfill, this example has been signed by the Conservationist himself. On the front side, where the word Manifesto should be, Sanders has written “an apologetic autograph for a misprinted card – Scott R. Sanders 10/15/09.” As any American knows, Sanders is a beloved essayist, novelist, and children’s writer whose twenty-something books have touched the hearts and minds of readers for several decades. His legacy is sure to continue long into the future. Thus, you are bidding not only on a mechanical error, you are attempting to own a small bit of literary history.

So what might this Scott Russell Sanders postcard be worth? Let’s find out!

In Search of a Name: The Splor?

March 13, 2009 § 7 Comments

Here in nonfiction we have the short form and the long form, the essay and the memoir. The essay essays—it attempts—and the memoir remembers.

thomas-de-quinceyBut then again, our essays often remember too, and our memories are often essayed into their eventual meaning. Some memoirs are boiled down to only a few pages, and essays often swell to book-length sprawls in the tradition of Montaigne’s “On a Few Verses of Virgil.” Even more complicating, certain online journals claim to be interested only in very short shorts of, say, 750 words or less, turning a blind eye to what such pieces might’ve been in a longer span: essays or memoirs or somethings-else. And then you have books like Scott Russell Sanders’ Hunting for Hope, in which a whole group of essays, any of which could stand alone, combine in a way that magnifies each. Add to that the interviews, reviews, profiles, radio essays, graphic memoirs, hybrids, experimentals, prose poems, grocery lists, and Facebook statuses that might also jostle for space in the genre, and, well, you get the idea.

I’m not really worried about small, sub-genre distinctions between essay and memoir and all their cousins, though. But I can’t get past the fact that I inevitably seem to come back to length: If you say “essay,” I think “short”; and if you say “memoir,” I think “long.”

My friend is finishing up her dissertation and it’s 90 pages long—too short to be a book, too long to be an essay. Discussing it recently in a workshop, we had trouble calling it anything except “the dissertation.” Somebody threw out the word novella, but somebody else rejected it on the grounds that the term novella was reserved for fiction. The word monograph was tried, but it rang of academia. Chapbook was similarly ill-fitting. “That-stuff-that-Essay-Press-is-publishing,” I tried: too long.

Another colleague thought a neologism was in order and suggested the portmanteau splor, a combination splurge and exploration. As in, “This started as an essay, and there’s too little here to make it into a whole book, so I’m hoping to expand it into a splor of sorts.” There were half-hearted assents and some nervous laughter, but no one championed the cause (Sorry, Dave).

So what do we call it? What term can we use for our middle-form nonfiction? “Novella-length essay”? “Short memoir”? “Book-length essay”? Splor? Messay? Brevimoir?

This isn’t really that important except for this: if they have a name, they might find more of a space. It seems to me that many excellent pieces are in publishing limbo because they are too long for the journals and too short for the houses. Often they get bowdlerized or wait around for the author to get a book deal so they can sneak in with shorter works. I’m thinking of “Tense, Present,” David Foster Wallace’s massive splor that filled 20 pages of Harper’s but 61 pages of Consider the Lobster. Or his “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub” that fills 11 scant pages at rollingstone.com, 89 pages of Consider the Lobster, and 144 pages as its own book, McCain’s Promise.1 I just finished de Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” which only makes it to Penguin-edition glory by being packaged with two other of de Q’s works. And I can’t help but remember a piece by my mentor that sat on the editor’s desk at The American Scholar for close to a year: they seemed pleased with its quality but were nervous about its girth.

I’m not bemoaning the fact that I have an 80-page manuscript without a home. I don’t. But I wish a had more 80-page jewels on my bookshelf waiting to be read. The splor, like the brief essays we publish here, has a certain allure. It can exhibit a kind of brevity not seen elsewhere. It is the movement of a mind focused on a subject for an afternoon—not an hour, not a week. That mind ups the ante on the essay’s demand for precision and concentration, yet it eschews the sometime pretension or petulance of the full-length memoir.

If essays are episodes of Seinfeld and CSI, and memoirs are Groundhog Day and You’ve Got Mail and, sometimes, all three Lord of the Rings films, then splors are miniseries. They are made-for-TV movies. Telenovellas. Firefly. Freaks and Geeks.2

But they need a name, one we can all agree on (or at least argue about). Personally, I’d like to vote for “the monograph essay.” Sounds classy. Discuss.

~David Grover
Managing Editor


1 In fact, DFW’s collected essays often have lines like, “Since this will undoubtedly be cut before publication,” giving one the impression that he wasn’t writing with the reader in mind at all but was instead engaging with his editors in some kind of odd game.
2 Brevity, I guess, publishes commercials.

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