Interview by Megan Vered
The words “frivolous,” “raucous play,” and “nonsense” have been used to describe Patrick Madden’s most recent book of essays, Disparates (University of Nebraska Press, April 2020). Madden, a wizard of wordplay, offers thirty essays that experiment with form, image, and language. For some of the essays, he invites fellow writers, including Mary Cappello, Matthew Gavin Frank, David Lazar, Michael Martone, Jericho Parms, and Wendy S. Walters to partner-essay with him as he explores a range of seemingly inconsequential topics from bottled water to fruit to rock music.
The essays are at once experimental, humorous, and humble in tone. This collection is hybrid to the core, even boasting a hybrid title in that the word disparate means “different” or “miscellaneous” in English but means “nonsense,” “folly,” or “absurdity” in Spanish. When reading Madden’s work, it is best to pay close attention and to prepare yourself for a grand etymological adventure that swivels your perceptions, upends previously held interpretations, and transports you through place and time.
Disparates is Patrick Madden’s third essay collection, after Quotidiana (2010) and Sublime Physick (2016). A professor at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, Madden also coedits a journal, Fourth Genre, and a book series, 21st Century Essays at Ohio State University Press.
His website, www.quotidiana.org, is a vast compendium of essays and resources. In my recent interview, he and I discussed, among other things, the connection between writing and physics, the role Montaigne has played in his writing, his belief that framing things playfully leads to more joy, the muse of music, and the power of stories to inspire. Follow Patrick Madden on Twitter or Facebook.
Megan Vered: Some people may not know that you began your career as a physicist. Your transition from physicist to essayist has always intrigued me. What do you see as the intersection between science and creative writing? As a physicist, were you perhaps telling stories that needed more words?
Patrick Madden: I’m glad you’re seeing connections between disciplines that many of us see only differences between. While I recognize the value of noticing differences, I find it more enlightening and encouraging to find similarities, and this worldview can extend to our treatment of one another or of other species or of the natural world…
In any case, I think physics is largely a metaphorical overlay on the functions of the universe that tries to render “reality” in a comprehensible way. It’s a system for approaching and measuring the vastness of everything, then parceling it into translatable bits that we can store and express and remember and share, so that we can continue learning. It’s also a methodology for seeking discoveries about the ways the world works.
In the past, I thought that this process would provide final, inarguable answers, but nowadays all physicists understand (and work within) the inherent uncertainty of the material world. I think these general concepts work for describing essays, too. Even one of the fundamental aims of experimental science—reproducibility—is applicable to essaying.
Writers want their works to resonate within the minds of readers, to feel true, even if the reader’s experience is quite different from what the writer describes. I do grant that physics and essaying are not entirely similar, do not share identical paradigms, but it’s refreshing to think about what they do share.
MV: This makes me think about the origin of the word essay from the French verb essayer, to try. Which, of course, leads me to Montaigne, the classic form of the essay, and your reference to yourself as a “disciple of Montaigne.” Who first introduced you to his writing? Do you remember the first essay you read? Its effect on you?
PM: Probably like a lot of people, I first encountered Montaigne in graduate school, in Phillip Lopate’s anthology The Art of the Personal Essay. I was at Brigham Young University, and my teacher was John Bennion, who had studied under Lopate at the University of Houston. So the Lopatian theory of the essay was prominent, and it made a lot of sense to me, inspired me to guide my reading and shape my writing in important, lasting ways.
But when I read “Of a Monstrous Child” and “Of Books” and, most of all, “On Some Verses of Virgil,” I simply did not get Montaigne. I found his writing to be stuffy, mannered, a bit boring. I could not figure out why I should care, nor could I see how his jumping from topic to topic was particularly “essayistic.” Thankfully, I kept reading essays, including more from Montaigne. A couple of years later, in my Ph.D. program, studying with David Lazar (another former student of Lopate’s), I read dozens of Montaigne’s essays, and we discussed them in class, and I can’t really pinpoint what happened, but maybe through repeated exposure and deeper engagement, I learned to love Montaigne. I started to perceive his humor and to appreciate the erratic movements of his mind. I loved how he conversed with sages and self-deprecated to the point of absurdity.
I began to feel an affinity with him in his earnest, humble efforts to escape his culture and see the world and himself from varied perspectives. I started to understand how an essay wasn’t just a written product but a paradigm and method of deferring judgment (“I do not understand. I pause. I examine.” he’d carved into the ceiling beams of his study) and ‘living in uncertainties,’ as Keats later extolled, with curiosity and wonder and a real allergy to common human hubris. In short, I fell in love with Montaigne once I could see what he was doing, and this has deeply influenced my own attempts at essaying.
This new book has a whole section of Montaigne-inspired essays, including a Parade Magazine-style “In Step With…” profile, a narrative of my family’s failed attempt to visit Montaigne’s tower, and a humorous “translation” of his essay “Of Smells,” which was begun by my student Stephen Haynie in a class in which we read all of Montaigne’s Essays. To their credit, Steve and my other undergraduate students learned to love Montaigne much faster than I did.
MV: And I must ask, do you have an all-time Montaigne favorite?
PM: My answer is a predictable “no,” but certainly one of my favorites is “Of Practice,” also called “Use Makes Perfect,” in which Montaigne, in a rare personal narrative moment, recounts an accident in which he was thrown from his horse and taken for dead, and which experience he uses as a prompt to think about practicing for death.
He also spends considerable ink defending his habit of essay writing, providing lots of excellent quotes, like,
It seems to [detractors] that to be occupied with oneself means to be pleased with oneself, that to frequent and associate with oneself means to cherish oneself too much. That may be. But this excess arises only in those who touch themselves no more than superficially.
Which feels like great advice, and not just for essayists.
MV: Yes, we could all benefit from that advice. Let’s talk now about experimentation and how magnificently you play with form in this book—word puzzles, partner writing, criss-cross proverbs, bullets, lists, haiku. Can you compare this sense of play to your experiences in the world of physics?
PM: Thanks for noticing the playfulness, which I both intend and find surprising (I’ve gradually moved from reading fully written lectures to extemporizing from notes; I prefer the latter method, but I’m still always nervous before I begin, and I nearly always wend my way into things I hadn’t prepared or even imagined before I began speaking).
I guess I try to think of and live life as a grand experiment—Nietzsche called this realization the great liberator: ‘the idea that life could be an experiment of the seeker for knowledge—and not a duty, not a calamity, not a trickery!’—and while I do sometimes find suffering (whether my own petty trials or the far graver tribulations of others), I believe that framing things playfully helps us maintain our sanity and experience more of life joyfully.
In physics, I often found this kind of playful wonder in the early and easy experiments, then lost it a bit with the more complex, mathematical/theoretical ones, then rediscovered it doing a bit of laser research in the lab of Stephen Lundeen during my junior year. I was allowed a lot of freedom to do my own experiments, under Dr. Lundeen’s guidance, and I mostly sought ways to optimize hologram creation. I finished that semester with a lot of excellent dark glass discs featuring three-dimensional rainbow-colored Batman action figures.
MV: Playful wonder. That is a great description of your writing as well. In Disparates you adopt an even more lighthearted approach. What was the first essay you wrote in the collection? What do you see as the interrelation between the essays? How did you select the order?
PM: The oldest essay in the book is “Against the Wind,” which I wrote about twenty years ago, during my master’s studies. It’s a simple anecdote from my mission to Uruguay in which I discovered that I’d been drying my face with a towel used by others after they’d washed up in the bidet. It gets its name now—it was originally called “The Bidet Towel”— from that great and simple line in the Bob Seger song, ‘I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then’ and I’ve included it under the category of “lyric essays,” which for most other writers means essays made from deeply poetic language, but in my case, they’re essays derived from or inspired by song lyrics.
I have two Seger-song-titled essays in this book, which is a bit strange, given that I’m not really a Seger fan—don’t own any of his albums—but the songs were/are pervasive on radio and thus form a part of my life.
As for interrelations among the essays, I do see things as rather loose, but there are three primary categories, all of them somewhat subversive and/or playful, and there’s the overarching non-category of collaboration through or amidst them all, too. As I’ve just mentioned, there are “Lyric Essays” (derives from song lyrics), and there are “Aborted Essays” (intentionally short/ cut off before they get going) and “Guerilla Essays” (hidden in other forms; also called “hermit crab” or “borrowed form” essays).
I arranged the book loosely, creating several groups that alternate the guerilla, aborted, and lyric essays in turn, and as I noted above, there’s a whole Montaigne-inspired section. While the essays in the book have to appear linearly, from page i to 156, I’ve also provided a categorical table of contents to guide readers to the groupings I envisioned. I think the book can be read arbitrarily, in any order. There’s also the vague and subjective idea of leading with strong and surprising work (the eBay auction of Michael Martone’s leftover water) and ending on something that sends us soaring (Mary Cappello’s assertion that essays help us listen differently, and the Mass-like exhortation to ‘essay daily’).
MV: When you sit down to write is there an order to your activity? Do you create a roadmap or an outline? Do you have any idea where you are going? Do you research first and then write?
PM: I don’t perceive any definable order to my writing process, and aside from unremitting distraction, no other constants. I never outline an essay before I write it, though I do gather brief notes (sometimes) that I associate with my main topic—my essays are usually topical more than narrative, though I do also list details from stories I want to share. I tend to write very slowly, aiming for fully elaborated sentences all the way through. I care too deeply about the mechanics of language to allow myself to rush write.
I tend to research continuously, as my sentences guide me to things that I don’t know well enough. (I’ve sometimes written to prompts along with my students; inevitably, within a few sentences, I have to open a web browser and research something, while they clack merrily along, typing things they’ve already got in mind.) The process really feels haphazard, but maybe also organic—that’s a nicer word for it.
MV: At what point in the process do you share your work with other people? How do you know when you are finished?
PM: I have relied on the generosity of friends’ critiques for most of the past twenty years, and I still share some things with my friend and colleague Joey Franklin, but I also sometimes keep my work to myself until I send it to an editor hoping for publication.
This is not because I feel I don’t need to revise beyond where I can get on my own, but because I don’t want to bother people; life is hectic for everyone. As for knowing when I’m finished, this is less a quality judgment than a feeling of exhaustion with the work. If I can’t see how I could improve a piece; even knowing that it’s imperfect, if I’m incapable of making it “better,” then I know it’s/I’m finished. Luckily, this is usually good enough.
MV: What did you read as a child? Top three writers who have influenced you?
PM: Probably nothing surprising. I really loved Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, and I still read them to my children even today. I also read tons of Choose Your Own Adventure books and Hardy Boys books and the Mr. Men and Little Miss _____ books, plus as many Illustrated Classic Editions books as I could find of timeless works like Kidnapped and The Three Musketeers and Heidi and Oliver Twist and The Time Machine and Little Women and so many more.
A little later on, I found and loved The Lord of the Rings and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. One summer after I fell in love with Of Mice and Men, I read every single John Steinbeck book, which was great, but I think I melded all of them into a single file in my brain, so I can barely remember or distinguish any details. I read quite voraciously when I was young, whatever was available and targeted at a person in my demographic, and I’m sure I was influenced by these authors, but not consciously so.
My conscious influences came later, once I gained sufficient self-awareness to recognize the inevitability of influence and, thus, the importance of choosing your influences. I don’t think I can name a top three, but certainly among them are Montaigne (already mentioned above), Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt; Ian Frazier, Scott Russell Sanders, Brian Doyle; Eduardo Galeano, W. G. Sebald, Vernon Lee, Louise Imogen Guiney…and I’m influenced a lot by my contemporaries: Mary Cappello, Joni Tevis, Amy Leach, Elena Passarello, Ander Monson, Wendy S. Walters… so many others.
MV: While reading Disparates, I imagined you hearing the rhythm of both words and music as you wrote. Almost like some kind of synesthesia. Can you talk about the role that music plays in your writing?
PM: Thanks for noticing that, too. I’m wary of claiming any real synesthesia, which seems marvelously weird and rare, but I do try to hear rhythms in the sentences I write (and I enjoy most those sentences that seem to have been crafted musically). This seems to me one of the surest distinguishing features between literary and non-literary prose: a discernible, intentional musicality.
Of course, the rhythms I hear won’t exactly match the rhythms others hear, and I’m not quite talking about scannable meter, but I’m not excluding it, either—my friend Elena Passarello wrote an essay in blank verse formatted into regular-looking paragraphs!
So the music I hear in prose is rather subjective, rather scattered (or perhaps scatted, in the jazz-vocal sense, I mean, but you may mean in the animal-feces sense, too, why not), maybe not noticed by all readers, and hopefully (here I use the adverb colloquially, against the advice of grammarians) in a way that mimics the cadences and inflections, the pulse of real conversation.
One of my dearest writing friends and mentors, Brian Doyle, once explained that,
I sometimes think there is no writer as addicted to music and swing and rhythm and cadence in prose as me. I really do want to push prose as close to music as I can, and play with tone and timbre in my work, play with the sinuous riverine lewd amused pop and song of the American language. I am obsessed with being clear in my stuff, but given that constraint (I never ever want the reader to get confused or start over or get muddled about where the sentence started or who is speaking), let’s have some fun and drive the language hard. Most of all I want to write like people talk and think, in jazzy loose fun free patterns and swirls…
I feel this too, though I’ll happily cede first-place musical-prose addiction to Brian.
MV: It is often suggested to writers that they read as much as they write. What percentage of your time goes to writing vs reading? I find when I am deep into a project that the words/style of other authors can be a distraction. How about you?
PM: I think I read far more than I write, in terms of time and word count, both. Much of what I read is students’ work, which I’m critiquing. I also read a lot of online news articles and so forth. I’ve also constantly got a dozen or so books that I’m reading. They’re usually essay collections, so they lend themselves to sporadic interaction. These are the works I tend to read for inspiration. I am not a very prolific writer, but I try to write halfway decent stuff to make up for lack of volume.
As for the distraction of others’ voices, I don’t feel that. I’m reminded of Charles Lamb’s claim in “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading.” After noting that a friend of his has given up reading so as to avoid influence ‘to the great improvement of his originality,’ Lamb confesses 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.
I take him to be both serious and facetious here, and I feel the same way.
MV: People often describe first-person narrative as a form of therapy. What do you discover about yourself when you write?
PM: One of my failures or inabilities as a writer is that I can’t or don’t write much narrative, and I stay relatively safe when it comes to material. I’m dimly aware of this absence, yet I’ve not been able to, or haven’t found sufficient reason to, overcome it. So it seems as if in most of the direct ways, my writing is not therapeutic, in that I’m not writing of my suffering in order to process or overcome it. This is not to say that I don’t think such writing is valuable. It is. It’s just that I can’t do it. It’s also not to say that I never suffer or that my life is utterly charmed. It’s not.
I’m reminded of Alexander Smith’s statement about Montaigne, ‘If you wish to preserve your secret, wrap it up in frankness.’ In fact, at least in the abstract, this is one of the key revelations I keep coming to: that everybody suffers. Nobody escapes. And while it’s popular, and perhaps even legitimately valuable, to rank suffering, I believe that even our domestic pangs, isolated and invisible to the world, are significant and scarring.
I find that I’m more and more concerned with kindness and goodness, and the ways in which literature can influence us toward those things. I discover my own obsessions (with so many things, perhaps most prominently the inescapability of systems, especially the innermost system of the self) and I get a hazy sense of my own uncertainties and insecurities. I think I may project a very confident, intellectual figure, but that’s partial, not quite to say false.
MV: One of your essays was reprinted in The Best American Spiritual Writing. As a devout person, what role does faith play in your writing?
PM: I’m especially keen to think about faith as a way of bending the universe or creating conditions to bring about different realities. I’m seeing this sort of thing on the national scale with police response to recent protests over systemic racism. When protestors are met with shows of force, they respond in kind and violence escalates. But in other instances, when police lay down their weapons and engage in kindhearted, empathic ways, the situations tend to remain peaceful and even result in smiles and handshakes, conversations, marches together in shared concern and hope.
Maybe this has little to do with ‘writing,’ but maybe not. I feel the occasions are related and have at root some version of faith. And while it’s true that I’m a churchgoer, and the Christian worldview influences my apprehension of the world, I try very hard not to be an asshole about it. In other words, while I may be devout, I think I’m mostly an essayist, keen to subvert and to occupy various perspectives, and my faith feels more heterodox than dogmatic.
MV: The chaos in today’s world can cause a first-person writer to feel like a fleeting breeze in the face of a torrential storm, but on the other hand, what is more relevant than storytelling? Where do you stand on this?
PM: I’m naively hopeful but a tinge defeated, too. I try not to give into despair, but I certainly feel it. The systems seem too big, too entrenched, too bound to powerful beneficiaries who’ll not lose their grips on power, to be affected by the measly efforts of a writer like myself.
But I find this response so dispiriting, so defeatist, that I can’t remain in that mindset, so I try to conjure the spirit of Brian Doyle, who believed firmly in ‘moral evolution’ and the power of stories to nudge the universe forward by inspiring people to perceive things differently, maybe to understand people other than themselves or to believe in the possibility of different responses, to ‘believe against evil hourly evidence that love is why we are here,’ which phrase echoes Jesus, in the convolutedly elegant King James translation, ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,’ which can lead to many thoughts, among them that our stories do matter, and so I essay to share them with others through writing.
MV: The Kirkus Review describes Disparates as, ‘The latest collection from a professor who attempts to renew and extend the legacy of the personal essay.’ How do you see your recent collection contributing to this legacy?
PM: It’s both a grand and an insignificant thing to be an essayist, to ‘renew and extend’ the genre’s legacy. I’m glad the reviewer noted this. I am. I hope they’re right. And as I was getting at above, I feel both sanguine and somber about the effects of my writing. So I consciously reject the perceived need to make great effects on the world, and I focus instead on the few people who actually do read my essays.
Perhaps I can lighten their anxieties, give them a hearty laugh while making them puzzle over something. Maybe what I’ve written can shift their perceptions of the systems we all live in, to highlight or prioritize something that undergirds and directs action toward achieving real positive change for some or more or maybe even all of us.