"Teachin' BAE: A Reclamation of Research and Critical Thought," Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies 3.1, Fall 2016
I wrote this critical piece as part of the Best American Essays Spotlight series at Assay. The series also includes a fascinating interview with luminous BAE editor Robert Atwan, Jenny Spinner's "Best American Essays Series as (Partial) Essay History," and Lynn Z. Bloom's "The Great American Potluck Party." Great company to keep, methinks.
"In the last sentence of his postscript to 'Independent Redundancy,' the mammoth centerpiece essay of his new collection, Patrick Madden quotes Gide: 'Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.' This might be just a bit too morose to serve as an unqualified summation of Madden’s essayistic perspective, but it’s pretty close. To read a Patrick Madden essay is to interface with the mind of an engaged, self-conscious thinker. Actually, that’s not quite right: It is to interface with Madden’s curation of the minds of many thinkers within the expanse of his own."
Essay Advent: Best American Essays 2004, Essay Daily, December 2015
"I’ve always wanted, though I didn’t always know I wanted, to write more like a song than a story. I’m tempted to say Steven Church does this, but on second thought this explanation might be looking at these essays from the wrong end of the earpiece: I think he writes like I listen to a song."
"The chapbook contains five essays, one about her alcoholic lover, another about a magnifying glass by which she detects elements of her world, another about a vaguely sexual prank phone caller, another about her sleeplessness, another about the wind. Each of them, whatever its ostensible subject, is as much an assemblage as a narrative, turning over each element in her palm and mulling it over with the care of a collector and the passion of a paramour. When I open it and take in Steiner’s masterful prose, and even when I simply open the book and hold it in my hands, I think not of a reading but of a conversation, of a voice offering no answers and telling no lies, but rather setting up the riddles so that every response, so long as it is honest, is the punchline."
Last December, I edited for Hunger Mountain a celebration of of
Baldwin's life and work on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death
with Jennifer Bowen Hicks, a born-and-bred Baldwinite both in terms of
her commitment to her craft and her intense empathy and commitment to
social service (besides writing, she runs a writing program for prisoners in the state of Minnesota). If editing the project taught me anything, it was the deep and abiding love of Baldwin many writers share with me. The project includes contributions by Kim Dana Kupperman, Sion Dayson, Carole K. Harris, Robert Vivian, Marita Golden, Baron Wormser, and Liz Blood. You can find all of them here. [UPDATE: Kim Dana Kupperman's piece was selected as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2013 !]
In 2009, in order to sublimate myself to the essay as a form, I began reading each volume of The Best American Essays , one volume a month in reverse chronological order. This lasted for about a year, or until I got to 2000; I now satisfy myself with just a handful of essays each month from the remaining volumes. While I was reading a volume a month, I began writing "Sideways Reviews" for Hunger Mountain in which found something novel in an essay or series of essays and responded to it in whatever ways I saw fit. My wonderful editors Cynthia Newberry Martin and Claire Guyton then did their best to get the reviews to make some sort of sense. These are those reviews, nine in all, with a convenient Table of Contents from Hunger Mountain's website.
"If the nonfiction writer’s subject is the world, and his or her place in it, the first responsibility of the writer is to reduce the world into workable units. Much like a reader must read something numerous times to piece out the analog parts and then find the digital circuit at work, the nonfiction writer must find the story-units in the world and then fit them into a working digital circuit of the writing. In telling the myriad stories the world and the self contain, one of the writer’s first steps is shaping and condensing systematic and narrative units. For our purposes here I’ll coin the term “digital nonfiction” for this process – if an essay or a memoir or a news story (and, universally, the world) can be thought of as a digital circuit, and if all the millions and millions of stories are the analog parts, then the creativity of the nonfiction writer is primarily on how the writer sorts – or lists – those analog stories."
I wrote each of these pieces in successive months of the fall of 2010, when I was first exploring the personal essay as a form, something one simply can't do with any sense of history or purpose without ingesting the work of Montaigne, the "Fountainhead" (to quote Phillip Lopate) of the form. As with my previous Numero Cinq work, much of this made it into my later treatise on digital nonfiction.
These two pieces were my first explorations into the nature of creative nonfiction and the personal essay. My editor (and first-semester MFA advisor) Douglas Glover displayed remarkable indulgence in publishing them.