Patrick Madden is a professor at Brigham Young University. He is the author of the award-winning Sublime Physick: Essays (Nebraska, 2016) and Quotidiana: Essays (Nebraska, 2010), and coeditor, with David Lazar, of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. His essays have appeared in a variety of periodicals as well as in The Best Creative Nonfiction and The Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. Visit Madden’s website here.
Why is your new book, Disparates (April 2020), important now?
This is a question I think about constantly. I don’t have any kind of final answer, but I do believe that “importance” is wildly variable and subjective, dependent on the paradigm or value system one recognizes or subscribes to, or maybe even doesn’t recognize or even accept, but is bound up in against one’s will. And we all occupy multiple overlapping and sometimes competing value systems. Writers often find themselves resisting a system that translates all value into money, whether because we find commodification of art unappealing, offensive, or impossible (none of my writer friends can make a living with their writing), or because we work in academia, which has a centuries-old, proud tradition of soul-expansion over marketability, yet we feel this long-unquestioned value threatened by assembly-lining higher education for “maximum efficiency and profit” within that money-driven system of values.
I hope that my book, with its intentional focus on frivolity, play, even absurdity, is a kind of antidote to that system or a shake awake for some readers, a confirmation that the things they value not for money but for enlightenment and joy are valuable.
Whether my essays are important amidst this global crisis in which our lives are threatened and we’re anxious and afraid, I cannot say. I don’t really think so. Or, to say it another way, my essays do not contribute anything directly to eradicating this virus or to assuaging our fears. But perhaps as our jobs have disappeared or morphed, as we’ve been obligated to spend more time with family, we’ve also been forced to reckon with so many of our unquestioned habits and assumptions, and we might question the priorities that drive us implicitly. Perhaps some of us have been forced to confront how “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” and thus might return to or reprioritize the essayistic in life, the exploratory and wonder-filled engagement with things that our most prevalent, our loudest systems deem “useless.”
What effects has social distancing had on your writing?
Like a lot of people, I’ve shifted my daily schedule, I feel a bit of anxiety, and I’m prioritizing family over all, which means, among so much else, that I’ve got to guide children with their schoolwork, even when they don’t want to do it and try to escape. I’m lucky that my job is steady and could easily move online, but this, too, presents some challenges. I feel greatly blessed (I do not mean to complain at all), but all of this means that I’ve not been writing much. I miss writing, but I also want this fallow period to be OK. I don’t think it’s healthy for writers to beat themselves up for not writing as much as they’d like, or as often as they think they should. I admire everyday writers, and even aspire to write every day, but I’ve never succeeded at that, and nowadays I’m even less consistent. Oh well. I’ll try to maintain a good attitude, be grateful for my still charmed life, and gather ideas for future exploration.
Speaking of things that might distract you from writing… are any pets enjoying your company at home?
After a dozen years with a big-hearted, loyal, grateful Saint Bernard-border collie mix named Raccoon, we now have three dogs! We’d intended to get just one, another border-collie mix named Fox, but when the rescue shelter didn’t respond, we found another dog, an Australian shepherd mix named Arwen, from the same organization. Then Fox suddenly became available, so we decided to bring both dogs into our home. Then a year or so later, an acquaintance decided that she couldn’t keep her German shepherd, who’d been neglected and had become aggressive, so we decided to try and rehabilitate her. That attempt has thankfully been successful, so now we have Fox, Arwen, and Luka keeping us company and spreading their love. They enjoy walks and training and lazing about and bothering me when I’m trying to get things done, which I actually quite enjoy.
What is one non-writing-related activity that helps you stay creative at your keyboard?
I can’t be sure that it helps me stay creative, but our family has been playing a lot of games recently: card games, board games (less-common ones, like Cover Your Assets and Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza are new favorites, plus Codenames, Shifty-Eyed Spies, a Dutch card game called Cucumber, Just One, many more…), and some outdoor games, too (we have a nice big yard), like one where you have to knock a plastic bottle off a pole with a frisbee, and one we made up where you have to kick a giant rubber kickball into a geodesic jungle gym. It’s very tricky as the ball barely fits through the triangular openings, and it bounces unpredictably, but that means we’re always full of laughs.
So when you’re not teaching, tripping over dogs, or dealing cards, what are you currently working on?
Despite many days of no writing, I’m slowly, sporadically, writing more essays (surprise!). I’ve been especially inspired by a trio of books that collect short patterned essays. First is Renee Gladman’s Calamities, where every essay opens with the phrase “I began the day…” and diverges wildly from there into complex and beautiful thinking. Next is Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies, whose essays are all written without external research, as the author notes before each piece: “Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.” And finally there’s Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, which gathers over a hundred brief excursions from quotidian objects and experiences that provide both author and reader with, well, delight! Each writer extrapolates mightily, jumping track and slipping sideways away from any narrative arc or logical progression, so that you never know where you’ll wind up, but you’ll always have a new shared insight and your mind will always be expanded.
So, anyway, I’m writing a number of small essays that begin with the phrase “I have just” followed by a verb (“I have just seen,” “I have just heard,” “I have just remembered,” etc.). The phrase comes from Donald Frame’s translation of Montaigne’s essay “Of a Monstrous Child” (“I have just seen a shepherd in Médoc, thirty years old or thereabouts…”), and it floated into my mind one day while I was showering, so I’ve been trying to use it to notice more of the world’s whispers that can inspire me to essay sideways into unexpected connections. Recently I’ve written from a smudge on the wall, some fake plastic plants, a slice of cinnamon toast, a Pluto (the Disney dog) sticker on a telescope lens at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and several other things. I really enjoy the process of allowing my mind to trip over itself and generate surprising associations.