My first introduction to Patrick Madden came last summer. I’d asked a professor to help me create a reading list and he recommended I read Madden’s 2010 collection of essays, “Quotidiana.” As I read, I was entranced by his descriptions of day-to-day things – how his essays would begin with a specific action and digress into an examination of something that felt both mildly related and wholly different at the same time. My personal aesthetic as an aspiring essayist was changing in ways no workshop had encouraged.
When I had absorbed the last sentence of the collection’s final essay for the second time, I wondered about Madden’s process. Did he map out every section of each essay before writing? What did he want to accomplish with his writing? How did his previous life experiences influence the formation of his essays? Did he write every day? After weeks of coming up with questions, I decided to contact him for a possible interview. To my surprise – and delight – he quickly responded that he would love to chat with me over Skype.
I sat my laptop on top of a large USPS flat rate box stacked on a tray table, making sure I was centered in the camera’s vision, and clicked the call button. On the screen, Patrick Madden sat ready to expound upon his writing. His children played in the background. Their excited squeals gave Madden’s demeanor, and the overall tone of the interview to come, a jovial, or informal, quality I hadn’t expected before calling. He started by asking me about the program at Northern Michigan University – my writing and the faculty I was working under.
Once our introductions were complete, I jumped in with my first question. Before earning an MA in English from BYU and a PhD in Creative Writing from Ohio University, Madden majored in physics. This was an interesting fact to me, and one that I found particularly compelling because my personal background is in another non-English field – Philosophy. I was curious to find out what affect his studies in physics had on his writing.
“It probably influences mostly in indirect ways,” he said. “For a long time, I really like physics, or at least the part of physics that was exact and could feel objective. And essays,” he continued, “have kind of swung me in the other direction, or at least have been a counterbalance to that tendency of mine, or the hope, or inclination I had. The essays I like best, and the ones I try to write, are full of knowledge, they’re informative and require research and can be chock full of facts and interesting things. But they recognize that you can’t really pin it all down – you can’t tidy things up, or wrap them up with a nice bow.”
I got lost in the energy of his words – the subtle urgency in his voice, in his posture, in the rise of his eyebrows – as he laid out his personal definition of essay. For Madden, his knowledge of physics has acted as literary entrance into the experiences he wants to write.
“In Quotidiana,” he said, “you’ve got essays that try to use quantum physics and its irresolvable differences with Einstein’s relativity, metaphorically.”
In my own writing, I’ve often struggled with incorporating philosophical information – theories on epistemology, ontology, and cosmology – into coherent essays. Before hearing Madden speak to this point, it had never occurred to me to use my previous educational experiences as a metaphorical backdrop. Upon reading through his collection again, I saw that this theme worked as a subtle framework used for an exploration of the meaning to be found in more everyday – perhaps even truly mundane – topics such as his youngest daughter’s first bouts of laughter, his father’s dinnertime singing, and his children getting sick.
The idea of finding meaning in the mundane was something Madden started to embrace during his PhD program at Ohio University, where he became acquainted with the thematic essays of Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Montaigne, and Virginia Woolf.
“I noticed,” he said, “in the essays I was reading, especially the old ones, that the writers I really liked were adept at taking any old, boring subject and making it interesting with beautiful sentences and beautiful thinking.”
This realization would lead Madden to produce many of the essays that would comprise his book “Quotidiana.” In the collection’s first essay, he quotes Alexander Smith when he writes, “Everything I see or hear is an essay in bud.” When reading his writing, the truth of this statement rings like a church bell on a crisp January night, as many of his essays deal with everyday events and physical objects. And often, the sections of personal experience revolve around what’s close at hand, namely, his family. However, I was curious to know how, if “everything” was a potential essay topic, he decided which things to write and which to discard. He slumped back in his chair with the question, his posture bending to meet the metaphorical weight of this indomitable “everything.” His children were laughing about something in the background.
“I am struck by so many things that seem writeable,” he said, “that I could never write them all. And it used to bother me. I remember taking notes about this, that, and the other subjects, figuring I would eventually get to all these things, but now I think that’s kind of a foolish hope. So I tend to write the things that stick around.”
At my prompting, he continued to explain his process by intimating that he did away with taking regular notes. He still keeps several notebooks, scraps of paper, and his “notes” app on his phone close at hand, but he no longer tries to keep track of anything and everything that sparks an idea. Instead, he began to let his subconscious memory do the work.
“What hasn’t left me,” he said, “or what gathers material to itself as I’m living – that, basically, allows me access to what my subconscious is retaining. Or, sometimes, just what happens in life that returns to themes I’ve already been thinking of.”
He followed this with several minutes of excitedly cueing me in on some ideas involving a pewter figurine and a McDonald’s Hamburglar car – how these things have kept creeping into his life, and what these physical objects can say about his worldview. To end his explanation, Madden leaned toward the camera and paraphrased Eduardo Galeano’s idea that “memory will save what deserves to be saved.” And this system also seems to satisfy some idyllic need to join the physical with the metaphysical.
“A lot of times, I feel as though an essay exists somewhere outside of me, and my job is to sculpt it, or discover it. They seem to have some body, some weight, before I even approach them with my keyboard.”
As an emerging writer, or at least someone trying to emerge, I’ve always been curious as to the day-to-day writing habits of established authors. And with Madden’s mention of “keyboard,” I felt the door had opened for my line of pencil-and-paper process questions. I started with the most basic: How often did he write?
“I don’t write every day and I used to feel guilty about it,” he said. “There have been stretches where I’ve written every day, where I’ve tried to be very regular about it, but I’m kind of at the point where I can recognize that I simply can’t find the time to write every day, so I write in binges. I feel like I need a good amount of time to dedicate to writing, so if I don’t have 3 hours or more, then I feel like I can’t get the momentum I need for the writing to be worthwhile. And I’ll go, sometimes, pretty long stretches – a couple of weeks – without writing. I’m not saying this is a good way to do it, but I know there are other writers that feel like, ‘I’m doing it wrong. I’ll never be a writer because I don’t write every day.’ But that’s not true.”
I found solace in his words. I too have attempted to work on my writing on a daily basis, but sometimes I’m not ready to put serious words down, or there simply isn’t enough time for me to feel like I’m accomplishing much. Madden continued on to tell me that he is a night writer, preferring to work in a quiet house while his wife and children sleep. I also prefer to write at night, when I can take a breath and imagine that I’m the only awake mind in town. But writing during twilight seems to have come more out of necessity for Madden.
“When I’m at school,” he said, “I’m so busy with teaching that I don’t have writing time. When I’m at home, I’m so busy being a parent and husband that I feel like I don’t have time unless everyone’s asleep. I feel guilty if I neglect my family for the writing.” Madden went on to describe his nighttime writing sessions: “I’ll just stay up writing. And writing often adrenalizes me, so I can stay up. That night, I’m totally fine – I’ll stay up till 4 in the morning, and I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, this is awesome!’ because I love writing so much. Then I’ll pay for it the next day or the day after that.”
My next question was centered on revision. In my own writing, I often struggle with completeness – as though I could go on revising indefinitely without moving on to a new project. With that in mind, I wanted to know how many times, on average, Madden revised an essay before putting it down. The hint of a smile formed on his face – not a smirk, but not a full-blown smile, perhaps a grin – and he told me that he usually works on several essays at once, bouncing around from subject to subject to help keep himself entertained.
“I’m scatter-brained, or impatient, so I tend not to stick with one line of thinking for too long a stretch, or at least I don’t stick with it beyond what sustains my interest.” As for the number of revisions, Madden said he writes “meticulously,” trying to get the “sentences right as I go along.” To illustrate his process, he opened the Microsoft Word document of an essay he’s been continuously working on. “It’s about 2 years old,” he said, “and Word’s metadata says I’ve revised it 42 times.”
That seemed like an unbelievable number of revisions. Madden went on to say that the changing of a single word could count as a revision – he doesn’t rewrite his essays over and over. Instead, he “kneads them out” like a thin-and-crispy pizza crust. But he doesn’t seem fazed by the slow process of his work.
“I’m not super-prolific,” he said, “and I’m not well known, but that doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is getting some good words down and making some good essays.”
Near the end of our conversation, I asked Madden about his forthcoming book. “Sublime Physick” is due for release from the University of Nebraska Press in early 2016. I wondered if this collection would continue on the thematic grounds set forth in “Quotidiana,” or if the new essays would strike a different literary path. Madden confessed that his background in physics continued to play a major role in his recent work, but that the direction of his essays had become more focused.
“I’m trying,” he said, “to more explicitly explore the way physical reality or nature can transcend itself, or when filtered through a mind, or a consciousness, can become an idea.”
The premise that something physical can transform into something metaphysical through the process of writing was tantalizing to me. As he talked, I was reminded of Rene Descartes’s famous analysis of the wax dripping from a candle as a medium to discuss skepticism and the infamous problem between body and mind. I wanted to know more. Madden excused himself for a second and asked his children to play in the other room so he could talk. Somehow, the that he continued to parent while interviewing seemed fresh to me, as if reinforcing what he’d shared throughout our conversation. When he came back, he sat down with a smile.
“Just this week, I read an essay at Utah Valley University from the new book,” he said. “It’s ostensibly about my sons getting lost, but I found that instead of just writing the story of what happened, I needed some other kind of way into it. That came, serendipitously, the day after they were lost, at a faculty seminar I went to. The subject was evolution, but when I cam in, a physicist was explaining light’s dual nature and Young’s double-slit experiment and quantum entanglement. And that seemed like a pretty good metaphor to lay on top of the story of what happened to my kids. And I think, well, it became an essay that’s satisfying to me, whereas it wouldn’t have been satisfying just recounting what happened.”
When our Skype call ended and I closed the lid on my laptop, I sat back in my chair feeling as though I’d just speed-read a new essay collection. I was satisfied, but I was also something else – curious or excited or ambitious. I couldn’t pin it down. I wanted to write. I wanted to live life and see what mundane details caught my eye along the way. I wanted to immerse myself in a book due out next year.
About the author:
Ryan Kauffman is a creative nonfiction candidate in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University. His previous work has appeared in The Rumpus, Rathalla Review, and Heavy Feather Review. When he’s not reading and writing, he enjoys walking the shoreline of Lake Superior with his trusty canine sidekick, Dr. Watson.