Guest Post: Patrick Madden, Some Notes on Expectations

My daughter loves this riddle I told her:

You are driving a bus. At the first stop, 7 people get on. At the next stop, 3 more get on. At the third, 2 get off and 5 get on. At the fourth, no one gets on and 2 get off. At the fifth, 7 get off and 1 gets on. At the sixth stop, 2 get on and 2 get off. At the seventh, 10 people get on and 3 get off. What is the bus driver’s name?

Reading it here, you can easily figure it out, because you can return to the text and reread, but aloud, this gets people (nearly) every time, because once they hear the numbers, they start trying to do arithmetic, thinking you’re going to ask them how many people are left on the bus. I apologize for stating the obvious. The point of the riddle is misdirection, a subversion of expectations that’s satisfying in its cleverness instead of frustrating. This is just one example of this principle in action. One might easily point to most Hollywood movies, for instance, with their twists and turns to keep viewers guessing. I know this, and you know this, but I hope it’s worth revisiting briefly here, as I retread some of my own path to realizing it (making it real), and applying it to essay writing, specifically.

Over the years, as I read and wrote and taught and critiqued thousands of essays, I formulated an observation into a theory. For context, you should know that, including graduate school, I’ve been at this essay thing semi-professionally for twenty years. Through reading and writing countless good and bad examples, I came to feel that the best essay endings worked their way backwards through the text to shift a reader’s understanding of the whole, to reconfigure interpretation from a new insight. Thus, the endings were a surprise that made sense; they granted an insight beyond what I would have come to on my own, but not beyond what was reasonable. I became fond of saying that this represented a surprising inevitability (or inevitable surprise).

While I never thought myself original for noticing this (and creating a handily chiastic catchphrase to describe it), it took me quite a while to discover that Aristotle had theorized essentially the same thing in the Poetics:

Such an effect [Tragedy inspiring fear or pity] is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. …

A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both. These last should arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action. It makes all the difference whether any given event is a case of propter hoc or post hoc.

That is, “because of this” versus simply “after this.” We want causation, not simply correlation. “The king died and then the queen died” is not a proper story. No, wait. It is a story, according to Forster, but it’s not a plot. A plot requires not only “a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence,” but a sense of causality (“then the queen died of grief”). For context, you should know that Aristotle’s source texts were epic poems and plays, and Forster’s focus was the novel, primarily. And here we are talking of essays, mostly, though the principles, as I have said, apply broadly.

Expectations affect not only endings, influence not only twists of plot and action. When we read, we bring myriad expectations to the text, from the most basic (that it will be decipherable), through the conventional (that it will exemplify proper grammar), through the contextual (that it will present to us a world we recognize or, sometimes, characters that we “relate to”), to the transcendental (that it will satisfy in us a spiritual yearning we didn’t quite know we had). We read through our expectations at every turn, and every straightaway, too.

No one’s expectations are infallible; no reader is ideal. Yet I am paid to read others’ work and offer my honest critique, asking them questions and suggesting ways to improve. Perhaps the commonest category of misstep I find in draft work has to do with failing to meet or anticipate readers’ expectations, failing to consider the expansiveness of language and the way ambiguities can be detrimental, even antagonistic to readers. I tell my students that I am a lazy, impatient, intentional misreader. I expect them to do the work of considering their words and phrases and rooting out unintentional misreadings. Because I will misread them every chance they give me, I say. We laugh, but they know I’m serious.

I find such problems all the time, but I suppose I ought to include here an example. So I’ve asked permission of one of my students, whose recent essay caused me and her classmates a slight bit of consternated amusement. The essay was titled “Love Bursts,” which pressed play on my mental boom box with a two-song playlist of Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” and Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” each of which strings together a litany of bad things love does (scars, wounds, marks, bleeds, brings me to my knees, etc.). [I could, too, have remembered the Everly Brothers’ original “Love Hurts,” or covers by Roy Orbison or Cher or… and who can forget the J. Geils Band’s “Love Stinks”? {rip J. Geils, who died a few days ago, and who was raised, I’ve just learned, the next town over from my hometown in New Jersey}]

Anyway. “Love Bursts” seemed obviously a sentence, subject-verb. Bursting was something love did. This determined my reading. And the first section did nothing to revise my expectation, as the author returned to her childhood, to a night she spent with her aunt and cousins in a hotel. Her mother had allowed her to go only on the condition that she not wet the bed. Uh oh. You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you? Our narrative expectations are primed. But they’re also confirmed in their reading of the title. Love bursts… we’ve got a bladder ready to burst in the nighttime, so… It’s obvious.

Only it wasn’t. The section ends in a display of auntly love, with smiles and bubble bath and not a hint of anger or frustration. Only later in the essay, two-thirds of the way through, does the title reconfigure into an adjective-noun phrase. It’s been about bursts of love all along, but I didn’t know it. I felt a bit misled. The author, knowing from the get-go how to apprehend the titular phrase, was surprised at my (and most of the class’s) misreading. It’s important to note that I don’t believe her to be wrong with her title choice; I just want her to think more broadly about potential meanings.

The advice part of this essay will be brief and general (“feeling myself too ill-instructed to instruct others” — Montaigne): Try to be aware of the various readings and meanings readers may come to give your text. Understand language not as denotative but as accumulative and tentative, words in order forming constellations from which meaning emerges. Anticipate your readers’ questions and objections, and avoid problems or address them as you write (perhaps even in direct address; the essay is wonderfully open to such meta-textuality).

If I weren’t already past the respectable word limit for blog posts, I’d talk us through an expert example of managing expectations, but instead, among so many possible models, I will simply exhort you to read Brian Doyle’s “His Last Game,” which was a Best American Essay in 2013. Savor how it both confirms and subverts your expectations throughout. To wrap up, then:

I love this story my mother told us. For context, you should know that for many years she worked as a secretary at a law firm that handled lots of motor vehicle cases.

You need to have uninsured motorist insurance. With the cases I see every day… there’s a lot of people out there driving around without insurance, or without enough insurance. And if one of them hits you… you’ll be on the hook for the damages. For years I kept telling Chris Leone, “Chris, you need to get uninsured motorist insurance,” and she wouldn’t listen. “Liz,” she’d say. “You worry too much.” But I kept telling her, for years, and finally she got uninsured motorist insurance.

You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you? And while you’re sad for Chris, at least you’re glad that she got uninsured motorist insurance just in time.

Except… in time for what? Nothing happened. Nobody hit Chris. Chris didn’t hit anybody. “Mom!” we laughed. “This is the part where an uninsured motorist hits Chris’s car, and…”

“No,” said Mom. “That’s it. She got the insurance. Now she’s covered.”

For context, you should know that almost exactly a year ago, my mother died of cancer. Because she had smoked almost her entire adult life, we long knew that the day would come, yet I echo what many have said: you’re never really prepared. Despite the disarming pain that still catches me unawares and plunges me into a deep melancholy, I am grateful that her whole family, her husband and all of her children and our spouses and her grandchildren, and many of her friends, gathered from near and very far to spend her last days with her, when she was still awake and aware and laughing and praying and telling us all how much she loved us. When she was gone, or nearly gone, I don’t quite remember, we told this story to each other and it was a salve to our wounds.

 

Contributor Update: Patrick Madden Is A Machine (With A Heart Of Gold)

Top of the afternoon, dearest readers! We here at Superstition Review  are rife with news from the Occident after a barn-burner of a conference at this year’s AWP, held in the belly of the beast in Washington, D.C. Past contributor Patrick Madden is co-editing the 21st Century Essays series with none other than David Lazar! 21st Century Essays is put out through Ohio State University Press, and they themselves have some great news: The 2017 Gournay Prize is taking submissions from now until March 15. If anyone out there has a book-length collection of essays, or knows someone who might, tell them to check out this link here. There’s a publication deal with a cash prize of $1,000 in it for ’em if they win!

"Oh yeah. We happy."

“What we imagine it might be like to win a book deal and get $1,000.”

And the proliferation doesn’t stop there: Madden also has provided us with the announcement for not one but TWO collections of essays, titled (respectively) “After Montaigne” (which was also co-edited with David Lazar), out from University of Georgia Press, and “Sublime Physick” (for which Patrick Madden is the sole progenitor), put out through University of Nebraska Press.

Buy these books!

Covers for both “After Montaigne” and “Sublime Physick.”

Suffice it to say, Patrick Madden keeps the hits comin’, and we here at Superstition Review are only too happy to share these with you, dear readers. Congratulations to Patrick Madden, and David Lazar, for all their hard work!

That about does it for us today, gang. Thanks for reading, and always, let us know what you think in the comments section below.

Guest Blog Post, Patrick Madden: Finding My Way

So without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself—or if not it will not matter—I begin the first memory.

— Virginia Woolf “A Sketch of the Past”

Patrick MaddenOne of the earliest writing lessons I learned (I refer to creative writing, not elementary school writing) is this: that I should allow my writing to guide itself instead of beginning with my conclusion already in mind. This is common advice, something you’ve likely heard yourself, but I repeat it here because I can remember how I struggled with it, how I tried to believe it in theory without putting it into practice. And I see again and again student pieces that seem to be transcripts (sometimes elaborations) of a predetermined narrative and meaning with no room for detours from “the point.” The writing in these is sometimes very clean, even beautiful, but it simply serves the goal, without being part of the process.

Now I would not say that I have arrived at any fully formed writing abilities, but I have learned to trust in the notion that I should write without knowing where I’m going. Whereas I once tried to express in words the lessons I’d already processed from highlight-stories I’d experienced, I now attempt to find or create connections between seemingly dissimilar things that flit into my consciousness coincidentally. The act itself is as fun as it is rewarding, and even when it fails, it gives me good exercise.

One recent example, among many, came to me as I was sitting in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario watching the Uruguayan national team play a World Cup qualifier match against Ecuador. I knew I wanted to write something about Uruguay’s improbable and, frankly, amazing soccer tradition, going back nearly a century and including two Olympic championships followed by two World Cup championships, and I wanted to tie this to the team’s recent resurgence as a FIFA powerhouse. Soccer is a great source of pride for Uruguayans, and I, who’ve lived in the country for four years and who’ve married a Uruguayan, share the sentiment. But I did not want to write a straightforward narrative (“I went to the stadium to watch Uruguay play against Ecuador… It was a 1-1 tie… Let me tell you about Uruguayan soccer history…”). So I kept my eyes and ears open in the stadium for other entry points to help me essay the theme instead of simply writing the story.

I thought I found my hook when I was startled by a loudspeaker promotional jingle playing all through the stadium during the middle of the match. It was hawking ball bearings. How strange, I thought, that someone would think it worth their advertising pesos to blast such a commercial to a stadium filled not with auto mechanics or race-car fans, but futbol aficionados.

But just as I didn’t understand the advertising strategy, I couldn’t see how ball bearings and soccer could work together in my essay, other than in a superficial way (the one happened during the other). So I began to write. The sentences themselves suggested what might come next, and from the process of stringing words together I got to what I think is a halfway decent connection. I’ve not achieved literary brilliance, but I’ve discovered something I didn’t see before, and my essay is a new creation that never was in the world before. In any case, it’s reaffirmed the lesson about letting the writing find its own way, which I took so long to learn.

NOTE: The essay I refer to can be read at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, along with others I’ve written, at this link: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/columns/dispatches-from-montevideo

Issue 8 Highlights

Issue 8 of Superstition Review is packed with talented artists and writers. Here are a few highlights:

Art
New England artist Paul Chojnowski creates vivid images not with pencil or paint, but with fire. His “fire drawings” are detailed images made by burning, scorching and sanding the surface of paper or wood. Take a look at “After the Deluge” to see how Chojnowski burned and scorched a piece of maple veneer into a beautiful image.

Ready to let your imagination go to work? Check out the work of Rafael Francisco Salas. Salas’ bio states that he uses “landscape along with narrative and symbolic elements [to] create artworks that investigate the nature of nostalgia, memory and dreams.” In Untitled (Funeral), we see a funeral scene, but the casket is obscured by . . . something. This is where your imagination comes in. What does your brain interpret the something to be—a ghost, a dream, a memory?

Fiction
How’s this for a first sentence – “My son was born under the carob tree, and all three fathers were there to greet him.” Three fathers? You’re interested, aren’t you? Read Eric Maroney’s “Grow, Grow” and you will not only learn how this first sentence is possible, you’ll realize this is a beautiful story of hope.

If all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, then we’re all stars of our own reality show or prime time TV drama. Eugenio Volpe explores this theme in his short story “Low Lives.”

Interviews
A peek into a writer’s brain can be just as entertaining and enlightening as reading their work. SR interviewed many fascinating writers this fall, including Darrin Doyle and Madison Smartt Bell.

In his interview, Doyle discusses how he creates the vivid images in his stories and talks about the difference between writing a short story and a novel (teaser – it has something to do with pregnancy).

Bell shares where he gets his inspiration (daemons: just read the interview) and what he is currently working on; a biography of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, first Emperor of Haiti, a romance, and a story about zombies. Real ones, though, not the movie kind.

Nonfiction
“Walking Sophie” is about kinderwagons, pollution, and Winston Churchill. How do these all fit together? Follow James Valvis on his daily trek with his infant daughter to the mailbox and the park and even further through the many emotions of rejection, endurance and what it means to be a father.

“I’ve never seen the top of my head.” How would you respond to the statement? Patrick Madden muses over this pronouncement from his daughter and other subjects in his set of essays “Contradiction: Poetry,” “Contradiction: Insanity,” and “Contradiction: Memory.”

Poetry
Ever lose part of a savannah? Misplaced a volcano? Read Karen Skolfield’s “Lost Mountain” to see if maybe you have.

“I Sit in on a Special Education Lesson” by Yu Shibuya shows how poetry can take an everyday occurrence and find the complexity of emotions that exist under the surface. Read this poem. You will not be disappointed.

Nor will you be disappointed with any of our other talented contributors to Superstition Review Issue 8. Now, go—look, read, repeat.

Forthcoming: Patrick Madden

Superstition Review is thrilled to announce our publication of Patrick Madden in our upcoming issue, set to launch this December. Madden is a wonderful essayist who curates his own website which features classical and renowned essays from the most esteemed authors in history and currently teaches at Brigham Young University. Check out his website at www.quotidiana.org.

Patrick Madden joined the BYU English Department in 2004 after completing his Ph.D. at Ohio University. He specializes in theory and practice of the personal essay and its sister genres (travel, aphorism, etc.) in literary nonfiction. He is also interested in Latin American Literature.

His first book, Quotidiana, a collection of personal essays, was published in early 2010 by the University of Nebraska Press. It was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction; it won a gold medal in the Independent Publisher Book of the Year Awards for Creative Nonfiction, a bronze medal in the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Awards for Essay, and the Association for Mormon Letters Award for the Personal Essay. He has published individual essays in The Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, Portland Magazine, and many other journals, plus some of these essays have been anthologized in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2007 and The Best Creative Nonfiction vol. 2 or noted in the back of The Best American Essays.

He enjoys volleyball, basketball, web design, strategy games, singing, Rush, and Notre Dame football. He and his wife, Karina, have three sons and three daughters.

We are honored to have the opportunity to publish Madden’s work ourselves, and look forward to our readership enjoying his work as much as we have.

Below is a link to one of Madden’s essays, entitled, “On Laughter”
http://magazine.byu.edu/?act=view&a=2390

Or you can listen to him read the same essay by downloading the .mp3 from this link:

http://magazine.byu.edu/issues/121/2390/files/patrickmaddenonlaughter.mp3