A Normal Interview: Ryan McDonald talks with Steven Church about The Spirit of Disruption
The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Essays from the Normal School Edited by Steven Church Outpost19, 2018 ISBN: 978-1944853464
Contributors: Joe Bonomo • Kristen Cosby • Timothy Denevi • Silas Hansen • Caitlin Horrocks • Todd W. Kaneko • Matthew Komatsu • Dickson Lam • EJ Levy • Patrick Madden • Brenda Miller/Julie Marie Wade • Thomas Mira Y Lopez • Ander Monson • Rick Moody • Dinty W. Moore • Jaclyn Moyer • Aimee Nezhukumatathil • Jericho Parms • Elena Passarello • Lia Purpura • Colin Rafferty • David Shields • Margot Singer • Ana Maria Spagna • Natalie Vestin • Jerald Walker • Rachel Yoder
Featuring 28 writers, The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Essays from the Normal School is an anthology containing an eclectic array of traditional and innovative creative nonfiction essays that were published in the Normal School during the ten years since its launching in 2007-2008. Over email, editor Steven Church spoke with me about it in-depth.
Ryan McDonald: Reading through The Spirit of Disruption, I felt like I was reading the All-Star lineup of current essayists, with there being essays by Elena Passarello, Dinty W. Moore, Jericho Parms, Brenda Miller & Julie Marie Ware, Ander Monson, David Shields, and so many more talented writers, whether emerging or emerged—all of which made for an entertaining, thought-provoking, and fun anthology. Could you talk about the process of making it? What was it like for you to edit and see this "All-Star Game" come together?
Steven Church: I love the "'All Star Game" analogy because, honestly, I felt that as I was putting the anthology together—as if I was a manager tasked with creating the ultimate "Dream Team" of essayists. I remember sitting down one day and just looking at ALL the essays we've published in ten years and thinking how incredibly fortunate we've been to work with so many incredible writers, both established and emerging. We've had "rock stars," in our pages, but I think I've enjoyed as much or more working with the writers in this anthology who are just bursting onto the scene and whose career we've been able to follow and celebrate; and I really feel that part of the mission of the magazine is one of literary citizenship and, in particular, proselytizing for and celebrating the essay form.
When we started the magazine, we wanted to publish more essays in each issue than many magazines publish in a year; and we're averaging around 20-30 essays every year in our pages; so as you can imagine, narrowing the anthology down to 28 essays was extremely difficult. I felt like I could've put together two or three volumes of amazing nonfiction. At one point, I was compiling alternate indexes organized around themes, forms, or other principles, and realized we could touch on so many elements of the contemporary essay, so many different themes and subjects, and put together a bunch of mini-anthologies—but that clearly wasn't what my publisher wanted. It was also really important for me that the anthology represented the breadth, depth, and diversity of nonfiction and contributors that we publish.
So yeah, pretty quickly I began to feel the weight of my task; and I'll be honest and admit that I'm already compiling a Volume 2 in my head. But it was a lot of fun to work on this project, in part because I was able to revisit some of my favorite work from the first ten years of the magazine but also because I really enjoyed reading the reflections from the writers and thinking of this as a resource for teaching. I suppose, on some level, that's how I approached it—as a teacher thinking about what essays would be fun to use in a nonfiction class, or what essays would get someone excited about the possibilities of the contemporary essay.
Many of the reflections are essays in themselves, and taken as a whole they make up a fascinating "second anthology" on nonfiction form, craft, and theory.
RM: The reflections were hands-down my favorite part of this anthology. They're wonderfully rich stuff for anyone who calls themselves a writer or reader. Like, on her essay "The Mindfuck," Rachel Yoder writes, "After I was done writing tomes of boring drafts, I re-opened this document and came to terms with the fact that Crazy Narrator was much more interesting, compelling, and honest than her sane version." That's brilliant and so satisfyingly idiosyncratic. I sometimes wonder if we don't talk to each other about our writing processes enough, but here, you get to see 28 writers talk about the many different ways they more or less "failed forward" towards the finished essay presented in this book. What interested, surprised, or even inspired you reading through these reflections?
SC: I'm so glad you mentioned Rachel's essay. That was one of those pieces that I vividly remember reading. I was sitting at my local pub and as I read it, I had to remind myself to breathe. I know it's a cliche but that piece, that VOICE, took my breath away. I emailed her immediately and accepted it. And then to read that it was an abandoned draft, a "crazy" narrative voice that had been largely edited out and abandoned, was so fun and I think a great message for young writers to hear. I guess I'm also thinking about how many times writers send us a piece and say something like, "Well, I just figured you guys might like this," because it's often something a bit outside their comfort zone or an essay that other places might not have understood or appreciated, a piece that "failed forward."
I WANT to be the magazine where people send their craziest, most experimental, fun writing. But at the same time, I'm proud that we also publish some very traditional kinds of essays and memoirs. And it's especially interesting to hear writers talk about their own work and its origins. These questions are so often difficult for me to answer about my own essays, so I loved reading the variety of origin stories behind these pieces, whether it's Aimee Nezhukumatathil talking about writing the essay for her mother or Colin Rafferty breaking down the reasons and choices he made when tackling a piece on the Columbine shootings, there's so much fascinating insight into both craft and inspiration. It's also just fun to see Ander Monson give us an origin story combined with an expansion of the essay or Rick Moody basically give us another essay that doesn't even touch on the origin story of his original piece.
RM: And you mentioned intending for this book to be a resource for teaching, as an educator and writer yourself, how might you envision these reflections being used in the classroom?
SC: One thing we did was also ask the anthology contributors to think of a generative writing activity that is somehow inspired by or informed by their essay and we've got a collection of these that we'll start rolling out this Fall through our website and social media. I think the essays combined with the reflections lend themselves to not only such generative kinds of writing prompts or challenges (i.e. Read essays and reflections by Levy and Moyer and write about your relationship to bread.) but also to critical discussions of craft choices as well as questions of inspiration and theme or subject matter. At one point I also started working on some "pairings" of essays along with discussion questions that we may put up on the website as well. For example, if you wanted to do a unit on lyric essays or hermit crab essays, we'd have suggestions for pairs or groups of essays that could be read together. For the "hermit crab essay," we might recommend essays and reflections by Patrick Madden, Silas Hansen, and Caitlin Horrocks; or if you wanted to talk about humorous nonfiction, maybe you'd assign essays and reflections by Dinty W. Moore and Rick Moody. Perhaps you're teaching a course on multi-ethnic literature, you could use works and reflections by Dickson Lam, Jericho Parms, Jerald Walker, Todd Kaneko, or others in the anthology to show how vital the personal essay is in such critical studies of literature.
I guess my goal was to create an anthology that could be sort of like a Swiss Army utility knife and serve many functions. I wanted a book that could be taught in creative writing, literature, or even rhetoric and composition classes.
RM: A Swiss Army utility knife is a great way to put it. Up there with one of my personal favorites, Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, this anthology definitely felt like one of the most comprehensive and enlightening representations of contemporary creative nonfiction out there. I want to circle back to something you were just getting at, The Normal School's goal of challenging what we "perceive" as normal in creative nonfiction. There are so many great things that seem to come out of that—the fact that so many writers unsure of an experiment or chance they're taking found success at The Normal School, the educational mission of the anthology, the juxtaposition of traditional creative nonfiction with innovative creative nonfiction, etc. For you, what else about this anthology makes you feel like what you all set out to do founding this magazine ten years ago has been successful?
SC: You know as an Editor, you do an issue and move on to the next one. In my case, the magazine is also a class that I teach, so each issue is a new semester. And you don't often have an opportunity to sit down and look at the whole body of work. It's sort of like a "tenure review" putting this anthology together; and unlike an actual tenure review, this was pretty fun.
It was edifying I suppose to see that so much of what we intended for the magazine in terms of its emphasis on contemporary nonfiction has come to fruition. We wanted to be one of the first places writers and readers thought about when they thought about great essays. And though I'm glad that we are often a place where writers send their noble experiments, I sometimes bristle at the suggestion that this all we do, that we ONLY publish formally innovative, weird, or experimental work; and I hear this from people who say, "Oh, I don't have anything that you'd be interested in." I want to just hand them some back issues and ask them to take a look. In fact, almost all of our poetry is pretty straightforward narrative poetry, our fiction largely character-driven realistic narrative; and our nonfiction runs the gamut from traditional memoir to lyric essays.
As an Editor I'm not interested in a magazine that solely reflects my aesthetic, so I work hard to choose essays that appeal to a wider reader-focused aesthetic. I think about what readers might want from an issue in terms of subject matter and style and try to make sure that each issue is engaging in an ongoing conversation about the norms of nonfiction publishing. This is how I've always thought of the magazine—as a conversation—so the anthology becomes a kind of "greatest hits" of this now ten-year conversation, one that just keeps rolling along; and it's been immensely satisfying to step back and kind of assess what we've done as we enter the next phase of the magazine and venture out into book publishing with this anthology and with The Normal School Nonfiction Series from Outpost19.
RM: Over the past ten years, as you aimed for each issue to engage in the ongoing conversation about the norms of nonfiction publishing, how much have you noticed your aesthetic and readers' aesthetic develop and/or stay the same? How do you see that being represented in the anthology? And based on that, if you were to guess, what do you imagine a Normal School anthology published in 2028 would look like?
SC: This is a great question and one that I can maybe answer a couple of ways. We've certainly seen that forms and styles of nonfiction that were once perhaps considered "experimental" or eclectic have become almost canonical. "Hermit Crab" essays and "Lyric Essays" are published and taught all over the country now. I find that readers of nonfiction are increasingly sophisticated in their tastes and thirsty for new voices and new ways of essaying on a subject. And while this may be an aside/broadside, I think that the book sales and marketing world has been slow (or completely inept) at recognizing and responding to this. But perhaps more importantly and significantly, as the magazine has grown in presence and influence over the past 10 years, we've tried to acknowledge whatever power and privilege we have in the literary world and to use that to try and elevate not just non-traditional forms but also to actively promote intersectionality and celebrate marginalized voices. For us the work that VIDA does has really provided inspiration for us to expand our understanding of what's "normal" in nonfiction now, to read with an eye toward greater expansiveness, toward building a new canon of diverse voices and styles; so I'd hope that an anthology of "normal essays" published in 2028 would reflect this mission.
RM: I look forward to reading that anthology in 2028! And of the present anthology, what are some "craft moves" and/or voices that you found especially appealing or notable?
SC: Oh, man, there's SO many. I mean, pretty much every essay is doing something interesting or admirable in terms of craft. I'll mention a couple, though, that really stand out to me in terms of the level of artistic intent and design. One of these is Matthew Komatsu's essay, "Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade," which turns out to be this incredibly complex layered and braided essay that both makes and manipulates time, an essay that is at its heart about loss and grief. I also love how Jericho Parms in, "Still Life with Chair," and Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade in their collaborative essay, "Bridges," or Anna Maria Spagna in "So Many Rings," use meditations on a singular object as the lens through which to explore so many big ideas; or consider how essays by Jaclyn Moyer and E.J. Levy both use "bread" to explore family relationships and identity. It's incredibly fun to see writers like Dickson Lam, whose first book was recently released, take risks in form and style that pay off in ways that made all of us at the magazine sit up in our chairs and take notice; and Todd Kaneko's essay, "The Manly Arts," comprised entirely of quotes from wrestlers will always be one of my favorite pieces, and I have to admit to loving it when Todd admits in his reflection how labor intensive it was to write this piece.
RM: What else do you want people to know about or take away from this anthology?
SC: I guess my hope is that The Spirit of Disruption will find its way into the hands of readers who just love great essays, but also that it might become a go-to resource for anyone teaching creative nonfiction at the undergraduate or graduate level. I do believe it not only represents the first 10-years of The Normal School and our commitment to publishing great nonfiction but also, in many ways, the breadth of possibilities in the contemporary American essay.
Ryan McDonald is a writer who grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Northern Virginia. His essays have been published in the Normal School Online, the Rumpus, Catapult and forthcoming in 1966. He is currently working on a collection of essays about commodities and the way they affect our lives globally, locally, and personally.
Steven Church is the author of six books of nonfiction, most recently I'm Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear and Fatherhood, and One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals. He's the Editor of The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Essays from The Normal School and Series Editor for The Normal School Nonfiction Series from Outpost19. He coordinates the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State and teaches for the Low-Residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College.