Archive: Summer-Fall 2020

Scroll through the texts or click on a name: Patrick Madden and Mary Cappello, Patrick Madden,  Cheryl Strayed,  Claudia Rankine.  


June 5, 2020


from “Listening”

in Disparates

by Patrick Madden (feat. Mary Cappello)


Do our books not tackle social issues?—Mary Cappello


Is it possible to write, publish, and read personal essays—those mullings of the individual mind—in a time of political upheaval that calls for social action? One important literary magazine, lamenting that “literature on its own changes nothing,” is delaying some of its services because these “are not normal times.” Many of us, I know, struggle with this issue of literary irrelevance, and Patrick Madden’s new book, Disparates, addresses it in the essay “Listening”.


Disparities is more than a collection of essays. It is a compendium of ways to essay the world. As Elena Passarello writes, Disparates, “plays constantly: with shape, with subject, with language; it even plays well with others in several lively collaborations.” For those who want to see the many ways an essay can be in the world, Madden’s work is a great place to start.


But in “Listening,” one of the final essays in the book, Madden raises questions about his entire project. He calls himself a “frivolous forty-something writer” and admits that his essays “serve very little purpose and affect very few lives and only in very small and temporary ways.” He looks ahead with dread to the year of societal collapse we are now living through and wonders in our Paragraph of the Week why he cannot write culturally relevant essays.


“Listening” is one of his collaborative essays. It grew out of a Fourth Genre “Inter-view” with Mary Cappello prompted in part by a shooting and the trampling of a guard in Walmart on Black Friday in 2015. Cappello’s response to Madden’s earnest questioning is our commentary this week. Taken together the two paragraphs offer a succinct defense of essaying in a time of social crisis.


Patrick Madden is the author of three collections of personal essays: Quotidiana, Sublime Physick, and Disparates. He is also the coeditor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. This is the first of a two-part series on Madden. Next week we feature his essay “Inertia.” Mary Cappello is the author of six books of literary nonfiction, including Awkward: A Detour; Swallow; and Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. A new book, Lecture, due out in August from Transit Books, is about listening, the subject of her commentary here.

The Paragraph of the Week


In writing this essay, hoping for some inspiration about what to do, wanting writing to be a relevant act, I recalled that one of the topics Mary and I touched on in that first conversation was the value of writing like ours: essays published in small-circulation journals and later in university-press books, literary think pieces that meander and apprehend a menagerie of ideas toward inconclusiveness. I had mentioned to Mary the lament I began this essay with, that I am a frivolous writer who admires but cannot seem to write culturally conscious and culturally active essays, like Martin Luther King’s, which approach social ills head on and, with power and grace, signal a way forward.

—Patrick Madden



Do our books not tackle social issues? Not head on. That doesn’t mean that they don’t contribute to changing the landscape from which social issues emerge. . . . If [an essay is] going to help a reader to think and respond with you in concert, you’re modeling a different kind of response to being in the world. This is what writers do. That’s what I want in great writing. If that man had a different surround sound, would he have been encouraged to buy a gun? And the people who trampled the guard at Walmart: they all must have been tuned in to the same station. All it takes is trying to listen differently, being encouraged to listen differently. What is it we do if not ask people to try to listen differently?

—Mary Cappello


June 12, 2020


from “Inertia”

in Disparates

by Patrick Madden


“Experience…demands our attention, the action of a thoughtful mind some distance from events.”—Patrick Madden


Patrick Madden is the author of three collections of personal essays: Quotidiana, Sublime Physick, and Disparates. He is also the coeditor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays.  His books are not just collections of essays, but projects in the many ways a writer can essay the world, and his newest book, Disparates, is no exception.


Like Montaigne, who wrote essays that meander freely, Madden likes following his thoughts wherever they lead, but—and this is the trick—they do lead somewhere. The paragraph this week, from the essay “Inertia,” illustrates the tension between nearly missing the point and yet getting it. The “clothes” in the opening sentence refer to a Montaigne costume that hangs on his office door.


The Paragraph of the Week

I suppose I could store the clothes elsewhere, at home or in Joey’s office, and perhaps I will, though I feel a fleeting glee every time I glance over my shoulder to my door and see the outfit hanging there, alongside portraits of my children and below a copy of the dot-matrix sign my father years ago hung in all his children’s bedrooms admonishing DO IT NOW! do it quickly, in response to our general lackadaisy, our tendency to ignore chores, refuse requests, or to get caught up in too many tasks, then complain about our lack of time. Little did we know, my father knew. I smile at the incongruities of existence, the recursions and extrapolations, the way experience seems to close upon itself but refuses to shut, remains open, confounds our automatic responses, demands our attention, the action of a thoughtful mind some distance from events. I think, also, to Montaigne’s office, with its inscriptions in the rafters, words to live and write by, such as I DO NOT UNDERSTAND; I PAUSE; I EXAMINE. Which humble habit, though it opposes my father’s fine advice, fits the essaying process aptly, admirably, as well as enacts the metaphor we seemed to have abandoned paragraphs ago.

—Patrick Madden



The metaphor that essayist Patrick Madden seemed to abandon began with the phrase “the moment of inertia” earlier in the essay and was interrupted with a digression about a stunt that he and a friend cooked up involving a Montaigne costume. The stunt is fun—and I won’t ruin it here by summarizing it—except to say that Shelli Spotts, a costume designer at Brigham Young where Madden teaches, made a spot-on replica of  Montaigne’s finery from his well-known 1580 portrait which Madden and his friend Joey Franklin used to hilarious effect. Before the digression Madden was drawn to the topic of inertia because he had lost the knack for closing his office door in one try with the least amount of effort, a little game involving inertia that he amused himself with, and in our Paragraph of the Week taken from the penultimate moment of the essay he completes the metaphor with the phrases carved into the rafters of Montaigne’s study: I DO NOT UNDERSTAND; I PAUSE; I EXAMINE, the moment of inertia being a metaphor for the essaying process itself. With it Madden arrives at his point about essaying, that “experience…demands our attention, the action of a thoughtful mind some distance from events.”  It is true, as Elena Passarello writes that Madden’s new book Disparates “plays constantly: with shape, with subject, with language; it even plays well with others in several lively collaborations,” but the essays are not just play and the essayist, “a thoughtful distance from events” only apparently gets lost. The clue is in the phrase “seemed to have abandoned,” indicating that he had a point and knew early on where he was headed before a delightful story got in the way giving him time to think “some distance from events,” an intention he underlines by drawing our attention to the word “seem” in the essay’s final sentence: “Seemed to, grammarians might note.”



Juneteenth, 2020

from Tiny Beautiful Things:

Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

by Cheryl Strayed


“Dear Sugar is…an explosion of the advice column into a prose work of art.”—THE


The author of best-selling books such as Wild and Brave Enough, as well as the novel Torch, Cheryl Strayed is also the author of Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of advice columns she wrote under the pseudonym Dear Sugar for The Rumpus magazine. On the day that she revealed her identity as Dear Sugar she called her columns an exercise in “radical sincerity” as important as “writing about socially significant things or political things.” The book clearly struck a chord. “Big-hearted, keen-eyed, lyrical, precise,” George Saunders wrote of her work, “Cheryl Strayed reminds us in every line that if defeat and despair are part of human experience, so are kindness, patience, and transcendence.” He was thinking of all of her books, but I can’t come up with a better description of Tiny Beautiful Things.


The Paragraph of the Week is part of her answer to the letter that asked what she, as a forty-something year old, would tell herself in her twenties.

Paragraph of the Week


One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don't look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don't hold it up and say it's longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn't say for the rest of your life.


Say thank you.


—Cheryl Strayed



For this reading I chose the Audible version of what we, in our family, call Dear Sugar narrated by Cheryl Strayed herself, and it was probably a mistake. On pandemic afternoons while I was repairing the tool shed, transplanting hydrangea, painting trellises, mowing the yard, or chopping wood, I was listening to my phone and weeping. Essays don’t usually affect me this way, and to be honest, Dear Sugar is not a book of essays. Essays are generally about the questions, not the answers. Dear Sugar is instead an explosion of the advice column into a prose work of art. The letters range from silly to heartbreaking. In one a woman writes that she is afraid to marry and live her life because she may have an inherited propensity to die young. Sugar’s advice: “there’s a crazy lady living in your head.” In another, a woman driven to the brink by her children whom she loves dearly sometimes loses it and explodes, helplessly, when she is angry. Sugar’s advice: “I don’t think you’re helpless. I think you are a good mom who has on occasion been brought to the edge of her capacities for tolerance and patience and kindness and who needs to learn to manage her anger and her stress.” In another about a writer’s insecurities she bluntly, and famously, advises “write like a motherfucker.” Most often, though, Sugar tries to help—to open a new way of approaching the problem that haunts her correspondent—by telling her own heartbreaking, funny, sometimes outrageous, and often ordinary stories, like the one in our Paragraph of the Week about her mother who loved her dearly, died young, and was, as her friend Steve Almond told her, the original Sugar.



June 26, 2020

from “Stop and Frisk”

in Citizen

by Claudia Rankine

“You are not the guy and still you fit the description.”—Claudia Rankine


Claudia Rankine is the author of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, Nothing in Nature is Private, and Citizen: An American Lyric. We at THE have long been interested in work such as hers which crosses genres, inhabiting that place where prose, poetry, and film meet. Our Paragraph of the Week is a montage from her prose poem “Stop and Frisk” in Citizen.  After you read it and the commentary you can click on the link to see the brief film version that Rankine made in collaboration with filmmaker John Lucas.

Paragraph of the Week


Everywhere were flashes, a siren sounding and a stretched-out roar. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew….And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description. You can’t drive yourself sane. This motion wears a guy out. Our motion is wearing you out and still you are not that guy…. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now….Each time it begins in the same way, it doesn’t begin the same way, each time it begins it’s the same. Flashes, a siren, the stretched-out roar….And still you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.

—Claudia Rankine



Reading Claudia Rankine is discovering that you missed the point which is the point. It is like losing the thread of the argument which was the argument all along. You read “everywhere were flashes” and “you are not the guy and still you fit the description,” and “each time it begins the same way, it doesn’t begin the same way, each time it begins the same.” Over and over you read and think there is some problem with the writing, until you realize you’re the problem. As she puts it, “you can’t drive yourself sane.” Reading Claudia Rankine is like watching an off-balance basketball player take a shot that should never go in, but goes in anyway. It is like looking at the stars until they all begin spinning. No, that’s you. You fit that description. You’re the one spinning.


See the John Lucas film version here.

© 2014 The Humble Essayist

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