By J.M. Gamble
Dave Madden is the author of The Authentic Animal (St. Martin’s, 2011) and an assistant professor of creative writing (non-fiction) at the University of San Francisco. He received his Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Over the summer he reminded me, via Twitter, that “thingz need upping more than cutting.” By that I took him to mean that our time is more worthily spent by advocating for things in which we believe (aka “upping”) than by tearing down those things in which we do not (“cutting”).
That phrase stuck with me. Months later, still thinking in terms of “upping” and “cutting,” I got in touch with Dave again. Knowing him to be a careful and articulate thinker, I wanted to hear how he felt about “upping” and “cutting,” about how his current book project (an examination of standup comedy) was going, and what he had to say about our relation to art—both others’ and our own. We spoke for a few days over email. Here is what he had to say.
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J.M. Gamble: Do you still think things need more “upping” than “cutting”?
Dave Madden: Not unilaterally, no. What I remember responding to that night was a tendency for Twitter’s brevity to lead so readily to curtness and joking. Dismissals are funnier and easier to produce in few words than good tributes are. Also, when our attentions are spread thin cutting’s a welcome distraction. It doesn’t ask anything of us. It’s just a performance. Arguing why something is worth our spread-thin attention, that’s hard to do, but just feels like a better way to spend everyone’s time.
That said, upping has its shortcomings. I went to a restaurant here in town once that had a piece of lit-up wall art hung behind the bar that read: BE AMAZING. A woman who showed us an apartment mentioned how much she loved seeing it whenever she drank there. I thought it was top-to-bottom stupid.
Gamble:It sounds like maybe it’s an issue of sentiment? There’s certainly the level of spread-thin attention; but there’s also the issue of how we present ourselves on Twitter (and elsewhere). As you say, “It’s just a performance” when we cut something—it’s outside of ourselves—but when we advocate for something, there’s a level of sentiment involved. We’re making ourselves vulnerable. And sometimes that vulnerability can come off endearing. But often it comes off as naïve, I think; or bathetic—like the wall art.
Madden: Or cloying. Magicians are amazing. To amaze someone is to dazzle her, or to leave her stunned by you. And it seems to me that if your M.O. is stunning other people with yourself, you’re not hearing other people or even really talking to them. I like posing and kidding. I like coming up with narrator selves to hide Oz-like behind (e.g., I’m editing and tweaking these responses before I send them to you). But even though I’m 35 I still have Caulfieldian anxieties about phoniness and performing. So to bring it back to sentiment and vulnerability, Twitter’s all sentiment, but nobody’s vulnerable. There was a trending hashtag a while back that was sort of gorgeous in the way it bent self-regard into a pose of vulnerability: #ConfessYourUnpopularOpinon. All tweeters are immune to confession. 140 characters aren’t enough to put yourself out there. This is why the best Twitter accounts are permanent poses or ruses. Like @PrinceTweets2U or my friend @AdmPtrsn.
Gamble:I want to get back to something you said earlier: “[Cutting] doesn’t ask anything of us.” What does art ask of us? That’s a cumbersome question, of course. I mean it broadly. But I also mean it in a very specific sense. The original twitter conversation came out of my attempt to speak about a certain novel. I was reading the novel with the explicit intention of reviewing it, of putting to words my thoughts about its accomplishments and its failures.
So I mean the question both in its broadest sense, and in the specific sense of: what is our duty to a piece of art when responding to it publicly (not necessarily in the small space of Twitter)?
Madden: Actually, I went back and found it. You tweeted “I’m just going to say it: I don’t think bacon is that great.” And I replied “Ur Twitter feed’s turning into a continuing bummer. More stuff what’s good & patronizable plz. Thingz need upping more than cutting.” (Talk about poses.) So it seems we weren’t even talking about art, but ongoing food crazes.
Later in the conversation I tweeted something that makes me uneasy now in the light of day: “Fearing sentiment is the curse of us young folks.” Lots of times it feels true, but then witness “Be Amazing” or the Rumpus’s “Write like a motherfucker.” “The New Sincerity” has been re-arriving periodically since the mid-Nineties (at least; it’s when I started paying attention), and one of its foundational texts seems to be Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram”, which posited that the next wave of literary rebels would be those who risked sincere emotion. More than sincerity, I’m interested in risk (or vulnerability to come back to your questions). Now: your tweet was jokey, but notice the pose of vulnerability there: I’m just going to say it. There’s nothing risky in not loving bacon, especially since bacon-love has become such an unexceptional sentiment. It’s the foodie equivalent of saying “I’m just going to say it: I don’t think prose poems are that great.”
We seem to understand the power of vulnerability but it’s hard to understand how to really risk it. Upping or cutting, I think either stance has room for real, personal risk. Examples that come to mind are Tom Dibblee’s “Bud Light Lime, Unlikely Hope” in the LA Review of Books (a sincere and well-reasoned upping of an odious beer) and Daniel Mendelsohn’s takedown of Mad Men in the NY Review of Books.
Art asks all kinds of things from us. The only specific duty we have in responding to it is to do so on its own terms, which means we bring different criteria to Joe Dirt than we do to The Heart, She Holler.
Gamble:“We seem to understand the power of vulnerability but it’s hard to understand how to really risk it.” This seems key to me. What does it mean to be sincere? How do we really risk it? How should a person be?
Madden: Joey, I’m sorry I can’t answer that question for you, the one on what it means to be sincere. A related one I had a few weeks back: how do I know I’m feeling genuine emotions, rather than manufacturing emotions I know from cultural clues to be relevant to the situation? Why I’ve always loved David Foster Wallace was that he wrote at the heart of this metacognitive trap. And for him it seemed the way out lay in direct, urgent, selfless engagement in other people.
In my own work I’ve begun looking askance at sentences that feel too crafty (in both senses), because more often than not they’ve been put down to demonstrate my facility with words, and I no longer take it as my job to demonstrate a facility with words, but rather to use whatever facilities I have to get strangers to think about other things and people. I think my writing gets better when my language gets more boring. Then again, when I write about myself it’s lyricism that’s given full control of the helm, perhaps because I don’t care enough about that character.
Gamble: Let’s talk about this tendency towards “boring language.” A lot of un-boring language, “crafty” language, serves only to amaze—to dazzle, as you say. And certainly that’s some people’s goal, to demonstrate facility. But I like what you say about the goals of an essay, about getting others to think. You’ve talked about this elsewhere, but maybe this is a good place to rehash some thoughts about lyricism as a mode, rather than a genre. And especially if this has anything to do with vulnerability/sincerity/what-term-you-will.
Madden: It’s true that I’ve been wary about the idea of the lyric essay in how it seeks to drag nonfiction over to the side of poetry. Crossing genres is fine, useful work, but having looked at recent writing on nonfiction I remain too unsatisfied with how unthoroughly we’ve mapped the topography of our genre to start exploring new borders. The other genres get to be their own genres, but nonfiction in the academy needs to look either like fiction and poetry. Writing against this institutional tug is an ongoing project of mine, but I’ve understood that tearing down the lyric essay is a dumb thing to do because zillions of people are happily and successfully writing good ones that find receptive readers. So instead my only tactic is to “up” argument and data-use and expository writing as techniques that inhere to nonfiction and ought to given more creative attention.
I think there’s a tendency for lyric writing to see the everyday as dull and familiar and seek through language to strange it up. But what if you see the everyday as strange and confusing? I love the essay for the way it helps me make this world a bit more understandable, and I haven’t yet found a way to use lyricism to do that.
Gamble: This maybe shifting gears a bit, but I’d like to hear about your new book project. What drew you to comedy? And what exactly are you investigating in the book?
Madden: I’m looking at standup comedy, and for now more specifically at standup comedy and pain. I’m interested in comedy that comes from personal tragedy and hardship. I’m interested in the sad clown. I’m interested in people getting offended by comedians, and by the role of the comedian in the culture at large. I’m not yet sure where the book is in all that. I’m still learning how to write about standup, which has been surprising to be frustrated by. Like, when we learn to write in school we assume we’re learning how to write about anything that may come our way. Or at least that’s what I assumed. But there’s something about comedy that’s requiring a much different treatment—even on the sentence level—than, say, taxidermy.
Which, by the way, is kind of how I was drawn to standup: I realized I had equally ambivalent feelings about the subject as I did while writing about skinning dead animals. Standup comics are inherently amazing (in the way certain bar signs exhort us to be), but standup comedy is also often wretched and terrible. Even when funny or artful. There’s something enfeebling about wanting to be moved to laughter, especially in recent times when so much about our country and climate has fallen ill. I know I’m ready to start writing when I can’t pin down how I feel about a topic.
Incidentally, one thing that’s amazing about comedians is their natural artifice. Every standup set is a rehearsed performance, but in directly engaging us to laughter it comes across as way more chatty and intimate than theatre or performance art do. Being someone made so continually uncomfortable by performing, I like how standup’s central challenge is to assuage that discomfort.
Gamble:Two questions, then:
1) Can you give an example of “something about comedy that’s requiring a much different treatment.”
2) Is the essay an ambivalent form (or a form for ambivalence, which is maybe a different thing), or do you find yourself ambivalently approaching fiction as well?
Madden: Lemme give you some weak, unspecific examples. On a macro level, standup is marred by analysis, which is the fancy way of saying that jokes aren’t funny when you explain them. I’d thought I could put a book together that analyzes jokes and joking until it’s all fascinatingly unfunny. But it turns out it’s just dully unfunny. I think this is because everyone’s funny. I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t have a sense of humor. So jokes are legible, and they have their own glowing power. Analysis ruins all that. I’m an analyzer. Taxidermy seemed to warrant close, thinky analysis, but every time I try to use similar tools on standup the result is spiritless and empty.
On a micro level, writerly writing mars standup, too. Or at least the kind of jokey, showy, syntactically acrobatic writing I’m disposed to. I’ve tried to do punch-up work on my standup writing, to not make it so dull, and what results is a narrator whose voice competes with his subjects’ voices. A narrator who’s both trying to stand as an outsider while performing as an insider. More and more what I’m learning is that my job here can’t be to analyze with sentences I craft, i.e. write like the writer I’ve been. I’m starting to see my job more as a documentarian’s. This book’s working sequencing and juxtaposition muscles I’ve let atrophy from all the confidence I’ve put to my voice in the past.
And it’s funny you ask me about ambivalence. I was doing a video conference with my grad school adviser’s class the other day, and I brought up the bit about ambivalence, and my adviser asked me if that was true about my fiction. The answer I got to was that I think what makes my fiction so mediocre is my inability to tackle my characters and subjects with the kind of ambivalence I can find in nonfiction. Or maybe it’s that I can get my narrators to feel ambivalently toward their characters, but I don’t think I’m yet able to feel ambivalent about my fictive narrators. I need to think on it more. Whatever it is, there’s some kind of block that prevents my fiction from going anywhere surprising. My partner thinks this is just a story I tell myself. It’s inarguably true that nonfiction feels more comfortable and thus is safer. Not that you asked about any of this.
Gamble: I did ask, though! I’m curious about why some people write in certain genres/modes/styles and not others. I couldn’t write fiction to save my life; I think it has to do with what you say about going to surprising places. Really great comedy—Tig Notaro’s Live, say—takes us to similarly surprising places. But what kind of surprise are we looking for? Not just any surprise, surely.
Madden: Oh we’re most definitely looking for surprise in our comedy. No joke works if the audience can forecast the punchline, hence “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”
A joke is an inversion, a blown image, an upset expectation. We expect there’s some destination or desired object across the road from the chicken. We expect Henny Youngman wants us to consider his wife as an example. If there’s surprise in writing it’s in this inversion of expectations, which means we writers need to be aware of what we set up our readers to expect. And then the goal is to upset that expectation in a way that leaves them glad for the experience.
The surprise of Notaro’s set was that she wasn’t kidding. She really did have breast cancer. But of course she was kidding the whole time. She was making jokes and was much more in control of her emotions than the audience was. Compare this to a monologue or spoken-word performance where the performer announces she has breast cancer and speaks sincerely and confessionally about her experience, which is harrowing. It would be terrible, that performance. Not because it’s devastating. Lots of great art is devastating. It would be terrible because it’s unformed, unsurprising.
The Creative Nonfiction industry has worked hard to equate vulnerability with “baring the naked soul” in Lopate’s phrase. But as we’ve been talking about with Twitter this no longer carries any real risk. Notaro’s risk was that her set was a full-on bummer, performed for people who paid money to laugh and have a light evening. If people ever went to memoir or personal essays looking for decorum and demureness, maybe baring the naked soul would be a risk. But they don’t. So it’s not.
Gamble: You’ve been teaching for a while now. How do you show your students the ways to take risks in their work? To form it into these shapes that we can connect with on a level that maybe that monologue you describe couldn’t achieve?
Madden:Sometimes I think of my job to be a kind of personal trainer. And from what little I know about it, a trainer’s job is, yes, to know what constitutes good, practicable form and to design plans of attack to help people achieve their goals. Standard teacher stuff, that. But also, a trainer has to keep nudging people outside their comfort zones. Otherwise they don’t grow.
I’ve got any number of exercises, many cribbed from others, that are designed to disturb students’ practices—constraints to disrupt their standard syntaxes, or uses of the nonfictive ‘I’, that sort of thing. Also, I try in my workshops to keep craft stuff to a minimum, because the plain truth about craft is you learn it best by reading and writing, not by listening to a professor who’s got a degree. (That’s how best to learn how to write like a professor with a degree.) Instead we talk a lot about value and meaning, or the author-reader connection as mediated by the narrator.
Does this stuff lead to students taking risks in their work? I don’t know. Risk isn’t always necessary, especially for beginners who are still learning how to tackle certain forms. Students are already risking a lot just by being in an MFA program, which brings with it no guaranteed forms of employment or publication upon graduation. So it’s not like I’m pushing risk and derring-do each week. If I can get students to leave class thinking more actively about what they might write next, or instead, I’m happy.
Dave Madden is the author of THE AUTHENTIC ANIMAL: INSIDE THE ODD AND OBSESSIVE WORLD OF TAXIDERMY. His shorter work’s appeared in The Normal School, Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He teaches at the University of San Francisco.