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  • Testing Ground:Notes on Writing "Ultrasonic"
  • Steven Church (bio)

Original Intent:

To write about . . . racquetball. That's all. Or at least that's how Ultrasonic began. I'd been playing racquetball alone, in the mornings, and found that I loved this time to myself, perhaps disproportionately, obsessively, in ways that I couldn't fully articulate . . . chasing a little blue ball around a court; and, more specifically, why I enjoyed it most when I was alone. I'd also been reading a lot of Lia Purpura's essays from On Looking, essays that blended form and subject in ways that I found mesmerizing. Her list essay "Sugar Eggs: A Reverie" had me thinking about space—both physical and psychological—in ways that made racquetball feel like a natural subject, or at least a starting point. Her essay "The Pin" inspired me to look for the essayistic possibilities of daily walks, and the tiny details that might escape the average unwatchful eye or inattentive ear. I think that with "Ultrasonic" I was trying to write my own sort of "On Looking" essay, but thinking of it more like an "On Listening" essay . . . sports and aesthetics, the racket of racquetball. Forgiveness. Or something like that . . . sport and transcendence, escape into the physical, not away from the body but through the body. Maybe masochism. Maybe transcendence through punishment, abuse, pounding old knees and weakened ankles . . . the need for some kind of release, something noisy and violent, like jumping in a hole with firecrackers—which, for a writer who spends much of his time devoted to interior life, is perhaps a necessary leap from time to time. My body ached and hurt from sitting at my desk for hours. Sentences seemed to bottle up in my blood and bones. I needed to move. That's the truth . . . getting lost. The normal physical rules seemed to bend and warp in racquetball. Sound does [End Page 113] strange things inside the court. It lags, drags, and loops; and I found myself lost amidst the noise most days, wrapped up in the rhythm and the movement, even the space of the game.


First was the first paragraph about the noise of racquetball, trying mostly to capture the soundscape of the game. That this remains the first paragraph is rare for me. Often the first thing I write is buried deep in a piece or excised completely—created initially only as a spark and fuel to the essay's engine and then quickly burned up. This time, I wrote that paragraph and then sat there staring at it. Then I put it away for a while. At that point, there wasn't really anything about transcendence or our baby (who is now over two years old, by the way, and healthy). There were just descriptions of the blue ball and the noise. Definitions. Echoes. And me thinking about noise: colored noise, Thermal, Johnson, and Shot noise. White. Flicker, crowd, Gaussian noise. Salt-and-pepper noise. Pink. Brown/red. Purple, gray, and noisy white. Orange. Black. Noisy black. And blue. Blue noise.

When I came back to it, when I couldn't ignore the way it had begun to shape my thinking, I decided that every time I sat down to write, I would guide my digressions or tangents in some ways by "blue" and "noise," "blue noise," or "sound," trusting that the literal and metaphorical meanings of these things, as well as the connections between sound and transcendence, would arise from the details. If I went off on a tangent, I would just break the page, give the tangent its own space to live, and keep going.

It was a very deliberate thinking assignment, a kind of mapped digression into the thicket of consciousness, an associative journey, and for me, a challenge not just in form but also in style and voice. I wanted to rely less on the "I" on the page at times and push myself to try on a different sort of narrative costume and role—that of the collector or curator who gathers scraps, bits of information, voices and images, and then assembles patterns on the page.

Revision and Craft:

Once I began to...


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pp. 113-117
Launched on MUSE
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