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  • Commentary on “Spit”Transmuting the Ruder World into the Finer
  • Patrick Madden (bio)

Once a semester, my English department chooses three students to read their creative work as the culminating episode in a series of visiting writers. Until a few years ago, this student event followed the same format as the others: about 40 minutes of creative work, then 10 minutes for questions and answers. But one particular student so primadonnaed the interview, interrupting and overtalking her two fellows, exuding such overconfidence and certainty in giving questionable answers for one so young and inexperienced, that we did away with that portion. Nobody, we believed, wanted to hear smug advice from a person with so few credentials.

I mention this tale, I suppose, to pardon myself for taking on the mantle of “expert,” or seeming to, and to instead transform my role into “just one more writer” among so many brilliant souls, all of whom have something valuable to say. What I can claim, though, is expertise on the writing of this one essay, called “Spit,” appearing just before this commentary. And because my writing practice is so often so different from what I hear described (or prescribed) by others, I wonder if/hope that there might be something of value in my recounting it here. Perhaps there are other writers like me, who worry that they’re doing something wrong, because they don’t align with the predominant models.

For one, “Spit” took me about five years to write. I was writing other things meanwhile, and some of them I finished quickly, but “Spit” was one of the long essays. I was sometimes lazy about it; I left it and forgot about it for long stretches. In all that time, though, I never thought I’d give up on it, and [End Page 173] ultimately I did finish it, once I wrote enough to find what it was about. Find what your own essay was about? I hear some of you asking. Yes. Unlike a lot of contemporary essays I read, this one doesn’t derive from any event, so it’s not a story, and I had no epiphany to spark me into recounting. Instead, I felt a curiosity (not even a question, in this case, though questions often drive my writing) and a sort of giddiness about the subject, which was enough to get me started.

Before I go too far, I should revise my presumption above and admit that my writing process is not unique to me, and as I’ve paid attention over the years, I’ve found more and more writers who knead out their sentences painstakingly over long periods, who write non-narratively, and who begin without any conclusions in mind. In a 1997 Lannan Foundation interview, Scott Russell Sanders explained his process (referring specifically to his essay “Dust”) this way:

When I feel that an essay is coming to me, invariably there are two emotions. One is some intense feeling of excitement or of pain; it just has to be some very powerful feeling of any sort. And the other is bewilderment. I have to feel deeply confused or bewildered. If it’s clear to me, I won’t write about it. If it doesn’t stir up strong feelings in me, I won’t write about it. . .

I began to think of all the ways in which things take shape: planets, solar systems, constellations, bodies, and also how they scatter. Over the next few days I did what I typically do in writing an essay, which is to make a lot of notes, very freeform notes, about everything I associate with the central image or the central theme, with no sense of how all these bits and pieces will fit together. I have in my mind typically an image of being in the middle of a clearing, and in the middle of the clearing in this case I’m dancing around in a circle with Malcolm’s mother and with Malcolm, and out of the woods all around me come all of these associations. Some of them come leaping out; some of them come creeping out; some of them come drifting out...


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pp. 173-182
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