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The Art of the Essay: An Interview with Patrick Madden

By Angela Hallstrom

I recently reviewed a fascinating collection of essays called Quotidiana, written by author and BYU professor Patrick Madden. Such an interesting conversation with Pat ensued in the comments that I thought it would be a great idea to invite him back and interview him on the topic. Here at Segullah, we’re particularly interested in the creation and appreciation of good essays, so thank you, Pat, for offering your wisdom on the subject.

First, let’s make sure we have a clear understanding of some of the terminology we’ll be using. What is creative nonfiction?

I’m not sure it’s possible to be very clear on terminology, or, I suspect that the only people who are clear on such things are those who don’t know very much (Socrates: “I know only one thing, namely, that I know nothing”). Nevertheless, a simple, utilitarian definition of creative nonfiction is “literature derived from real events.” The term is a bit unwieldy, but it does serve to distinguish prose that’s made up from prose that’s true to reality.

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Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana: A Review

By Angela Hallstrom

A few pages into BYU English professor Patrick Madden’s collection of essays, Quotidiana, he describes what his graduate study of the essay form taught him:

“I learned that essays were not stories, did not focus on great adventures or recoveries, were not extraordinary in their subject matter at all. Essayists are keen observers of the overlooked, the ignored, the seemingly unimportant. They can make the mundane resplendent with their meditative insights” (4).

In this first essay, “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things,” Madden goes on to further elucidate the qualities of a “successful commonplace essay.” Such essays should “[reach] for new connections,” recognizing, as William Blake once wrote, “the world in a grain of sand.” Then, building upon the quotidian experiences and observations of everyday life, the essayist will “gather memories and researches, attach ideas and stories to build upward, toward meaning” (6).

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