In the late 90’s, after two years of putting my BA in philosophy to work fixing toilets and shoveling snow as a maintenance man in a Colorado ski town, I headed off to graduate school in Fort Collins. Little did I know that the “lyric essay” was already making its first splashes in the (often frighteningly) small literary nonfiction pond. The truth was at the time I didn’t know Montaigne from Montell Jordan, but I knew I loved Joan Didion and Bernard Cooper, Truman Capote and Tobias Wolff, David Foster Wallace, Lauren Slater, David Shields, and Lawrence Weschler. I knew I loved books that didn’t fit easily into “normal” literary classifications, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what those literary classifications were.
At that time the term “lyric essay” seemed sort of dangerous, revolutionary, and exciting, as if it marked the advent of something new in literature. The lyric essay itself as a form of writing was not necessarily new, as both its prophets and haters often tried to remind us. The movement to embrace lyric essays, to reclaim modes of nonfiction writing from the grips of other genre and sub-genre classifications, to carve out a space for the unclassifiable within the academy, however, did seem new—as if we were all intrepid deputy explorers setting out across the frozen tundra or hacking through verdant canonical jungles, planting flags in anything that seemed to fit under this maddeningly wide and colorful umbrella of the lyric essay. Armed with new terms and new permissions we claimed territory in poetry, fiction, art, film, philosophy and other disciplines. We kicked in doors and knocked down walls. It was a big rowdy party and everyone was invited.
Perhaps also empowered or at least emboldened by this excitement surrounding the genre, by these new permissions and this spirit of wonder, exploration, and disruption of the norms in nonfiction publishing, Matt Roberts, Sophie Beck, and I formed a collaborative writing group focused on prose writing and the spirit of principled disruption. This writing collective became a lifeline for us and other writers who’d graduated from the relatively comfy and supportive nest of our MFA program; and we supported our artistic selves by hosting themed readings, publishing a chapbook, and collaborating with visual artists. There was an undeniably fun energy that we all desperately needed, the same energy that would eventually, several years later and with the financial and institutional support of Fresno State (where I landed a teaching job), end up being the driving force behind the founding of The Normal School.
When we launched the magazine in 2007-08, we chose the name for a couple of reasons. First, we liked the sound of it and the dubious authority it suggested, the way it seemed to be telling you what was “normal,” while also inspiring the question, “What is ‘normal’”? The title has an ironic shimmer that both critiques the idea of “normal,” while also celebrating it and trying to redefine it. We liked the multiplicity and tension that exists in the title. We liked the disruption of expectations. Finally, our host institution, Fresno State was founded on Sept. 11, 1911 as the Fresno Normal School; so the title hearkens back to the history of an institution founded to train local teachers who were schooled in the “norms” of knowledge and education. We liked this this aesthetic of honoring history, while embracing and challenging what is considered “normal” today.
In terms of content for the magazine, we wanted the lyric essays, the recipes, lists, maps, collages, collaborative pieces, experimental essays, speculative essays, and essays that other magazines ignored or rejected; we wanted the experimental “boundary pushing” essays and the trouble-making essays, political essays, music essays, true crime essays, and even the straightforward memoir, journalism, criticism, and other subject-driven nonfiction. We wanted it all. At that time there were basically three dominant nonfiction-only literary magazines—Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and River Teeth—each with their own pretty clearly articulated aesthetic—roughly and respectively, literary journalism, experimental and lyric, and narrative memoir/essay. We imagined The Normal School then as something like the mutant offspring off all three magazines, where we’d take the best of each aesthetic and throw them into a conversation with each other.
In our very first issue we also challenged the magazine, McSweeney’s to a bareknuckle fistfight. We thought it was funny. They did not. But that’s a story for another day . . .
In 2018, the term “lyric essay,” has now become not only canonical and controversial but also often pejorative, it’s champions regularly mocked or vilified, perhaps for good reason. Many believe that “lyric essay” is just another name for a kind of writing that has existed for centuries, writing that we might simply call, “essayistic.” One of the original champions of the term, John D’Agata, a fairly divisive figure in our little literary bubble, has even said that “lyric essay” is fundamentally meaningless term and often an excuse for a writer to, “put on a pair of sequined pants and dance around because he has nothing to say.”
"John D’Agata, a fairly divisive figure in our little literary bubble, has even said that 'lyric essay' is fundamentally meaningless term and often an excuse for a writer to, 'put on a pair of sequined pants and dance around because he has nothing to say.'”
Make no mistake, there are many essays in The Spirit of Disruption that dance to their own idiosyncratic logic, but they still dance with you and not in front of you—that is, they are accessible and engaging even if also somewhat challenging at times—and they definitely have something to say. If they’re wearing sequined pants it’s for good reason. The typical Normal School essay might perform for you or even fight you, but it doesn’t walk off and leave you behind. It’s as interested in a conversation with the reader as it is in art for the sake of art.
We’ve always appreciated what I’ve often come to think of, somewhat ingloriously, as “messays,” or pieces of nonfiction writing that, again, don’t necessarily conform to traditional definitions or expectations of the essay, or that at least buck against other “norms” in nonfiction publishing and might be difficult to place in another magazine. These are essays that seem constantly on the verge of collapsing or exploding out into a million different directions. These are essays that cause you to stop and say, “Wait. What’s going on?” while at the same time beckoning you, “Come on. Keep reading. Just a little further. Trust me. I’m normal.” Perhaps instead of “messay,” I should just call it a Normal essay.
The Normal essay is then, for me, the unruly working class messay mated with the more academic and intellectual lyric essay. It’s the punk rocker blurred with the lyric essay’s classical composer, the bareknuckle fist-fighter mixed with the ballroom dancer. It’s the narrative tension mashed together with lyric attention. The basic foundations are the same shared language, often similar motivations toward formal innovation, and there’s something in the execution that rattles your sense of what’s real or right or normal or acceptable. It’s art, but it’s unruly and rowdy art. It’s art meant to disrupt your sense of what’s actually normal in literary nonfiction.
"It’s art, but it’s unruly and rowdy art. It’s art meant to disrupt your sense of what’s actually normal in literary nonfiction."
The Normal essays we love at times behave similarly to “braided,” “segmented” or “modular” essays where an author is weaving, stitching, or juxtaposing different threads or pieces (see essays by Bonomo, Komatsu, Lam, Monson, Parms, Singer and others); and at times a Normal essay acts like a “collage essay,” where in addition to a different form on the page, the traditional first persona authorial stance and subject is also disrupted in favor of something like a curator who collects, arranges, and processes things (see W. Todd Kaneko, Shields, and Elena Passarello) through a more objective point of view that often favors the “eye” over the “I.” A Normal essay might also move by association and echolocation, bouncing ideas or sounds, repeated images off of each other (see Miller and Wade), where the “mess” is, of course, an illusion, a finely crafted complete picture that often only emerges when you step back from it a bit and think about it (see Natalie Vestin); or it might even be a more patient, subtle, fairly straightforward narrative essay that simply disrupts what you thought you knew about the world (see Jerald Walker, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, or Kristen Cosby).
David Shields, in his essay for The Spirit of Disruption, “What We’re All Looking For,” takes up the mantle of the “lyric essay” and tries to give it some further shape and definition. His essay, as he says, “distills some of the most provocative arguments” in his book, Reality Hunger, and provides an excellent theoretical frame for reading some of the other pieces in the anthology, while also offering a great resource for teachers and students alike who are interested in teaching the “lyric essay” form.
Another of our contributors, Brenda Miller (along with her co-editor and collaborator, Suzanne Paola) coined the term, “hermit crab essay,” in the nonfiction craft book, Tell It Slant. The term refers to essays that inhabit another form or shell to explore an idea or an experience; and we’ve included quite a few such essays in The Spirit of Disruption that borrow the shell of, say, a Trivial Pursuit card (Caitlin Horrocks), an OK Cupid Profile (Silas Hansen), and E-Bay auction (Patrick Madden) or an author introduction (Rick Moody), again providing excellent examples for students interested in innovative form and technique.
Ander Monson, another contributor here, has argued against even using the term “nonfiction,” and instead thinking about “modes” of writing, with the “essay” being a mode that can transcend other categories and genre classifications. This move is obviously an effort to free the term “essay” from what Shields refers to as the “minimum security prison” of genre and all the politics that go along with it; and again I think Monson’s ideas offer an interesting way to think about what the essay mode or form can do that other modes of writing cannot. This book celebrates those possibilities.
Take a look at Monson’s contribution, “The Exhibit Will So Be Marked,” to see how he blends music, mystery, and suspense with Montaignean digressions and even nature writing. Among other freedoms, this theoretical and pedagogical focus on “modes of writing” makes room for using imagination, speculation, or even fictional elements or techniques to essay a particular subject or idea; and we see this in several pieces, including Timothy Denevi’s “Pigs, Sea,” Colin Rafferty’s, “Boys Least Likely To,” or Rachel Yoder’s, “The Mindfuck,” and other pieces that blend different points of view and modes of writing into a singular essayistic mission, once again disrupting our understanding of what’s possible in a work of nonfiction.
also by Steven Church
John D’Agata has also said that he believes the term, “lyric essay” to still be useful primarily as a pedagogical term, one that helps teachers and students talk about a certain kind of essay that doesn’t perhaps fit easily into other categories; and I like this effort to shake up the canon a bit and offer more terms, more categories and ways of talking about nonfiction. Our hope is that, no matter what category, classification, label, or frame you want to put on an essay, in this book you will find something that fits it. Interested in the lyric essay? We’ve got you covered. Want to teach hermit crab essays and experimental forms? We’ve got you covered. Memoir, personal essay, and cultural criticism? We’ve got that, too. This book offers a diverse and eclectic pedagogical contribution to any discussion of the contemporary American essay.
The Normal essays in this anthology all participate in the spirit of disruption and principled innovation. They are unpredictable, humorous, heartbreaking, and always thought-provoking. Each essay asks its reader in some way to engage with the piece on its’ own terms, to suspend some expectations and reconsider their understanding of what is “normal” in nonfiction. It asks you to enter the space of shared essaying, trying, approaching something like understanding or enlightenment.
This is why we read.
Steven Church is the author of I'm Just Getting to The Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear and Fatherhood and other books. He also teaches at Frenso State University. Learn more about The Spirit of Disruption.
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