Nonfiction As Queer Aesthetic: Discovering Myself, Discovering My Art
Dave Madden on Recognizing the Possibility of Life and Narrative
I. As Queer
One night in April 2004, I chose to be queer. I was in bed, alone, only my cramping stomach as company, thinking over the date I’d been on that evening with a woman named Heather. We’d gone to a storefront bar called The Olde Pub that failed, in its torn vinyl seats and poorly rendered portraits of Hollywood icons tempera’d right onto the cinderblock walls, to live up to its promised charm. I don’t remember what Heather wore, or what I wore. I remember there was no kiss goodnight, and that as soon as I was (safely, was how it felt) back in my apartment my two rooms felt stuffy and cramped, and I found myself pacing, restless. I poured a drink. When would I have to call her again? Would I have to kiss her, and then what would that lead to? Eventually, I knew, I’d have to have sex with her, lest she think I wasn’t interested.
I thought back to Cara, with whom I’d gone on one date the previous year, which ended back at her place, on her couch and in her bed. The weak ardor I’d so poorly faked before I’d been able to slip away back home—was it time to run through it all again? I finished the drink and tried to pass out in my bed, but the bed kept sinking, or I kept sinking, gravity pulling too forcefully on me, my dark ceiling lofting farther and farther away. I was not excited about dating Heather, because I was not excited about Heather. I wanted to be a guy who dated women, but I did not want to date women. I did not want to be what I saw myself as: a straight guy who masturbated to gay porn. I wanted to be a straight guy who masturbated to straight porn. I’d wanted my whole life to be straight, because everyone in my life was straight: every character in every book, every hero I’d been shown, every member of my family, and every friend I had at school. I’d never had the courage to stand alone as fundamentally different from everyone I loved, but that night in bed I saw my future very clearly. I could choose what I thought I wanted, or I could choose to be happy, but I couldn’t be both. I chose, before the sun came up, to be gay.
Some might quibble with my verb here. Being queer is not a choice, they’d say. But it is. Though the closet is built around every queer person—by a culture of norms whose norms are heterosexual—at some point, every queer has to decide: Yes. This is the term that will define me. These are the people I will now publicly stand among.
(I’m harping on this idea of choice and making decisions because I want in these paragraphs to understand the dynamics of such choices, what goes into them, how we find the resolve to make them, and what they do to our lives as a result. Specifically, I’m looking at the choices I made to become queer, become a writer of nonfiction, and become an artist. Maybe, après Gaga, I was born these ways, but my work and thus my life didn’t feel to have purpose or direction until I had a series of what my Midwestern friends call Come To Jesus Moments—only one of which involved Jesus.)
“I came out this spring,” I told my parents at the end of that summer, just one week into the school year. I found it easier to report on things I’d done than speak to who I now was. We were in my parents’ hotel room in the Haymarket neighborhood of Lincoln, where I had moved to to study fiction writing, and they were both very surprised, which in turn surprised me. Mom asked most of the questions. Finally, when Dad spoke, he said this: “I’m worried that your life is going to be a lot more difficult now.” I heard the love behind his voice, the concern, but I was a graduate student, I told them, in a humanities department of all places. “It’s not like I’m gonna be a youth pastor,” I said.
Your life is going to be a lot more difficult now. It’s something only a person who chose to be straight would say. What it meant: You are leaving a privileged position for a less privileged one. You are giving up certain spoils. But for anyone who finally chooses to be queer, it’s almost funny how wrong this idea is. Life does not become more difficult for the chosen queer, it becomes easier. The burden of the closet was painful and heavy. Sickening in an ill-making way. Lying to myself and others about who I wanted to have sex with so that I would fit in was so much harder than being honest with everybody and handling whatever grief I might get for it.
But I repeat it because Dad was right in one way he didn’t imagine: I no longer had a set narrative to follow. I would not marry a woman and sire genetic offspring with her. We would not buy a dog and a house. Would I just make the best approximation with a man? I read Tony Kushner, James Baldwin, Larry Kramer, Christopher Isherwood, but what I found there was loss and death and tragedies borne silently and alone. I updated my reading list, and then I stopped leaning on older queer writers to show me the way to be myself. What I learned early on after choosing to be queer was that I was going to need to find my own way, through some trial and a lot of error.
Correction: I was going to get to find my own way. It was, as they say, not a bug of queerness, but a feature. Now that the norm most central to the species—men and women get married and have sex and make children—had been tossed out with yesterday’s lunch, it was easy to question every norm, toss them all out. Why a 40-hour workweek? Why put periods and commas outside quotation marks when they themselves weren’t part of the quoted material? Why the choice between just two political parties when neither spoke to my desires? I started to see myself not as abnormal or aberrant but as another kind of normal, a further form, and thus the things I fantasized about men doing to each other weren’t a perversion of normal sex but simply the sex I was interested in. It wasn’t wrong, it was mine. Of me.
In a word, it was characteristic.
Choosing to be queer gave me solace with my characteristics, and awareness of my privileges. I was still a cisgendered white man, able to do such things as attend taxidermy conventions or teach in Alabama with little to no resistance or threat. Being queer helped me see the ways I could use those privileges to spread privilege and power around. Norms and traditions were constructed, and thus destructible. Being queer let me imagine alternatives.
I chose, in 2004, to be queer. I aligned myself with what was queer. I’d help, I decided, to make the world queerer.
In or around 2012, I chose to be a nonfiction writer. I didn’t choose to write nonfiction; I’d been doing that for years. But after a long road of striving to be a fiction writer, in or around 2012 I gave up. I gave in. Let me drag you, briefly, through that story.
I got a job teaching nonfiction in an MFA program despite never having taught nonfiction or even taken a nonfiction graduate workshop. The closest I came in school was the cross-genre nature writing class taught by a biologist who’d written a number of books for the lay reader, where I wrote an essay about habitat dioramas. I liked habitat dioramas because they were fake nature, which as an indoorsy kid in the suburbs had never felt real to me anyway. Researching their construction led me to taxidermy, researching taxidermy led me to write a book on taxidermy, a nonfiction book on taxidermy, which is what got me the teaching job.
I felt very lucky, but very nervous; I’d be teaching students more nonfictively literate than I was. My first term, I gave myself a crash course in the genre, seeking out the kinds of theorists and craftspeople I studied in grad school. Who were the John Gardners and Janet Burroways of nonfiction? Who was the Joseph Campbell of essaying and what could that person tell me about the essay’s innate structure? I started reading NF textbooks, and many of them had the curious habit of structuring themselves by sub-genre. There was a chapter on travel writing, a chapter on personal essay, a chapter on nature writing, a chapter on literary journalism. When I looked at my colleagues’ syllabi for ideas, I saw the same approach: teach NF by touring students through its genres. I’d never taken a fiction class that began with a week on the sci-fi story, then a week on the white-guy-in-a-bar story, then the YA romance, then the murder mystery. What was going on in NF country that made us think so categorically?
All this time, I was writing a new novel, about a straight divorced English professor trying to get his life back together after his gay son’s suicide. I’d gone to grad school for fiction because I believed the novel was the best literary form to know and pin down the culture of its time, and I wanted very much to be right about the culture. I wrote fiction to be part of those conversations, which I felt were important conversations. Nobody talked about the great American nonfiction book. Nobody published annual lists of the hot debut nonfiction-book writers. It was right there in the genre’s name: it was not fiction. It was, to me, not the thing that was real and important.
But nonfiction was what I was being paid to teach, so I kept up my crash course. When textbook authors weren’t thinking about NF categorically by sub-genre, they thought about NF categorically by form. They wrote chapters on the braided essay, the segmented essay, the lyric essay, the hermit-crab essay, the piece of flash nonfiction. This approach reminded me of old Jerome Stern, whose Making Shapely Fiction introduced MFAers to such story forms as the bathtub story, or the iceberg story, or the last lap story—neat ways to think about structure, but ultimately deadening. I saw the fruitlessness of writing to a form back in high school when I learned the five-paragraph essay; it didn’t lead to creativity so much as credibility. A check-plus at the top of your page.
I remember a student coming to my office one week to talk about the trouble he was having with his essay on growing up in the gloomy suburbs. He felt he had to include more of the experience of watching his older siblings fare better than he did, but the problem was memory. “I’m having a hard time remembering what kind of kids we were back then,” he said, and I suggested writing about that.
“What you just told me, just now. Why not start a paragraph with that?” If all good writing was about telling the truth (which I, having just reread Anne Lamott, believed at the time), why not just be honest with the reader about the essay’s difficulties?
“Is that allowed?” he asked.
“Well, I won’t tell anyone,” I said, and a couple weeks later the piece was in workshop. I wondered what other students would say about the moment, but by the end of the conversation nobody had brought it up. And this struck me as something extra special about the essay. When a short-story narrator began to talk about short stories, it broke a fourth wall between the work and the reader, and suddenly we had to talk about metafiction. But in an essay the author and the narrator were one, and so any direct address or self-reference not only left all walls intact but, I saw, brought the reader more fully into the essay’s aims or project. For what was an essay but the record of one writer’s attempt to know something, or to remember?
This was when I finally understood what made nonfiction an art: it had nothing to do with facts and the historical record and everything to do with NF’s tripled self. The essayist was a person in the world, a person at a computer or a piece of paper whose name was at the start of the manuscript. She was a narrator on the page, a voice and a mood put to work. And thirdly she was (usually) a character in the scenes, a figure in and of the past whom we glom our emotional responses onto and hope the best for. I saw that my narrators would always be a version of myself, a face I’d have to wear in public and be accountable for, whereas writing behind a fictive narrator would be like a closet I could feel safer in. There was a risk in nonfiction that was a queer risk, and this is what had made it feel so familiar.
If the gift of being queer was to disregard any norm for the sake of its being a norm, the gift of being a nonfiction writer seemed to be the same. There was in the end no Joseph Campbell of the essay, and there never would be. This isn’t a fault of the essay, but a characteristic. The essay is too “formally labile,” as David Lazar has put it.
It is not and has never been genre normative; this is essential to [its] nature… Calling the essay “lyrical” or even “personal” seems to me to be putting a generic leash on it, domesticating it under the guise of setting the essay onto some untrammeled ground. However, for 430 years the (not so) simple noun “essay” has allowed us to resist the normalizing impulses that govern other genres . . .
Once I subscribed to this idea, I knew that my job as a teacher was going to get a lot harder. I wouldn’t be able to spit out bromides each term about what the essay is and must do—to declare things in class like “Never use flashbacks,” as I’d heard tell re one freshly dead professor at another fabled MFA program. I was going to have to know and love the essay well enough to take it as it was, every time it greeted me.
I finished the novel about suicide, and I put it away. My faith in the form to know and pin down the culture—my faith even in knowing, in pinning anything down—was gone. Narrative, at last, had come to feel too straight.
After I moved to San Francisco in 2013, I chose to be an artist. That is, to think of myself as an artist and the work I do as art—as opposed to craft. A crafter crafting. This was a word beloved by the MFA program I now taught in: our students learned craft, the craft of writing, they were driven to improve their craft. It was an old, tired metaphor. They didn’t found the Iowa Writers’ Studio in 1936, for instance, they founded a Workshop, with all that imagined sawdust on the floor. And yet despite everything I’d come to understand about nonfiction’s queer resistance to codification and theory, I still taught from, let’s call them, Craft-Forward Principles.
Out of fear and anxiety, I felt I had to be ready with answers to every student question, and so I scrutinized my students’ drafts until I had them. I was clinical, analytical: the reason this passage in the essay on the student-writer’s breakup was causing us trouble wasn’t because the writer had told us in workshop she was reluctant to write about it, but because here we could see her narrator-self step in and explain everything, whereas before we’d been fully incarnating her character-self’s body, and what we’re responding to as readers is that shift. Boom! My students’ essays got sharper and tighter in revision. They were more shapely and elegant. They were more finely crafted.
But were they any better? At a writers’ conference one summer, I found myself in a conversation with some other fellows about teaching. We were all young professors at colleges around the country trading stories about our whiz-kid students. We spoke with wild looks in our eyes. We were passionate and humble in our tones; we all felt lucky to get these diamonds in the rough. I wondered aloud about this luck—these diamonds seemed to be more readily found in programs with more money and more prestige. Were we just giving our energies to the writers who needed it least? Weren’t we supposed to help any student, regardless of their supposed talent, learn to write and do it for life?
Nobody agreed with me on this. “If a student just doesn’t have the talent,” one fellow said, “it’s irresponsible to let them think they have a future.”
But how was I supposed to know the future? I wasn’t a publisher or an agent. The market seemed to reward books at odds with what I knew from good writing. Our talk died out there and I went up to bed, surprised at how strongly I reacted against the idea that teachers should serve as gatekeepers to the world of publishing. To walk week-after-week into my classroom, ready to do my job, I had to believe in my heart that any student there wasn’t just teachable, but that their work was improveable with my help.
Otherwise, I’d be just another writer in the way.
Can writing be taught? When tenured writing professors decided (stupidly) to enter into this debate, they seemed to be equating the word writing with notions of talent, creativity, imagination, or ambition. My sister, in sales, put it this way: You can’t teach grit. Perhaps it was the contrarian in me, or the queer who distrusted social norms. (Were they the same?) At this point in my life these selves were getting harder to distinguish, but I felt ready to rise to this challenge. You don’t think creativity can be taught? Watch me.
Now comes the part of the story about God, who around this time I started looking for. I was a lapsed atheist. Atheism had come over many years to feel too straight: who did I think I was, being so certain about it? Because I liked homework and the archaic, I undertook a program of spiritual exercises designed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1522. My task was to pray, every morning, following a guidebook that told me what from the Bible to read and what to pray over. One thing I was to pray for was the grace of discovering how I could best serve God. This wasn’t easy; being a servant and supplicating myself wasn’t exactly what I’d signed on for. I could serve God best, I read, when I lived my life in ways that kept him close. I read and prayed and waited. I asked Jesus for help figuring out his dad: What’s that guy want from me? Then one morning a warmth spread through me in my pew in our large chilly cathedral. Make new things in the world. That’s what I heard God tell me I was living this life to do.
God righted me to the verb of my work: create the thing. Care about the creating, not the thing created, the thing that gave me worry, the thing I’d been professionally trained not to feel joy in but only consequence. Was this a good essay or a bad one? Did it say what people on the Internet would like and share with others? These now seemed to me far less interesting questions than, What are the mechanisms by which we can better make artistic creation possible? I had to rethink what writing meant to me, the word itself. Was it the stuff that’s been written, or the things one does to a blank page? The noun or the verb? Is this writing any good? This question had always led me to consider the product, the stuff, but now I didn’t care very much about products, or at least I didn’t feel I had any business assessing their merit. I was interested in process, in writing as the thing I did with my time. Was that writing any good? That I had to think about. What did that kind of good writing look like?
In short, I no longer cared about being a good writer. I wanted instead to be a good writer.
And a good person. The search for God had always been a search for the self, for a kind of corrective of what I’d felt had long since lost its way. My Self. I’d written so rarely about it because I couldn’t find the interest for others. I didn’t have the stories. I looked instead out into the world, but once the Spiritual Exercises forced me to look inward I found amid the shiny spots some darknesses I didn’t know how to navigate. I had been a liar and a cheat. A sycophant and a phobic worm. I had treated so terribly and with such neglect the people I purported to love—how was any knowledge of craft going to help me write essays about this? Such essays were going to be a lot more difficult to write than the research-laden surenesses I’d made my bread and butter on. They would take some honest accounting for (and of) myself. They would take, I saw, faith, bravery, and patience—like the long, dark night of the ever-sinking bed when I found a way to be happy.
At last. I had my queer self, my queer art, and my queer artform. The essay didn’t just let me be a good writer, in the sense I now wanted to be, it made me one. Its dearth of theory gave me only praxis. Process gave me back my joy of artmaking. What’s queer about this? What’s queer about you? The gift of the essay is what it does to yourself, that tripartite separation it forces on you. The art of it, the way to do it well, I’ve found, is to find and write from the parts of your self that are misfit with the others. Bring them out of the dark, musty place it’s been easy to keep them hidden. Let them speak with their strange voices. Make the choice for you. After all, queer was queer before queers were “queers.” You’re welcome.