Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Amy Butcher: Preserving Activity Within The Art Of Essaying

I’m interested in the strange, the abstract and the archaic. As an editor, I find I turn to nonfiction not for absolute authority or the permission to feel a specific way—indeed, that’s another impulse altogether—but to be taken on a journey, to feel a story as it arrives, to emerge into a clearing where, as Vivian Gornick so eloquently puts it, “the sense of things is larger than it was before.” 

It’s not an easy feat.

As a writer and reader in my own right, I understand—or at least, have some small sense—of the complexities and impediments in crafting a successful, evocative essay. There is, for example, the essay’s story and its equally unique storyteller—a fact that's often overlook by outsiders to our genre or those just dipping their feet into the proverbial genre pool—and it can be difficult to discern whether the narrative voice selected best services the subject—and essay—that follows. As the editor of Defunct, an online-only journal that publishes flash nonfiction on all things—you guessed it—antiquated, that mode of voice is most important: it's what sets apart, in my mind, the good essays from the lackluster. In Allison Green’s forthcoming “Séance,” out on October 15th as part of Defunct's sixth issue, a handful of 1970s tween girls sit in a basement, attempting to resurrect the spirit of John F. Kennedy. Their sleeping bags are “spread across mattresses on the floor,” the girls are “perched on the edges of [their] mattresses in flannel pajamas,” and their “stockinged feet [are] on a frayed square of green carpet.” The reader is instantly transported into the unique point-of-view of a young girl’s Friday evening, a simultaneous nightmare of peer pressure and preteen yearning. Green writes, “Who among us brought the séance lore? Not me. But we all went along, closing our eyes and holding the sweaty fingers of our neighbors.” The essay—both its experience and how the way it is expressed is fun, pleasurable, and entertaining. Later, when the girls cry out at their own futility, an older and unmistakably wiser Green reflects, “I was crying for more than my young self; I had absorbed my parents’ feelings. My tears were vicarious tears; I wanted to feel a pain as deep as theirs.”

There’s also, of course, form, and this is something I’m increasingly interested in as an editor, especially considering the founding nature of Defunct: to salvage the dead, resurrect the past, and quell the existential unease of nostalgia. Founded by Robin Hemley—our beloved former editor-in-chief who's recently assumed the role of Publisher as he embarks on an exciting new job in SingaporeDefunct asks of essayists that their work reflect the way the world used to be, or perhaps what we wish it would become, and while the subject of defunctness is in itself plentiful—teen crushes and fads and objects, antiquated social norms and civilizations—it’s easy for essayists to fall into the tired trap of wistfulness and nostalgia. The work must move beyond the reminiscent voice and melancholic yearning to the clearing Gornick asserts: the place where something meaningful is imparted upon a reader. As editor, I want to feel the pain of Pluto’s abrupt demotion, see the child angry at the inaccuracy of outdated textbooks, experience the heartache as Britney Spears takes a razor to her soft, blond head—the metaphorical shedding of her once sane self. And how better to do that but through experimentation with form?

It’s what fascinated me most in my edification of the essay as a graduate student at the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program: the many shapes the essay can take. A site such as this doesn’t need a reminder that the essay is, after all—and has been since its inception—an attempt, a trial, an experiment, but as an editor and avid reader, I’m moved most by essays that uphold that artful process—essays in which the act of essaying itself has not been lost in a quest for elegance of language or loftiness of prose. It was one of the most meaningful lessons imparted on me as a student of The Essay Prize, a course run simultaneously by Ander Monson at the University of Arizona and John D'Agata at Iowa; the course was designed around a foundation by the same name that seeks to annually celebrate essays that best exemplify the “activity of a text” rather than its “status as a dispensary of information.”

We’re into that, as well. As a writer, I know firsthand the relative ease with which one can fall into the trap of predictability over complication, and what moves me most as an editor are essays that question that narrative path and deviate from the expected. Take, for example, Ander Monson’s 2012 Defunct essay, “Questions for Megatherium,” structured as an open letter to a long-defunct ancestral reptile whose appendages resemble human hands reaching out, grasping, clutching. While it’d be easy for Monson to reflect stoically and from afar, he instead essays through a series of queries both practical and poetic. “If you knew,” he writes, “you would be modeled by a company called Paleocraft in resin 10,000 years after your death, at 1/35 scale, what would you think?” And, later, “Was your world filled with sadness or with hope, if you know what those things are? Is happiness knowing you will be remembered as a monster? What do you know of happiness, of fatness, of the poetry of pain?” Monson doesn’t lose sight of the physical act of essaying; his work is both heartfelt and endearing, entertaining and amusing, and the vessel he utilizes—an open letter form—is surprisingly effective.

It’s something I hope we’ll see more of in future issues: sharp works that employ form as a compliment to content. We’re always hungry for experiments in voice and style, in language and chronology, and in fact recently established a separate call specifically for multimedia works—essays that employ illustrations, audio, and film to further encapsulate a defunct experience. We release our sixth issue next month, and in one of the essays I’m most excited about—our first-ever animated work, "Papel Picasdo," by Los Angeles-based artist Javier Barboza—readers will witness a sense of romantic disenchantment through a series of hand-drawn illustrations. Each, Barboza explains in his accompanying artist’s statement, were torn by hand and serve to articulate the nightmare that is the loss of a couple's future.

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, but it couldn’t be done without the terrific contributions of our authors and the steadfast diligence of our editorial staff. We’re a small group, and we exist because we care. Because we love and wish to promote the essay's continued emergence and its ongoing evolution. In our five-year tenure, we’ve had the unique privilege of publishing work by many admirable contemporary essayists—among them, Lia Purpura, David Shields, Ryan Van Meter, Roxane Gay, Joe Wenderoth, Elizabeth Kadetsky, Dinty W. Moore, Joe Bonomo, Chris Offutt, Marion Winik and the aforementioned Ander Monson—and we’ve garnered the attention of both The Atlantic and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. We've held readings, conference panels and book fair booths in Iowa City, Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago and Melbourne, Australia, but what I’m most proud of is the ways in which our contributors have responded to our call with unparalleled enthusiasm: reflecting whimsically on the art of raking and cursive writing, the Jart and the Jheri curl, their childhood backyard, country, culture or even continent. It's what makes our work rewording as editors and readers, and what sustains us as practitioners as we seek careers in this inspired genre.

This fall, we’ll debut twelve evocative and heartbreaking essays on pay phones and cooking trends, distorted perceptions and carnivals, cities composed of tents and the call-to-arms nature of the word “Hark!,” and of course, we hope you’ll join us. And, if the subject suits you, submit to our spring issue.
Amy Butcher is the editor of Defunct, a journal of flash nonfiction founded by Robin Hemley. Prior to her promotion, she served for four years as inaugural Managing Editor and organized events, panels and readings in Iowa City, Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., and Melbourne, Australia. She is a recent recipient of the Olive B. O'Connor Creative Writing Fellowship at Colgate University, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, and a recent recipient of an International Research Award from the Stanley Foundation. Her own essays and short stories have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Tin House, Salon, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, The Indiana Review, The North American Review, The Colorado Review, American Short Fiction, Hobart, Vela, and Brevity, among others.


  1. I hope you will keep sharing more interesting posts.

  2. I am trying to submit to defunct and their submissions page is not up and running. Any ideas about what to do?

    Thank you.

    1. It would not be surprising to us (though sad) if Defunct has, uh, gone defunct