Monday, September 8, 2014

Steven Church: An Incomplete Taxonomy of “Normal” Essays, Past and Present

In preparing to write this post for Essay Daily I decided it might be a good idea to actually look again at The Normal School’s “Mission” statement and our “Submissions” page, all of which were written seven or so years ago, before we’d even printed an issue:
We dig quirky, boundary-challenging, energetic prose and poetry with innovations in content, form, and focus, which isn’t actually as high-falutin’ as it sounds. We’re just sort of the lit mag equivalent of the kid who always has bottle caps, cat’s eye marbles, dead animal skulls, little blue men and other treasures in his pockets.
We describe our tastes in nonfiction as follows:
We are particularly interested in essays that challenge established norms for the genre or that don’t seem to fit in easy categories of classification. We also like some more traditional sorts of essays and reportage. 
Mostly this still seems right to me. The Normal School publishes approximately 10-12 essays in every issue, or 20-25 every year, and we get hundreds of submissions. We are regularly described as “eclectic,” “quirky,” or “experimental,” and some of this is undoubtedly due to the above description of our general tastes, and some of it because we have done some “quirky” things in the past by publishing pieces like the transcript of an E-Bay auction, or a Google map essay, or an essay made up entirely of quotes from dead wrestlers; and one result of this is that people sometimes send us their cat’s eye marbles and dead animal skulls, or a sculpture made out of marbles and skulls and green plastic army men. In other words, we get quite a bit of “boundary challenging,” “eclectic” and “experimental” prose that is difficult to classify.

That being said, I thought I’d try, for the sake of this post, to classify some (not all) of the nonfiction that we’ve accepted for the magazine, both past and present. This taxonomy is not meant in any way as an exhaustive list of the kinds of essays we publish; it doesn’t really even come close to representing the diversity of voices, styles, forms, and subjects we’re looking for, but it’s at least an attempt, an essay of sorts on some of the things we tend to like in essays. Or it’s just a love letter to our contributors.

After each “category,” I’ve listed two or three (or more) essays from recent and past issues that could fit the classification. This, not surprisingly, was the hardest part since many (most) of these essays could be cross-listed in a couple of categories. I’ve also included the issue number where you can find the essays.

The NPR Driveway Moment Essay: This is the essay that grabs me from the first sentence, usually because of something unique about the voice and a palpable tension, a heat that radiates off the page, and it leaves me breathless. I don’t mean this figuratively. I mean I literally find myself holding my breath and have to pause to breathe, but I don’t stop reading until I’ve finished the whole thing (though there are often several moments during the rush of reading when I have to stop myself from emailing the author immediately and accepting the essay). But the experience is also tinged with the fear that the author is going to screw it up before I get to the end, or that the ending will turn in a wholly unsatisfying way. It’s like one of those stories you hear on NPR that keeps you captive in your car, sitting in your driveway or garage or parking space, waiting for the story to end but hoping it never does. And the car analogy here works two ways since these essays always have an internal engine that is constantly pegging the tachometer needle into the red; they rumble with energy. Sometimes the suspension in time—the driveway moment I’m talking--is a function of narrative skill, sustained tension, suspense and momentum; but more often it is a function of idea development and complication, the unfolding of the writer’s consciousness on the page in surprisingly satisfying ways. 

          Rachel Yoder’s “The Mindfuck” from the forthcoming TNS 13
          Andrew Cohen’s “In Search of Benny Paret” from TNS8, reprinted here on
          Todd Kaneko’s “The Manly Arts” from TNS10
          Margot Singer’s “Call it Rape” from TNS 9, reprinted here on
The Virus Essay: This is the essay that maybe takes me a little longer to read, in fits and starts, but something keeps pulling me back. It’s the essay that, initially, might be a bit outside my “wheelhouse” (what is a wheelhouse, anyway?) in terms of subject or form or style, one I have to read a couple of times before it begins to settle into my marrow and grey matter. I might not even “get” it at first, but it has what Sven Birkets called a “suggestive fog;” it’s an essay that lingers, lurking around in my subconscious and rising up again and again. For whatever reasons, it’s an essay that I can’t forget, and it won’t leave me alone, that infects my thoughts with its imagery and ideas. It’s an essay that makes me uncomfortable in the way that truly great art does. Sometimes it’s an essay that, at first, I think needs editing or revision and so I’ll start talking with other editors/readers about suggestions, try tinkering with it a bit, and then I realize that I’m just ruining what made the essay special. These are the essays that fit the “spider web” analogy, where the underlying structure is subtle and often invisible, but you can’t pluck one strand without the whole thing vibrating.

          Karen Hays’ “The Clockwise Detorsion of Snails” from TNS5
          Natalie Vestin’s “Unnatural Acts: a Primer” from the forthcoming TNS13
          Kim Dana Kupperman’s “An Occurrence at Avignon” TNS11
          Ander Monson’s “The Exhibit Will So Be Marked” from TNS9

The Messay: This is the essay that perhaps seems, at first, like a hot mess, maybe like three or four essays folded into one, or a puzzle the author hasn’t quite completed—but it would be also one of the most well written and interesting essays of the stack. This is the essay where you can see the author reaching, stretching, and the whole thing is in danger of spinning out of control, where what holds it together is its momentum, like the funnel of a tornado. Often the “messy” quality has to do with the different voices and sources the author is bringing to the subject at hand. Often it’s because the essay moves elliptically, even chaotically, or via echolocation, association and juxtaposition, risking the leap between seemingly disparate subjects or ideas, but always transporting me as a reader. These are often my favorite essays to read and publish, and I find myself regularly encouraging my students to write “messays,” because they’re just fun and slightly dangerous.

          Dickson Lam’s “The Key to the Combination” from the forthcoming TNS 13
          Ben Miller’s “In Search of Hickey’s Havana” from TNS 3
          Eric Freeze’s “Bolt” from TNS 6
The Substitute Teacher Essay: This is the essay that shows up unexpected at my desk and teaches me something new about the world or about myself, the essay that surprises me with interesting or unusual facts, artfully deployed. This is the essay that suddenly makes me an expert on toast additives, the Rebel Yell, mollusks, or Rodeo Queens and gives me great stories to tell at parties; but its also an essay that takes facts and research and uses them in service of exploring larger ideas and emotional space. Every one of Joe Bonomo’s music columns teaches me something about music and surprises me, not just with the odd fact but also with the way he combines these facts with personal revelation and reflection or argument, all of it filtered through Bonomo’s unique voice. His columns are about music and memory, nostalgia and coincidence, history and our present predicament, and to even call Bonomo’s pieces “columns” doesn’t really capture the essayistic quality of his writing about music or his ability to both teach and surprise you as a reader—because it is this element of surprise that keeps a “teaching” moment on the page from feeling didactic and preachy.

          Joe Bonomo’s “Don’t You Know That It’s True?” from the forthcoming TNS13
          RB Moreno’s “The Hair in Your Texas Toast” from TNS4, forthcoming this Fall on
          Elena Passarello’s “How to Spell the Rebel Yell” from TNS4, forthcoming this Fall on
          Bethany Nitz-Maile’s “Anything Will Be Easy After This” from the forthcoming TNS13


Steven Church is a founding editor of The Normal School and also serves as one of their Nonfiction Editors. His newest book, a collection of essays titled, Ultrasonic, will be released in December 2015 by Lavender Ink. He can be found online at

Subscribers to The Normal School ($12/year) receive access to the entire online archive, and digital back issues (PDF format) are available for $5 each. Visit for more information.

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