Wednesday, May 2, 2018

What’s So Normal About This, Anyway? On The Spirit of Disruption and The Normal School Nonfiction Series


On The Spirit of Disruption and The Normal School Nonfiction Series


Steven Church 


In the late 90’s, after two years of putting my BA degree in philosophy to work fixing toilets and shoveling snow as a maintenance man in a Colorado ski town, I headed off to graduate school to study fiction writing because I liked short stories. Little did I know that the golden age of the short story was waning and the “lyric essay” was already making its first splashes in the (often frighteningly) small literary nonfiction pond, nor did I understand then how the essay form would end up shaping so much of my professional, editorial, and artistic life.
     The truth was at the time I didn’t know Montaigne from Montell Jordan, and I thought all “creative” nonfiction was nature writing. But I would soon discover that I loved Joan Didion and Bernard Cooper, Truman Capote and Tobias Wolff, David Foster Wallace, Lauren Slater, David Shields, Lia Purpura, and Lawrence Weschler, as well as some of those aforementioned nature writers. I’d discover that 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 dangerous, revolutionary, and exciting, as if it marked the advent of something new in literature. The lyric essay itself as a form or mode of writing was not necessarily new, as both its prophets and detractors 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 exciting.
     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 (along with several friends) a collaborative writing group focused on prose writing, the spirit of principled disruption, and fun. 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 this 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: a Literary Magazine.
     When we launched the print magazine ten years ago, 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, and that it seemed like we were taking ourselves really seriously, even if we weren’t in a lot of ways. 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 tried to internalize an aesthetic of honoring and embracing history while also challenging what is considered “normal” today.
     In terms of nonfiction 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 and we wanted to throw them into a conversation with each other—and that’s how we’ve always thought of the magazine, as a conversation on the “norms” of literary publishing.
     At least once a year it seemed, we also schemed and dreamed about publishing books and, to be sure, many people asked if we’d ever get into that “business.” We wanted to do it, but we wanted to do it the right way, the Normal way. We wanted it to be largely independent with an eye toward competing with the “big” presses and we wanted the books to pay attention to design. We wanted it to be West Coast; and we wanted the books to be affordable and unique titles that embodied the same spirit as the magazine.
     The first foray into this world of book publishing has been an anthology of essays collected from the first ten years of publication. The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School, which will be released August 1, 2018 by Outpost 19. This anthology collects 28 groundbreaking essays from a diverse, accomplished group of contributors to the magazine and combines the essays with original reflections from the writers. Our list of contributors includes Ander Monson, Elena Passarello, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Rick Moody, Jericho Parms, Dinty W. Moore, Silas Hansen, Joe Bonomo, Brenda Miller, Patrick Madden, Jerald Walker, and many more.
     Because I’ve really enjoyed working with Jon Roemer at Outpost19, we decided to take the plunge even further into publishing, and our next venture is The Normal School Nonfiction Series for which I’ll serve as the Series Editor. This partnership seeks to publish books that embody the spirit of the nonfiction that we’ve celebrated for ten years in the magazine. We are particularly interested in immersive and reportage-based writing, socio-cultural and political criticism, pop culture analysis, and essayistic prose that artfully blends the personal and public. We are interested in lyric essays, hybrid nonfiction, research-driven memoir, and the sort of engaging and eclectic nonfiction writing we regularly publish in The Normal School; and we also hope to publish books by diverse, historically under-represented, and/or marginalized voices
     At the magazine 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 often longer pieces that seem constantly on the verge of collapsing or exploding out into a million different directions.
     Perhaps instead of “messay,” I should just call it a Normal essay; and perhaps I’m also just speaking of the sorts of nonfiction writing that we’ve always loved here at the magazine, those longer engagements with a unique consciousness. The essays we publish are often ones that suggest some larger, deeper, messier and possibly book-length inquiry.
     Normal nonfiction 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 that is meant to disrupt your sense of what’s actually normal in literary nonfiction.
     It is this somewhat unruly approach to publishing and an obvious appreciation for interesting nonfiction that first appealed to me in working with Jon Roemer and Outpost19. I’d loved books that Jon had published with Outpost19 by Lawrence Lenhart and David LeGault, as well as an anthology, Rooted, edited by Josh McIvor-Anderson, in which I had a short piece reprinted; and I liked that he combined an indie-press appreciation for literature with an obvious understanding of how to put books into readers’ hands and how to celebrate authors and their work.
     In our discussions of The Normal School Nonfiction Series, Jon and I have always said that we want to continue the “spirit of disruption” that The Normal School magazine and the anthology has adopted, while also looking for ways to reach a wide reading audience that is more sophisticated, generous, and adventurous than many publishers realize, an audience that we believe is hungry for more Normal nonfiction.


Submit here by May 15 for The Normal School Nonfiction Series: 


Steven Church is the author of six books of nonfiction, most recently the collection of essays, I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear and Fatherhood, and he edited the anthology, The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School, which will be released in Aug. 2018.

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