I applied to MFA programs that year, and one application called for a critical essay in response to a work of nonfiction published within the last 10 years. I responded to “The Wanderer.” The response grew, became a thread in my manuscript-in-progress.
“The Wanderer” is a brief essay, with a simple premise articulated in the subtitle: the writer, a first person plural voice, reviews the world as art. They find the world wanting. Some critiques are silly: “Let’s just say that if we were able to conjure anything out of the blue, it would not be a blobfish.”
Others, though, land with more weight: “As it is, the world seems deficient in uniformity and purpose. Granted, there are mini-purposes here and there, like how within his swarm a mortuary bee has a purpose: dragging away the dead bees. A mopper’s place in Mattress World is clear, but what is the mopper’s place in the universe, the universe being inscrutable? When everything is mad, even the exigencies are mad. Sweeping, mopping, schmoozing, morticianship.”
On the first read, I probably physically nodded at this. Sweeping, mopping (I was a 20-something and hated housework (still am, still do)); schmoozing (I was working as a lobbyist), morticianship (I was writing about, among other topics, absurdities and contradictions in death and dying, autopsies, and burial practices).
I felt that the essay, in its mode of criticizing the world, was inhabiting, really elucidating, the constant discomfort of being a person (which I felt keenly (still do)). Amy writes, “We often feel that the artist is toying with us, being purposefully opaque, making us try to winkle out his meaning.” (The hope that powered my undergrad philosophy studies: that there’s a meaning to be winkled out). “Sometimes a cloud resolves itself into a camel and then we think, Ah, so that’s what he’s getting at. But then we think, But wait, we don’t really know what camels are getting at. The figurative art here is as enigmatic as the abstract art.” In my “critical” response to “The Wanderer,” I wrote, “it’s like having a broken heart and listening to a song that resonates—sure, I’d rather not feel the pain, but it comforts to know that someone else feels it, too.”
So: this essay mattered deeply to me. I asked Amy if I could interview her about it. I had questions about how she’d composed it, her process in general, how it fit with the mostly-different essays in her book, THINGS THAT ARE (Milkweed Editions, 2014). I sent her my questions.
She responded, “There's one thing I should maybe clarify before we talk, in that I wrote "The Wanderer" as satire, as a send-up of an over-controlling, over-conservative, over-ideological aesthetic--the kind of aesthetic I encountered sometimes in workshop. So everything I am seeming to criticize I am really meaning to praise. Anyway, we can talk more tomorrow!”
I texted a friend:
what happens when the piece that most articulates how u feel turns out to have been written as critical satire i am the enemy!Then:
but also i love her book so i am maybe not the enemy! AH!Then, a little later:
i feel indicted
but also not?Not really indicted, of course, because Amy was generous and kind. I did feel pretty stupid. I’d been caught in the literary version of “people who thought The Onion was real.” But, this being the literary version, it’s more complicated than that.
It’s unsettling to see read thoughts rendered for the first time in an essay, to sprout your own projects from that essay, and then to hear from the writer that she intended it as satire, a full flip, everything the opposite of how it seemed. It’s also kind of fantastic. I’ve been feeling stuck on the voice for my book, I think because thus far, I’ve written into discomfort and frustration. I feel sure of the concerns of the book, what I want it to worry, but I’m not yet sure of the voice/tone/structure—the approach—what Noam Dorr called “the grammar” of his own book.
Amy’s revelation of satire threw me, but I needed to be thrown. She made me realize I was begging questions: do we have to be upset with the world’s mysteries? Do we have to confront inexplicable strangenesses with frustration? Do we really want to take umbrage at enigma? (Is it entitled, and itself absurd, to do so?)
In Things That Are, Amy shows that we don’t have to stay mired in frustration. There’s another path, a brighter one. She explains what that looks like, below. Unsurprisingly, in her explanation, writing-work and life-work form overlapping circles. There’s a moment where she asks if what she’s saying makes sense, and I answer clumsily because I feel like it makes so much sense, more than I’d have thought to look for: she’s mapping the way she writes, and the resulting route also functions as a way to try to live.
Sarah Ruth Bates: I’m so excited to talk with you! Thank you so much for taking the time!
Amy Leach: Oh, you’re very welcome! I’m glad the essay resonated with you!
SRB: Oh, very much. So, you wrote “The Wanderer” as satire, in response to, you said, common attitudes in workshop?
AL: Well, I don’t know if I would say “common,” but I remember somebody when I was in graduate school (Note: Leach got her MFA at the Iowa Nonfiction Writers’ Program), raising the idea of what it would be like to workshop Shakespeare, or Moby-Dick, and I always thought that was the most hilarious idea, and had always wanted to develop that joke, and I think that’s always been in the back of my mind: what if we applied our conventional aesthetic principles to something wild?
SRB: Something maybe out of our range?
AL: Yeah, right, exactly. Moby-Dick, or…I just kept going, bigger and bigger and bigger—Oh, why don’t we just review the whole world? You know, according to our aesthetics. The workshops were generally helpful, but I remember people would say to each other, “oh, you’re going too far,” “this is too this,” “I can’t figure out your worldview,” and there was often pressure to be more obvious. So this essay is like an extended joke—what would it be like if we workshopped the animals? There’s a passage in there that reads, “olms are too ambiguous, and Pomeranians are too combustible.” I started with a list like that, criticizing animals for being excessive in specific ways, and then I developed the rest of the essay around that. Does that make sense?
SRB: Yeah, definitely. That totally makes sense, because I did wonder—it’s such a great premise for an essay, but I wondered how it might have occurred to you. And it makes sense, too, because Things That Are is so excited about the world that I wondered, how did this come from the same mind?
AL: I know, it must have seemed like quite an about-face, like I was saying opposite things.
SRB: My little theory about it was that you got a bit—that you had to carry the Things That Are sensibility throughout the entire book, and that you got a little bit tired of it? I wasn’t sure.
AL: (Laughs) I got fatigued by being so excited all the time, so I decided to be weary and sophisticated.
But there’s one piece in Things That Are that used the same wicked condescending voice, and that’s "Memorandum to the Animals." I had played with it just briefly there.
SRB: Oh, that’s the one where they don’t make it on the ark, right?
AL: Yeah, oh, sorry, animals.
SRB: We can’t—
AL: We don’t have time for all of you—
SRB:You’re cute, but you’re not gonna make it.
AL: It was that same condescension that I tapped into when I wrote "The Wanderer"—but no no no no, I never did get fatigued of wonder. (Laughs). I’ll never get tired of wonder.
Another thing that triggered this essay was that I was reading about Chekhov, and one reviewer who obviously wanted Chekhov to be a propagandist called Chekhov “the high priest of unprincipled writing,” and Chekhov himself said, “I lack a political, religious, and philosophical worldview.” And I thought, oh! That’s why his stories are so good! Because he’s not adopting this stance and in a very controlling way trying to make everything he says stay on message, adhere to his program. And I thought, well, wouldn’t it be funny to criticize God as an artist, to criticize him for the same thing, for not having any principles. We can’t figure him out! We can’t figure out where he’s coming from, we can’t figure out his worldview, his philosophy, we can’t figure out even his religion, and he lets characters be way too free! It’s just a free-for-all here, and that’s very disturbing to us!
SRB: Yeah, we do not like it!
AL: No. And the characters are not obvious. The world is not obvious. I try to be inspired by the world, as an aesthetic example—not just by books in my own genre, in my own culture, that have been published in my own time. If that’s all you take as a model, you might be satisfied with small rules and conventions, but if you start straying to other times, other genres, art, music, rivers, trees, animals, it is very freeing. It frees you from small principles.
SRB: Oh absolutely. Yeah, I hesitated to use the word “research” with your work because it seems like it’s so much deeper and more playful, and I didn’t want to use such a strict term. Is that a word that you would identify with, or is it more like play, exploration?
AL: Oh, research is fine. I love research--consulting materials outside of my own experience. I guess it goes back to the point of this essay, in that the world itself is so much more imaginative than my own imagination. When I find out about panda bears or peas or the moon, my imagination is stretched a lot further. Does that make sense?
SRB: Yes, for sure, and taking those phenomena as artistic inspiration, it’s sort of the opposite of “The Wanderer” view—it’s still, “the earth as art,” but as exemplary, not as something to criticize.
AL: Yes, yes. For this essay, I didn’t do as much specific research, I just had troves of tips in notebooks over the years. In the essays in Things That Are, I would go pretty deeply into learning about my subjects, like the moon, and what I like about research is what I like about nonfiction. If I just make things up, if I make my own moon up, it’s not as interesting! As the moon!
SRB: Yes. I loved the astronomy parts of Things That Are.
AL: Thank you.
SRB: Of course. So, the one thing—I’m a little embarrassed that in some ways I did sort of identify with the frustration that happens in “The Wanderer,” that feeling of if only it made more sense.
AL: Oh, I think it’s very natural to want things to make more sense, to be more understandable, comprehensible, and I do, too. I think it’s when I write that I try to counter that in myself, and I start (laughing) reveling in the uncontrollability of things! Incomprehensibility of things! In the dazzle. In the mystery. In the questions, although certainly, well, that’s not how I always feel about concrete things in my own life.
SRB: Yeah. Does writing help with those concrete things?
AL: I think it’s a relief. To try and just accept that life is wild, and incomprehensible, and funny and strange and versatile, and all those things that I was describing, when I was "criticizing" the world [in “The Wanderer”]. And changeable, and so hard to judge, because it’s always changing.
SRB: And maybe we shouldn’t even be trying to judge.
AL: Right. You had asked me in your email, which of these is your inner voice—the voice in Things That Are or the voice in "The Wanderer"? I don’t think either of them is, normally! But when I write, I’m striving to think the way I want to think. Writing is a practice: I want to celebrate these things that are so difficult. I don’t know if that makes sense.
SRB: It does, I love that, yes, because we have to—it’s not this simple, but we can be annoyed at the things that are not sitting exactly the way we would want them to
AL:That we can’t control
SRB: Yes, and I do think I’m trying to look for ways to delight in those, those aspects of existence, and it is hard. I studied philosophy, in undergrad, and then medical ethics after, and I do think I wanted a frame that made everything fit, and it’s a long process to try to first accept that maybe we won’t find one, and then get excited about that.
AL: Or maybe the frames just haven’t been big enough yet?
SRB: Yeah, maybe that! And I love the idea of writing being a way of reaching towards the way we want to approach life.
AL: That is why I like writing, because it takes a lot of work: it sometimes takes me many pages before I achieve it, but then I think, yes, this is the way I want to think.
SRB: Yeah, we can’t ask that it also be easy.
AL: No, no! (Laughs)
SRB: That’s so interesting. And—I’m curious if you could say more about the work you’re doing now? You said a few essays have the “Wanderer” voice. What is the book like, if you don’t mind my asking?
AL: Well, I started out with a couple of research essays, as I had done with my last book, but then I started writing this piece (“The Wanderer”), and it changed my direction. I’m still doing research, and I will always value how research takes me way beyond where I could go by myself. But one of the reasons I did so much research was because I didn’t want to be programming my essays. I felt like research could get me away from any programming, or propaganda, in my own head. And then I wrote this piece. And I thought, oh! I do have ideas, and I like the ideas! The two other pieces in this voice—one of them is about the poor animals whose careers are sagging, who need to be more like us, so we’re going to give them PowerPoint presentations in the business-inspiration mode. For the other essay I made up the text of one of these lectures, called, ‘How to count like a pro.’ I try to get the animals to be more practical-minded.
SRB: Uh huh.
AL: And of course, everything I’m saying, what I really mean is the exact opposite.
SRB: Yeah. Which I felt in The Wanderer, especially having read Things That Are, but those questions, like I said, did feel so alive to me.
AL: Uh huh.
SRB: What is the purpose of--maybe the cloud looks like a camel, but why camels?
AL: (Laughs) I know! I mean, it is a predicament!
SRB:Yeah! I love that the question can be alive even within satire.
AL: Yes! Yes! So that is one interpretation, take it seriously.
SRB: It’s great how much laughter can be felt in Things That Are.
AL: Oh, good! Good.
SRB: I imagine you kind of guided by your own chuckles, as you write.
AL: Yes, absolutely. And you know, I’ll try the jokes out, over and over and over and over, and I feel like some jokes are good once, they make me laugh once, and then they don’t make me laugh again so I have to discard those, and some jokes make me laugh five times, and that’s not enough. I try to keep the jokes (laughs) you know, that make me laugh long-term.
SRB: For sure. You try them out by writing them again, or by reading them over?
AL: Oh, reading them over and over and over.
SRB: Totally. This might sound tangential, but it’s related—I’m teaching composition, as part of the MFA, and I like to start the classes with an image, and this semester it’s Hubble Space Telescope pictures of the universe, because the Seinfeld writers apparently had photos of the universe in the Writer’s Room, because it made everything funnier, always, which I loved.
AL: Wow! That is a good reference point!
SRB: Yeah, just the reminder that we’re on a spinning rock. Everything gets sillier.
AL: That’s wonderful!
SRB: I’m so glad you’re reacting that way. The freshmen just gave me dead eyes. I was like, this is gold! It’s not from me!
AL: Oh no! Well, it’ll make an impression on them, probably. The universe will make an impression on them.
SRB: If the universe can’t, then no one can. (Both laugh).
Oh, I’m curious, when you compose your lists, do they come out that way, or do you go back and tweak them, the way you read your jokes over and over?
AL: They never come out that way, no. I tweak them and tweak them and tweak them, and I would not consider that labor at all. It’s just fun, and it’s a relief from trying to come up with an interesting idea. If I’m having trouble with an idea, I’ll go play with the lists again! The things that guide me when I’m making those lists…I would say it’s primarily sound, just finding lots of names, for animals or whatever, that sound interesting and funny and rhythmic together, and also, to alternate obscure words with recognizable words. I think that one little list that you had quoted…
SRB: Oh yeah—“noddies and finches and ouzels and froglets”
AL:Mmhmm! I think that one had started out being all obscure. When it was accepted, at The Believer, it was a list of four obscure animals many people wouldn’t recognize, so Joshua Shenk had recommended, and I thought it was a good recommendation, “Can we throw in something recognizable here?” and that’s where the finches and froglets came from. To alternate recognizable and unrecognizable.
SRB: I’m glad to know that they’re tweaked, because they hit so many different notes, and it feels so precise.
AL: No, I don’t go around just spewing these musical lists. I mean, in some ways that would be nice, but it’s also nice to have to work for it, because then it’s more of an accomplishment.
Amy Leach is the author of Things That Are, published by Milkweed Editions. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa, and her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Science and Nature Writing, A Public Space, Orion, and Tin House. She has been recognized with the Whiting Writers' Award and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award. She lives in Bozeman, Montana, and her second book, The Modern Moose, will be published by FSG in 2021.
Sarah Ruth Bates is a writer currently based in Tucson, AZ. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Outside, Boston Globe Magazine, Off Assignment, Appalachia Journal, WBUR Cognoscenti, and WBUR ARTery. She's a first-year in the nonfiction MFA program at the University of Arizona, where she serves as Managing Editor of the Sonora Review. Catch her at sarahruthbates.com and @sarahrbates.