Thinking Sideways

Patrick Madden’s new book of essays, Sublime Physick, explores how commonplace experiences and subjects connect to a higher plane.

Sublime PhysickPROVO, Utah (March 31, 2016)—”I think everybody’s minds move sideways,” Patrick Madden said, trying to describe his writing process. “They don’t just follow a single line of argument or reasoning: they chase down different, interesting curiosities as they move.” The process is readily apparent in Sublime Physick, Madden’s most recent book of creative nonfiction essays, covering everything from fatherhood to quantum mechanics and family life to copyright law.

The book’s title was inspired by the nineteenth-century Italian scientist Amedeo Avogadro, whose life Madden researched for an essay. During his time at the University of Turin, Avogadro served a papal appointment as the chair of the department of fisica sublime, or “sublime physics.” Madden found the term to be delightfully at odds with itself.

“Because physics is the physical world, the natural world, and sublime is the metaphysical,” he said. “I thought this was also kind of a description of essays: the way they bridge or attempt to reach a transcendence that takes real life experience and reach toward some spirit or idea. So they convert the concrete into the abstract.”

Madden’s book follows that theme by taking experiences from his own life and searching for their higher meaning or connecting them to one. As a father of six, Madden is able to draw a wealth of material from his children. An entire essay derives from rushing his daughter to the emergency room, which Madden describes as “a kind of fear-of-parenting essay.”

That is not to say that Madden only finds material in the home. One of Madden’s former students described being a creative writer as an opportunity to learn and write about whatever you want. In an essay that describes searching for his lost sons on Halloween, Madden expounds on theories of quantum entanglement: the “phenomenon in which the quantum states of two or more objects have to be described with reference to each other, even though the individual objects may be spatially separated” (according to Science Daily).

Inspiration can literally come from anywhere: one essay began with a George Harrison song.

“I remembered that he had been sued for plagiarism because his song ‘My Sweet Lord’ has the same chord structure and vocal melody as ‘He’s So Fine’ by the Chiffons,” he explained. “But I only knew about that in sketch format. So I researched a lot about the court case. I learned the intrigue.” His research came to include similar court cases in which artists were sued – successfully or not – for plagiarism. As he continued to explore, his essay began to form around the question of originality, not just in music but in human achievement in general.

That’s the basic format that Madden’s essays follow: beginning with a solid idea and then following the themes as they branch out, creating a larger image. “My favorite essays are meandering,” he said. “Meandering sounds a little slow, but sometimes they’re just running willy nilly over different ideas and subjects and tripping over themselves as they accrue different material.”

The process renders each essay as an exercise in discovery – not just for the reader, but for Madden as well. Robert Atwan, series editor of The Best American Essays, praised Madden, saying, “He understands perfectly why Emerson thought the joy of essaying lay in surprise: to surprise their readers, essayists must first surprise themselves.”

Though the book took nearly a decade to complete and publish, it took a few years for Madden to realize that he had a book in the making. That’s because as a creative writer, he has grown accustomed to using writing as what he calls “a productive idleness.”

“If I didn’t write essays, I think I would not enjoy life nearly as much because writing them requires me to focus and think on things, whereas a lot of life is just . . . superficial encounters with the world or avoidance of the world,” he said. “We rebuff things that are going to take our attention away from our tasks and so forth. And so if your task is the essay, then you’re free to wander.”

He added, “Even if you’re not writing essays, it’s productive to give the mind some playtime.”

And critics have already found that Madden’s wandering mind makes for delightful reading. “In his hands, the essay becomes a medium for pondering and celebrating our mysterious existence,” author Scott Sanders said of Madden. “Readers who wish to reflect more deeply on their own lives will find abundant rewards in these pages.”

Madden will be reading excerpts from Sublime Physick in the Harold B. Lee Library auditorium at noon on April 8 as the semester’s final English Reading Series speaker. For more information, visit the English Reading Series website. A trailer for the book, featuring Madden and Joey Franklin in costume, is available on YouTube.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Department of English for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.