by Patrick Madden

Disparates (essays)

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020.

In English disparate means “different” or “miscellaneous”—apt descriptors of these essays by Patrick Madden. In Spanish, however, disparate means “nonsense,” “folly,” or “absurdity,”—words appropriate to Madden’s goal of undercutting any notion that essays must be serious business. Thus, in this collection, the essays are frivolous and lively, aiming to make readers laugh while they think about such abstract subjects as happiness and memory and unpredictability.

In this vein, Madden takes sidelong swipes at weighty topics via form, with wildly meandering essays, abandoned essays in honor of the long tradition of essayists disparaging their own efforts, and guerrilla essays—which slip in quietly under the guise of a borrowed form, abruptly attack, and promptly escape, leaving laughter and contemplation in their wake. Madden also incorporates cameos from guest essayists, including Mary Cappello, Matthew Gavin Frank, David Lazar, Michael Martone, Jericho Parms, and Wendy S. Walters, much like a musician features other performers.

Disparates reflects the current zeitgeist by taking on important issues with a touch of cleverness, a dash of humor, and a little help from one’s friends.

Teaching Resources

One of the driving features of Disparates is playing with form. Another is collaboration. If you'd like to adopt Disparates for classroom use, if you want to learn more about essays (my own and others'), or if you just have some fun writing, I've assembled some resources below.

Book Trailer: Disparate Deep Thoughts

Remember Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts, which were featured on Saturday Night Live for years and made their way into several little books? Inspired by the deepness, I made this book trailer featuring brand new pangram haiku (5-7-5-syllable poems using every letter of the alphabet) accompanied by nature footage and ethereal music. My brother David did the filming and video editing. We had lots of fun, and we hope you get a chuckle from the results.

Imagine All the Ridiculousness: Disparate Inspiration

On March 18, 2020, Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) and famous friends shared their "Imagine" singalong to inspire the world amidst the uncertainty and fear of the COVID-19 pandemic. This video is an homage/parody that my friends and I put together, in which we read from one of my essays featuring jumbled proverbs. I hope you enjoy the silliness.

Writing Exercises

This book was especially fun to write, especially the essays in borrowed forms. If you or your students would like to try out some of the forms I used, here're some resources to do that. You can do them here or click on the links to go to a new website.

Pangram Haiku Helper

Say you want to write your own pangram haiku, using every letter of the alphabet for your brief poems. That might be tough to do if you're ticking off each letter as you go, but with this helper program (developed by Mark Simonson, then adapted by BYU's Tory Anderson), you can easily keep track of which letters you've used and which ones remain. See what insights you gain by constraining your texts in this way!

Botnik Predictive Text Generator

Or say you want to write your own oddball paragraphs driven by predictive text generated from the contents of my first two books, as I did in "Unpredictable Essays." Here's a pre-populated setup so you can do just that. I'd love to see your results, so send them my way! (I can't host this program here on site, so click on "Predictive Text Generator" above to go to Botnik's site.)

Craft Essays

Over the past few years, I've published a number of my conference papers, or have written original papers, exploring issues of writing craft. Several are linked from the Sublime Physick book page, but here are some new ones.

"This Is How You Write a Collaborative Essay" LitHub 1 April 2020.

Given the highly collaborative nature of Disparates, I wanted to do some thinking about the process with some of my co-writers, Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas, Matthew Gavin Frank, Jericho Parms, Joni Tevis, and Wendy S. Walters.

"Summary/Judgment" Essay Daily. 18 December 2019.

Here I consider how so much of our communication is summary or judgment, and how literature works beyond those reductions to evoke and transport and enlighten.

"Once More to 'His Last Game'" Assay 6.1 (Fall 2019).

Read this piece after the one listed below. Both look closely at Brian Doyle's masterful essay "His Last Game." This one finds resonances in phrasing and theme between Doyle and E. B. White.

"On Brian Doyle's 'His Last Game'" Assay 4.1 (Fall 2017).

As in the essay above, here I read and, I hope, elaborate on some of the subtle, wonderful craft that created this essay, Doyle's last Best American Essay.


I hope to have more videos of my readings to post soon. (If you'd be interested in having me do a reading for your school, class, group, please contact me.) Meanwhile, here is a link to a reading I did with my friends Sue William Silverman and Robin Hemley, whose books all came out around the same time, just as the world was shutting down.

SHM (Silverman, Hemley, Madden) Zoom Reading, 2 April 2020

I can't include this video here, but if you click on the title just above, you'll open a new page where you can watch the reading.