Answer Me This: U-M lecturer Phil Christman explains it all in his new essay collection, “How to Be Normal”
Phil Christman takes on the problem of How to Be Normal in his new essay collection by interrogating broad categories of life. Like his earlier book, Midwest Futures, the essays are wide-ranging. For How to Be Normal, Christman tackles topics including “How to Be a Man,” “How to Be Religious,” and “How to Care.” Christman takes unexpected turns by bringing in references including Star Wars, Mark Fisher, and Marilynne Robinson.
One of Christman’s essays, “How to Be Cultured (I): Bad Movies,” begins with a reflection on watching such films as a shared hobby his father. He analyzes Mystery Science Theater 3000, failings of adults seen through a child’s eyes, Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, among others. The issues in the films can be generalized, as Christman writes:
Just as everything you say can be misheard or scrambled by differences in connotation or dialect, your presence in the world rarely says what you intend. You are a walking contradiction between aspiration and effect. The actual you orbits the intended you, the firm and defensible you, the serious you; or perhaps it’s the other way around. This is a quality you share with me, and with everyone, and that makes all of us that desperate and self-deluded and wholly compelling phenomenon: the bad movie.
We might find ways to appreciate, or at least find levity in, bad movies through Christman’s writing.
Christman’s essays do not aim to be prescriptive but instead make connections and reflect on what those connections mean. “How to Be Religious (I): Faith” offers doubt, theology, and motives. As faith is believing in what is unseen, Christman considers how to live with a lack of knowing for sure:
Sometimes we meet someone who is living out something so much more interesting than what we’re doing that it infects us, gradually or all at once; this is conversion. (It’s also organizing.) And however much of ourselves we gamble on a single worldview, we hear whispers of ambivalence in the background. If Christianity is true, I’ll someday learn that my ability to persist past that ambivalence was divinely willed. If not, I’ll just be dead.
In Christman’s world, the possibility of being right for having faith outweighs being wrong—no harm done in being incorrect about Christianity.
Perhaps the most tender essay is “How to Be Married” in which Christman writes with humility, appreciation, and bluntness for the institution and his personal experiences. Sticking with marriage is, in some ways, a matter of not settling and not taking each other for granted, even after periods of not “seeing” each other. “You have to be kind when you’re irritated,” writes Christman, “because you know the person in front of you doesn’t really deserve your irritation. You have to enjoy people and things when you’re hurting because you know those people and things merit the attention that in your woundedness you want to withhold from them.”
It becomes work, according to Christman, but the work also becomes worth it in lieu of facing the “long corridor” of life alone.
Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan, is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, and also wrote the collection of essays, Midwest Futures. I interviewed him about his most recent book, How to Be Normal.
Q: How have you been doing since the last time we spoke more than two years ago in early 2020?
A: Well, as good as anybody has done during the historical period 2020-2022, I suppose. I just plugged away writing my essays and teaching my classes, and fretting about the world. (A more detailed answer is given in this essay that I recently wrote for Plough, about the weird sense of community that I found in the comments underneath various New Wave bands’ songs on YouTube during the pandemic. I think it’s a funny piece, but as I was writing it, I was like, “Wow, this guy sounds depressed!”)
Q: How did How to Be Normal become a book from the essays published earlier in other places?
A: When I had only written for her a couple of times, my friend Barbara McClay, who used to edit me at Hedgehog Review, told me that I had two-thirds of a “Being Normal” trilogy. I had written about the Midwest and about being male—two things that had a kind of humdrum, “normal” feel about them. So then I started looking for other pieces that had a similar focus. My friend Adam Petty gave me the title.
Q: Last time, we talked about your writing process for your previous book, Midwest Futures. How was your writing process the same or different for How to Be Normal?
A: Very different—I just kept writing essays. Then assembling them was a kind of mixtape-making process; I’d think about what would read better after what. Dan Crissman (no relation), who used to be my editor at Belt Publishing, suggested a couple changes to the order. That part was honestly really fun, way more so than the actual writing had been.
For writing the actual essays, it was just tons of reading, and then thinking about what I’d read until I came up with some question that hadn’t been answered yet, or some piece of the narrative that my sources gave me that seemed not quite right, not quite finished. Something where I needed to argue with my research. I can’t seem to write a thing until I’ve found something like that.
Q: You are working with the same publisher again, Belt Publishing. Is there anything that readers or aspiring writers would find interesting about the publishing process from your experience?
A: I have not tried very hard to plot out my career in some supposedly strategic way; the world of publishing has always struck me as way too chaotic for that approach to make sense, and everything I really want to write always seems a bit niche. I’ve followed the theory that as long as I’m able to keep writing and get the stuff out there somehow, I’m doing OK. Belt showed interest in me and I liked the work they were doing, so I went with them for Midwest Futures, and then I felt that they gave that book a lot of support even though it was not inherently super-commercial. They also stayed interested in me even though the pandemic cut into that book’s sales. And then with this book, which I thought was even less commercial—it’s just an essay collection, which supposedly is an unsalable type of book—Anne Trubek worked really hard trying to bring me to the attention of literary tastemakers and book critics, and permanently helped my career. So I guess my experience has been that working with people you like is rewarding, which isn’t really a big surprise when you put it that way, but I do think it’s easy to start second-guessing yourself (“Perhaps I should be trying really hard to land a famous agent? Perhaps I should be trying to get a huge advance from some big press?”). Maybe, but things don’t always pan out any better for people who do that than they have for me. I’d rather sell a few thousand copies for someone who likes me and considers that a decent result than to sell about the same number of copies for someone who might stop returning my phone calls.
Q: The essays turn out not to be instructions but rather exploring the topics and what they could mean in light of the references or your experiences. How do you describe your book to potential readers?
A: I just say it’s an essay collection and then freeze and smile awkwardly. My wife (Ashley Lucas, a professor at U of M and author of the superb study Prison Theatre and the Global Crisis of Incarceration, Bloomsbury, 2020) usually cuts into the conversation at that point and says something like, “It’s great! It’s a book that really looks at all these cultural constructs that we use to decide what is and isn’t ‘normal,’ and it’s really funny.” And then I’m like “Thanks. Yeah, what she said.”
Q: Your essay topics include “How to Be White” and “How to Care.” It could have been “how to” anything. How did you choose which topics to focus on?
A: It was partly about which pieces of mine I thought were pretty strong and just needed to be in the collection, on whatever rationale—so that’s “How to Care,” which is a long essay about the late social critic Mark Fisher—and then there were others that seemed imposed by the title and the general scheme, like “How to Be White.” You can’t talk about the construction of what’s “normal” in the U.S. and ignore this huge, malign fiction of racism that’s at the heart of so many of our social arrangements. So with that one, the challenge became “Say something new”—which I’m not sure I did; the argument just ends up being a big “Yes, and” on my part to the book Racecraft by Karen and Barbara Fields, which is one of the most intelligent books I think I’ve ever read—and “Don’t be boring or cloyingly earnest in the manner of so much white writing about racism.” I think I at least accomplished the second thing.
If I’d had another three months, I might have written about mental health and illness, since that’s another crucial piece of the “normalcy” puzzle, and I do have some firsthand experience with poorish mental health. (I have General Anxiety Disorder among other things.) The lack of such an essay does strike me as almost a flaw in the book, though on the other hand I really like it being exactly as long as it is. I also thought about writing “How to Be Heterosexual” but that is kind of covered by some of the other pieces.
Q: You refer to and quote a wide-ranging collection of people, literature, movies, identities, and so on. How do you pull all of these seemingly disparate things into a cohesive essay?
A: I think that’s just how my mind naturally works—I always feel like I’ve invited everybody I’ve read or listened to or met or watched or wished I could meet into some massive conversation and I want to try to harmonize everybody as much as I can, to draw everyone together and take what I can learn from all of them, to reduce conflict where I can and to make conflict fruitful where I can’t reduce it. When I write an essay, the topic kind of takes over and forces all these things that seem disconnected to speak to each other.
Q: Your credits and acknowledgements include your students. What have you learned about writing from your last two books that you like to share with your students?
A: That getting a book published doesn’t just suddenly, miraculously change your life—but that by that same token, it’s a perfectly normal, human thing to do, and an achievable goal for at least some of them to set. And I also talk about my essay-writing process, as outlined in question three above—the thing about doing enough research that you start feeling like there’s something left out or not fully explained or not quite logical about the status quo of the discussion around your topic.
Q: What are you reading and recommending now?
A: It’s absurd to have waited this long, but I just recently finished Anna Karenina, which might actually be the greatest novel ever written. I’m also about to write an essay about Marguerite Young, the Midwestern novelist who wrote about nineteenth-century utopias in her study Angel in the Forest (1945), and then wrote one of the longest published novels in the English language, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (1965). The first book is gorgeous and is best read straight through. The second book is also often gorgeous, but I think it’s better to treat it like an almanac or a chest of weird old items that you found at the bottom of the ocean, and you take things out of it every now and then and stare at them, but you don’t try to go through it all systematically or you’ll go nuts.
Q: What is on the horizon for you now that this book has been out for a couple of months?
A: I’m already under contract with Belt for my third book, which I’m tentatively calling Public Facts. It’s an examination of our apparently totally broken processes for creating the sort of shared consensus reality that a democracy seems like it needs. I am coming from a little farther to the left than are a lot of the people who write on this topic, and from the perspective that these processes were always deeply inadequate. We’ll see where I end up.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.