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The Accidental Artist

Experimental writing that aims for a broad audience

Photo: Christopher Myers, License: N/A

Christopher Myers


Megan McShea recognizes the importance of established order. Before moving to Baltimore in 2000, she worked as a film and photography researcher for a historical collection. Once here, she held a position for a few years in MICA’s slide library before earning her library science degree and becoming an archivist at the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution, where she works with the audiovisual materials that come in with artists’ papers. Archiving involves putting things into an agreed-upon order so that it is easily accessible to whomever is looking for it.

When McShea writes, though, conventional order isn’t in the room. She first started what she calls her “writing habit”—“it’s like jogging or eating vegetables, it makes me feel better and that’s enough”—in New York on a manual typewriter. She envisioned what many young writers do when sitting at the keyboard for the first time: Novel. And then her fingers started punching the keys. “I definitely wanted to write fiction when I started, but my mind was really tangled up with the aftermath of grad school and all that academic reading, so [writing] became this practice of untangling stuff in my head,” she says during an interview at a Charles Village coffee shop. McShea in person comes across as confidently unfussy, the sort of person who can speak about any topic thrown at her but doesn’t feel the need to prove she can. Self-deprecating asides dot the conversation, and she casually and candidly talks about her writing process. “Even though I was trying to hit the story, it was always just out of reach. It was always pretty abstract when I started. And I keep thinking, I’m going to get closer to it and it keeps getting more fragmented.”

As in: “A dolphin picks up radio signals from a quail.” Or: “Outside again, making something tall out of something wide, a narrow scaffolding viewed from afar, where the laboring classes are getting agitated about it, taking turns being figure and ground, figure and ground, a groundswell of answers to questions no one has asked yet, and a final, wavering opening, like a tunnel flying.”

Those two sentences come from McShea’s new A Mountain City of Toad Splendor, a collection of stories and poems put out by Adam Robinson’s Publishing Genius press. It’s her third collection, following chapbooks Recipes for Greatness and Yarns that McShea self-published about a decade ago, and it delivers a ridiculously compact dose of oddly alluring mind bombs. Narrative isn’t what McShea is going for, although things do happen in her short fictions and poems. Instead, McShea explores the diffuse overlaps of intellectual and emotional states for which writing is but one artistic language of representation. And she does it with an engaging economy: She writes borderline nonsense that delivers an instant musical pleasure and finishes with a sometimes disarming emotional kick, the way a scotch bonnet pepper hits the tongue with a kiss of sweetness before the capsicum slowly causes the gums and lips to tingle with the heat of a thousand needles.

Yes, Toad Splendor might be called that most non-genre of genres, experimental. “It’s pretty abstract and I need to stop apologizing for that,” McShea says. “I just love to play with language and I’ve found that other people do too. But I also think that there are ways of making that more accessible, even as abstract as it is.”

Accessibility isn’t always associated with the experimental art of any media. In fact, “experimental” writing is often a lazy code word for ostensibly “difficult” writing. Since the 1960s, much of what gets talked about as experimental literature looks and feels like old-fashioned modernism and the avant-garde, the tinkering with conventional realism and syntax practiced by James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein, Tristan Tzara, Virginia Woolf, etc. Since then, many writers have been branded (or self-branded) with a variety of different schools, movements, and styles—Ouilipo, postmodernism, slipstream, flarf, nouveau roman, and so on—that in many ways continued modernism’s/the avant-garde’s playfulness. Hard-line literary critics may bridle at the idea of any one thing uniting the vast sea of 20th-century experimental writing, but refusing to be accessible might come close.

Readability isn’t anathema to McShea, which is an unassumingly radical goal. She wants her writing to free itself from convention while also being fun to read. That’s like Aphex Twin wanting to make music as broadly pop as “Harlem Shake.” That’s not to say it doesn’t happen—who doesn’t love “Windowlicker”?—just that doing so is a different sort of convention overturning.

McShea achieves her accessibility through word choice (she has an amazing gift for making common, ordinary words feel alien), familiar feelings (her snapshot stories often pass through loneliness and confusion), and imagery that moves from the mundane to the silly to the WTF? and back. Throughout, McShea doesn’t treat language like a lepidopterist: Words aren’t pinned like a butterfly in a case and labeled with a lone Latin identifier. “I like to see what language does once you take it out of the burden of our expectations,” she says. “I can consciously not make meaning, and the reader will still find meaning, because that’s what we do. That’s the way language works for us. But I’m sort of interested in what happens to language once you relieve it of the obligation to mean something. And to me, that’s a really fun game to play. Some people like bridge. I do that.”

This burden of meaning appears in the short Toad Splendor piece “R&D,” in which McShea colloquially conveys language’s prison house: “We want a subject. We are a subject. We want a subject defined properly, and defining will be changing, and therefore like a machine, like a box.”

Toad Splendor is McShea’s latest reminder that how we communicate with each other shouldn’t feel mechanical. “What language does for me, what the project of poetry is for me, is to enliven language,” she says. “To animate it so that you’re in the presence of something living rather than caught up in words and what they’re supposed to mean and what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to be.”

That’s a pretty evergreen writer’s goal: to want her readers to feel that her words have life. And, well, McShea should really keep an eye on that—because that’s how it starts. First you’re just playing around on a typewriter, next thing you know you’re putting things together into some kind of structure, editing and rewriting, working with an editor, and then you’re publishing a book. McShea is in serious danger of this whole writing thing becoming more than just a habit.

“Yeah, I’ve decided to be more serious about it and see what that’s like,” she says, and immediately laughs. “But you know, I still have a day job. So I haven’t completely thrown myself into it.”

Megan McShea reads from A Mountain City of Toad Splendor March 24 at the Windup Space from 4:30-6:30 p.m., with Lauren Bender, R.M. O’Brien, Bonnie Jones, Rupert Wondolowski, John Eaton, and music provided by the Mole Suit Choir and Electric Junk Band. For more information, visit thewindupspace.com.

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