Sarah Manguso on memory, mental illness and how writing “is like feeding the cassette tape through the machine one last time after it breaks”
Image courtesy Andy Ryan
Writer Sarah Manguso was a twenty-one-year-old Harvard student when she was first hospitalized for a rare autoimmune disorder that attacked her nervous system and forced her to have nine years worth of blood transfusions that eventually became the subject of her memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir. By the time she was thirty, she had published a book of poems (The Captain Lands in Paradise: Poems) with a second soon to follow (Sister Viator), and was the Hodder Fellow at Princeton. With a collection of miniature-essays out through McSweeney’s (Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape), a recent essay on Sylvia Plath (“You’ll Love Her! She’s Crazy!”) in The New Yorker, and much-lauded 2012 memoir, (The Guardians), she has emerged as one of the bright minds at the forefront of creative nonfiction.
At the bar of an Italian café in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, Manguso sipped a decaf macchiato. “Don’t tell anyone,” she told me, “but this is by far the best restaurant in the neighborhood.”
She wrote in The Guardians, an elegy for a friend who had committed suicide, “I want to set aside every expectation of how I should feel or act, given that my friend had a bad death, and try to explain what has actually happened to me—if, in fact, anything has actually happened to me.”
The photographs of her friend Harris she comes across never match up to the image she holds of him in her mind. When she tries to look at how he had died—he threw himself on the tracks of an oncoming Metro-North train—she is led back into her own thoughts: “Forward onto the track, backward into the past! Think of that arithmetic. It seems like a discovery but I haven’t discovered anything, once again, other than my own cleverness.” Rather than substantiating her story, the bits of research Manguso offers up undercut or expose the holes in what she has retained of him, stripping away the usual nonfiction tools. The reader is left with a meditation on friendship and love that is as slippery, shattered, and smudged as it is clear and precise, as expansive as it is blunt.
A few weeks before the Obama administration officially announced its plans to map the human brain, Manguso explained over her second macchiato that she was at work on a project to map her own memory, based on the diary she has kept for more than twenty years.
—Melissa Seley for Guernica
Guernica: Were you conflicted about writing about your friend Harris’s death, about using that as a subject?
Sarah Manguso: No. I see no reason not to write whatever comes to me. There was no way I was not going to write about Harris’s death. It’s like when you’re at a cocktail party and you meet someone you know you’re going to sleep with. You might as well get it over with and sleep with them. I’m talking about my former, younger life now. But. There is no point in pretending. I no longer try to avoid the inevitability of what comes to me, writing-wise.
That said, there are a lot of factoids that I opted not to include in the book. This is not a book about everything I know about Harris. There are a lot of things about myself I chose not to include. I have written two memoirs but that doesn’t mean that I want to share everything. It’s hard to make it sound as if that argument holds any water at all. I don’t have a personal Facebook page. I don’t want to divulge what I don’t want to divulge.
After I switched dopamine antagonists in 2004, the impulse to write poems quickly went away.
Guernica: Did you initially conceive of The Guardians as an elegy?
Sarah Manguso: Not exactly. I don’t try to adhere to a plan in the beginning.
Guernica: Later in the book you say that you stopped writing poetry when you stopped feeling suicidal. What was the connection?
Sarah Manguso: That’s not exactly how it went. After I switched dopamine antagonists in 2004, the impulse to write poems quickly went away. I keep track of my production in my diary. If I’m writing a lot, that can be a sign of hypomania setting in. if I’m not writing a thing, depression might be looming.
I’m sure someone is researching the correlation between creativity and antipsychotic medications as we speak, but all I have are my records. And I wouldn’t necessarily argue that my medication was the only reason I stopped breaking lines.
Guernica: What are the other reasons?
Sarah Manguso: I realized that breaking lines had become an affectation… that prose had become—or maybe always had been—my natural register, and I wanted to write in it.
At some point in my adulthood I realized it’s okay to just be weird.
Guernica: Does labeling your form “prose poetry” feel constricting to what you do?
Sarah Manguso: I don’t write toward a genre, and I try not to make claim to a genre after a book is published. That said, The Guardians isn’t poetry. It’s prose.
Guernica: There is a tension in The Guardians created by your impulse to write beyond the genre of the conventional grief memoir.
Sarah Manguso: Yes, I’ve become aware of that tension since the book was published. I’m working on an essay that will publish around the time of the paperback launch, and that subject is a core component of the essay. On the one hand, there’s the problem of falling into the pit of cliché, and on the other, there’s the problem of standing too far from that pit.
The first one’s a writing problem, and the second one’s a publishing problem. After The Guardians was published, I read some responses from people who were dissatisfied with my depiction of my grief as self-absorption, as rage, as envy, as anything other than weeping by candlelight, which is of course the conventional depiction of grief. There’s also a standard form for the conventional grief memoir: after the initial shock, amid a flurry of bittersweet memories, one gradually overcomes the loss, and then the book ends. But that form bears almost no similarity to my experience of grief.
Guernica: What would Harris think of The Guardians?
Sarah Manguso: It’s impossible for me to say, since the book couldn’t coexist with a living, reading Harris.
Guernica: Who are the other writers doing work in a similar vein?
Sarah Manguso: I can tell you the writers that I admire and who I keep on admiring. Maggie Nelson, her book Bluets. Eula Biss–her essay on vaccination in Harper’s earlier this year. A poet and aphorist, James Richardson, who is working on an ongoing aphorisms project that I think is the best thing being written in English right now, called Vectors. Leonard Michaels. Barry Hannah’s Airships. I really like Peter Haneke’s book that he wrote after his mom’s suicide, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Zadie Smith is one of the best writers alive—her essay about joy versus pleasure. She is a living, breathing genius. And I mean that in the old way. She continually generates new ways of thinking about old things.
I somehow thought it was appropriate to ask him a question about Wittgenstein in his fucking poetry class. The way he answered me was, he said this: “Sarah, I only have about forty years left to live.”
Guernica: In a recent New York Times piece about George Saunders, Saunders talks about how interesting it would be if we could maintain the kind of openness that can come with a proximity to death. Your work seems to come from a desire to stay in that place, or to apply it to your own thinking.
Sarah Manguso: Well, it may be because of a proximity to death or it may be that I feel more comfortable communicating in that way. I’m terrible at small talk. Always have been. At some point in my adulthood I realized it’s okay to just be weird.
Guernica: When did you start writing?
Sarah Manguso: I did all the school-kid things most people do. I kept a diary in high school. I wrote sad love poetry. All that stuff you’re supposed to do. I guess, college. The only thing I’ve consistently been interested in in the last twenty-five years is writing very short texts. That continues to interest me as a project, to contain some part of reality, which is chaotic by definition, in a contained space. I like small apartments. I like getting rid of stuff. I went through my files yesterday and spent hours shredding things. It was great.
It’s what I love to do—get rid of stuff I don’t need. Because I knew I liked writing short texts I thought I would be a poetry writer. Because poets can write short things and nobody challenges you. Then I realized I didn’t know how to break lines and I could in no way continue to responsibly write in verse because I didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it. Then the very short prose started coming. I’m interested in the idea of writing longer but it just doesn’t come naturally to me. So, why fight it?
Guernica: Best writerly advice you’ve ever received?
Sarah Manguso: The best chastening I ever received from a teacher was in graduate school. I was in a poetry workshop at Iowa. The poet Dean Young was my teacher. I came in with this highly intellectualized poem about I don’t know what. I somehow thought it was appropriate to ask him a question about Wittgenstein in his fucking poetry class.
The way he answered me was, he said this: “Sarah, I only have about forty years left to live.” That continues to be one of the things that reminds me that I need not write or think out of an obligation to whatever I think is important or appropriate or necessary outside my own need to write, comma, to write.
Guernica: What is your writing process like? Do you edit as you go along?
Sarah Manguso: Yes. There are no drafts. It’s like bonsai. Continual very, very high-level microscopic pruning and composition happening at the same time.
Guernica: On the first page of The Guardians, you write: “If I were a journalist I’d have spoken to everyone and written everything down right away.” How and when did you start writing that book?
Sarah Manguso: I had a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, and I went there thinking I was going to write about my orphaned Sicilian grandfather. The Academy provided many rare and wonderful opportunities, but uninterrupted time to write was not one of them.
Everything that ever happens is on video. Everything you’ve ever said, someone has typed into their computer somewhere.
I got nowhere with the research about my grandfather. I tried to start a novel even though I had no interest in writing one. I produced almost no writing that year. Just after we returned to New York, Harris died. My husband and I moved to Los Angeles the next year, with a startup company he was involved in, and I wrote The Guardians during our time there, during a quiet spell of underemployment, with sunlight streaming in through a window to the left.
Guernica: The Guardians is riddled with ifs: “If you were a journalist.” “If we knew more about the effects of akathisia, Harris might have lived.” Now that you’ve written the book, are you less haunted by those ifs?
Sarah Manguso: Yes. After I wrote The Two Kinds of Decay—totally from memory—and once I let myself become familiar with the idea that all of that information was contained in the book, I let myself forget most of it. I didn’t know that would happen again with this book but it did. I really think about the writing and publishing process that simply.
Not even the most careful diary is perfect.
If I write something, it gets loaded onto a hard drive in a different part of my brain and I can stop thinking about it. Of course, time may have taken care of that itself. I need not have written an entire book to feel less haunted by the way that Harris died.
Guernica: So writing is a way to forget—and to remember?
Sarah Manguso: It’s like feeding the cassette tape through the machine one last time after it breaks. You turn up the light a little brighter but in doing so, you make it go out. “My candle burns bright at both ends; it will not last the night… ”
Guernica: Throughout your prose, you write about the problems of memory—why has that subject become such a facet of nonfiction?
Sarah Manguso: It’s impossible not to get to that subject if you’re doing any kind of autobiographical writing and are the agent of its production, which you are. You’re the writer. Your memory is part of the project. This is something I’m continuing to write about in the essay I’m working on now, which is about diaries and the physiology of human memory, which is imperfect, although we would like to believe that it isn’t. Not even the most careful diary is perfect.
There’s also something very peculiar that happens to me and to other women I’ve known after pregnancy. It’s as though my files have been defragged and moved around. They’re not where I left them. Many things that used to be accessible are not. Then there are things that I have not thought about since I was a baby—I’m being flooded with these crazy visual memories of my own babyhood. It’s as though my brain is trying to construct sympathy with my pre-verbal baby. Memory is just a mess.
Guernica: What is one of those memories?
Sarah Manguso: As I started feeding him food out of a little spoon—I don’t know if you’ve ever fed a baby from a spoon—but some of the food dribbles out and if you’re a neat freak you try to catch it in the spoon. As I did that the first few times, I remembered the sensation of somebody scraping food off my chin and putting it back in my mouth. I hated that food.
My brain was telling me: Don’t do that; it isn’t nice for the baby. That sounds so manufactured for some website about parenthood but it’s real and it’s shocking and the memories keep resurfacing. I never had any memories of being a tiny baby. And I would never believe people when they said they had memories of being in a crib or going hiking with their dad in a little backpack.
Guernica: Do you think the issues of memory are a signifier of where we are culturally, that we are so skeptical of our memory, in a more pressing way than ever before?
Sarah Manguso: It makes sense with our sudden and extreme ability to record. Everything that ever happens is on video. Everything you’ve ever said, someone has typed into their computer somewhere. Quoting you or not. Misquoting you or not. An immediate consequence of that ability is to lament that it’s still not accurate enough. It’s still not complete enough. Every fucking thing is still wrong.
The more you talk about something, the less accurate it gets. I think it’s a vast cultural disappointment that we still can’t remember anything. Despite the fact that I kept a daily diary for twenty years and counting, I still can’t remember anything accurately. All these tools are imperfect.
For better or worse, I write about myself.
Guernica: Speaking of imperfect tools, it’s hard to talk about mental illness and violence without wanting to distance yourself from linking them too closely. Yet, whether it’s self–inflicted or outwardly directed, that dynamic is present in The Guardians. Do you hold the frailties of the medical system to blame for Harris’s death?
Sarah Manguso: The epigraph to the book is a Yiddish proverb translated clumsily: “All signs are misleading.” It was essential to me that that be the badge the book wears. It’s a reminder to myself that because Harris did die in reality, it’s so easy to construct the narrative as: first we knew he would die then he died. But that’s not what happened. The phrase “Monday morning quarterbacking” seems inappropriate in the context of this conversation but it’s a good metaphor. It’s too easy to pretend that we always knew what would happen.
Guernica: What has been the best kind of care that you’ve received from the medical world?
Sarah Manguso: The IVIG infusions that halt my CIDP lapses. Or the psychotropic drugs I take every day. These are things that keep me alive and functioning. Is it enough just to survive? No. But it’s a good starting point.
Guernica: You’re still in ongoing treatment for CIDP?
Sarah Manguso: Yes. I had my most recent relapse in 2010. It’s tempting even for me to think that because I wrote The Two Kinds of Decay that made the CIDP stop somehow, but no.
Guernica: Where are you with the new diary project?
Sarah Manguso: It will be a complete mess until about 2015, at which point a form will emerge. I write notes for years. Notes upon notes upon notes.
Guernica: Do you have a working title?
Sarah Manguso: It’s called Ongoingness.
Guernica: What’s your research process?
Sarah Manguso: I’m trying not to research this book. I don’t think I’m particularly good at research. For better or worse, I write about myself.
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