Monday, October 29, 2018

Craig Reinbold: Is this shit racist?

This has been bothering me for so long, this weirdness around the word CHOCOLATE, adj. “having the color of chocolate; dark-brown.”


When I was a kid, 8th grade—so, like, 13?—I was at a school function, or a game, or something. It was late, dark, wrapping up, and for whatever reason I was standing around outside next to a 6th grader, and because my little sister was also in the 6th grade, and because I was full-on a big brother, or whatever, I have no idea really, I asked this kid if he knew her, and then I asked, So, what do you think of her? And he replied, I know her, but I don’t like her. And I asked, Well, why not? And he said, Because she’s chocolate and I don’t like chocolate girls. 

We're both from Wisconsin, my sister and I, truly, we're both from here, but she was born in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta. I'm white. She's brown. Not that either of those is a great descriptor of what our skin actually looks like, but the point is, that kid said this to me not knowing I was her brother. 

I picked him up—I was relatively big and he was small—and sort of threw/pushed him into a nearby parked car. 

Then the principal’s husband, who also worked at the school, appeared and pulled us apart and asked why I was so upset, almost in tears, which is how I get when I’m legit upset. I told him, and he asked if I wanted to call in his wife, the principal, but I didn't want to embarrass my sister, so I just said, No, let’s just forget it. Never happened. 

Except, obviously, I’ve never forgotten about it. I realize, too, there’s a good chance that 6th grader hasn’t forgotten either. 


I was in my early 20s, in Brazil, playing a lot of capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art, and one of the regulars at the gym introduced himself to me as Chocolate (pronounced shaw-co-lotch-ee). Capoeira was outlawed in Brazil for a long time, and so practitioners adopted nicknames, and this tradition has been kept up. And he had super dark skin. And he went by the name Chocolate. This was sort of stunning to me, but I went with it. I wasn’t from there after all, and Brazilian culture is not Wisconsin culture. Also, this was his name. This was how he identified himself, which seemed important. 


I was in my early 30s, teaching a CNF workshop. This was not a super diverse class, and some of our conversations were uncomfortable, at least for me. We had just finished talking about “Illumination Rounds,” an essay excerpt from Michael Herr’s Dispatches, which was written from his time as a Vietnam War correspondent for Esquire. So, Herr was writing for a big, well-reputed, national magazine, and yet in the essay he constantly refers to black soldiers as “spades.” One of the students asked what a “spade” was. They asked if it was racist. I had them Google it, and the consensus was, yeah, it’s pretty racist. 

Should we be reading this stuff? If it’s racist? Even if it’s fucking canonized in The Best American Essays of the Century

In the end, the class decided, Herr, whatever, maybe that language was acceptable then, and the essay is still really good, so we’ll go with it, that’s fine. It’s worth reading. But, a writer trying to be taken seriously today probably shouldn’t follow suit. 

I hit home, too, that for a writer these questions come up all the time. Ultimately, we need to answer them for ourselves. 

That was that. A pretty good conversation, actually, I thought. 

Then a few days later one of my students emailed out his essay to be workshopped the next week, and in the essay he wrote about going to a local park known to be a hangout for a lot of homeless youth, and I think the essay was about how much he enjoyed getting off campus and spending time getting high with real people. There was a drum circle, or a guitar circle, or maybe they were just passing a joint around in a circle (?), but at one point, in the essay, he referred to the guy sitting next to him, and this guy’s chocolate smile. 

We went through the essay, everyone was positive, as students tend to be in undergrad writing workshops, and no one mentioned this chocolate smile thing, so when all was done, I said something like, There is this one point in the essay I think we should talk about… After I mentioned it, a few others acknowledged that, yeah, it had made them uncomfortable, too. 

I made a point of acknowledging why it bothered me—I told them about that 6th-grader calling my sister chocolate when we were kids. But it's complicated, and I also told them about Chocolate, the guy I trained with in Brazil. I acknowledged our own experiences may shape our opinions about this. I knew what I thought, but I wanted to keep it ambivalent and let the students in the class figure their ideas out for themselves. 

This student responded by saying he had figured it out, had answered the question for himself Herr-style. He’d thought about it and had used that word intentionally. He was writing life the way it is. We’re all colors, he said, and asked if I would be bothered by him using vanilla to describe himself. 

I left it to the class. Everyone shrugged. And he stuck with chocolate smile


More recently, chocolate has turned up in a couple different books, and this didn't really bother me, but it did stand out. 

I neglected to note the page number, apologies, but at some point in Joe Ide’s novel IQ he describes a black character as chocolate. Joe Ide is Japanese-American, I think. But he grew up in South Central L.A. And I think in the book it’s a black character describing another black character. Does that make a difference? It didn’t really strike me as problematic…

Not problematic at all, for me, on page 10 of A Burst of Light Audre Lorde writes with all families, we sometimes find it difficult to deal constructively with the genuine differences between us and to recognize that unity does not require that we be identical to each other. Black women are not one great vat of homogenized chocolate milk.

There must be other examples, too. Got one? 


Is it a matter of speaking across ethnicities, or races? Or speaking, essentially, of oneself? Am I just hesitant to speak outside my own firsthand experience? But as writers don’t we do that all the time?

With this on my mind, I recently realized I actually made a similar move in an old essay, which was thoroughly workshopped, and published, and no one ever said anything: I described some Cali boys as having “skin tanned the color of caramel.” Granted, I wasn't calling those guys caramel. I was just describing the color of their skin. 

But, wait, isn't that what my student was doing?

But, wait, wait, caramel doesn't carry the same freight as chocolate, does it? The history of oppression and racism behind that 6th-grader declaring I don't like chocolate girls is not the same as the admiration we've been taught to feel for those white Calis and their righteously tanned, surfer skin, right? 

It's different. Or no? 

It’s complicated. I don’t know. 

Would I still be thinking about this, 25 some years on, if that kid had just said, Oh yeah, I do like her. I totally like... 

I’m cashed.

Thoughts? Insight? Help? Anyone?

Craig Reinbold is an ER nurse in a Milwaukee-area hospital, and was once the managing editor of Essay Daily. He really would like to hear what you think: @craigreinbold

Monday, October 15, 2018

Eliza Smith: The Wound or the Essayist

One Saturday night, nearly two-thirds through my time in the MFA and thinking always of my thesis—a collection of essays with a heavy emphasis on loss and grief—I open a new document and start to recall, image by image, my childhood with a chronically ill father. I’ve been attempting essay revisions, and I keep thinking about how my readers asked to see more of the child narrator, how she coped with her father dying. They found it charming that she brought her father’s lung x-rays to show and tell; more details like that, please.

So, I lay into my keyboard, transcribing these moments that live in my memory: begging my family to join me in the basement when the tornado sirens sounded off, fearing for their deaths; drawing a picture of my father being eaten by a T. rex, a recurring nightmare after watching Jurassic Park. I write about teaching my first-grade class how to sign a song to celebrate Earth Day (my father wanted me to learn ASL so we could still communicate when he could no longer speak). The time I twisted my ankle in the hospital waiting room. Holding his hand while a machine suctioned the mucus from his lungs—everyone else left, none of the adults could bear it, the way his body shook. Children are odd creatures. I write about how special I felt, to be the girl whose dad was dying. Special status. Grief girl.

I have always been Grief Girl.

The man who would be my husband was so in awe when I told him my life story, that I had lived through so much pain. And I loved this. I loved that I had a big story. I loved that I could retell it in a way that made people lean in. And I didn’t even have that big of a story yet. All I had was Dead Dad. Also Estranged Birth Father. Also My Parents Got Divorced Because I Caught My Dad Cheating and Told My Mom—that one was a crowd-pleaser, I held it back for special occasions. There was also Found My Granddad Dead When I was Five and Favorite Uncle Died of HIV/AIDS Ten Years Later. I didn’t even have the other stories yet, the stories my husband would give me: Miscarriage story, Married at Nineteen and Divorced by Twenty story.

What comes first: the wound or the essayist?


My writer friend and I like to refer to ourselves—ironically and enthusiastically—as “wound dwellers.” We picked up the phrase from Leslie Jamison, who writes about a boyfriend referring to her as such. In her final essay in The Empathy Exams, she examines the trope of wounded women, the attractiveness and danger of writing about pain: “What’s fertile in a wound? Why dwell in one? Wounds promise authenticity and profundity, beauty and singularity, desirability. They summon sympathy. They bleed enough light to write by.”

They summon sympathy.

They bleed enough light to write by.

But then, the danger: “The moment we start talking about wounded women, we risk transforming their suffering from an aspect of the female experience into an element of the female constitution—perhaps its finest, frailest consummation.”

Does my insistence on wound-dwelling play into a patriarchal agenda? In recreating pain on the page and then lingering there, am I perpetuating a damaging stereotype—like calling to like?

Maybe so. But suppressing pain never got me far, either.


In a forms seminar on the lyric essay, I’m one of few essayists in a group of fiction writers and poets. Their particular hesitations with the form intrigue and amuse me. They are concerned with the possibilities of manipulation within white space, an unease triggered by a line from Eula Biss in Seneca Review: “I am suspicious of gaps, of silences, of contradictions because I know how easily they hide unfinished thinking and insufficient research.”

I care far more for the first part of that quote: “Holes in an essay, I tell my students, flaws in the logic, contradictions, unanswered questions, loose associations may all be necessary because of what they ultimately make possible.” I don’t try to talk my peers out of their anxieties about truth and veracity; I’ve learned these are boundaries we create on our own, over time.

The conversations that leave me spiraling are the ones about wounds. In her craft essay on found forms, a relative of the lyric essay, Chelsea Biondolillo recounts a student asking if “'these kinds of essays' have to be sad or traumatic,” to which she admits to the reader, “I wondered myself about the intrinsic sadness of the essays I’d found.”

But as she moves through her own essay, Biondolillo recognizes wound-holding as an allowance of the form, rather than a prerequisite: “The wound needs to be protected, these essays seem to imply, with something hard and calcareous. Something spiny, perhaps, or even pearled. Something you might want to pick up, even if it is chipped.”

In this case, the wound doesn’t manifest in an essay—the essay allows for the wound to exist.


The Trauma Olympics. It’s a phrase that moves through nonfiction circles, or perhaps specifically MFA nonfiction circles. Maybe we’re still new enough writers to feel self-conscious about our subject matter, or maybe that self-consciousness never goes away. In an act of self-deprecation and -preservation, we throw around this phrase and laugh. Death, chronic illness, sexual assault, mental health, inherited trauma, abandonment—we hand out invisible medals that mean you can write about this thing.

By my math, I score extra points for the miscarriage because I was eighteen when it happened, but it was also a decade ago, so the shininess is starting to wear off. Good timing, then, when my sixty-year-old mother starts experiencing symptoms of an unidentified dementia. Now I can entwine the loss of a would-be daughter with experiencing the loss of my mother as a daughter. It’s almost unfair, how many trauma points I get for this.

To be valued for one’s wounds means one must stay wounded, forever, to be valued.

My therapist asks why I refuse to let go of my grief and I say, “Maybe after I finish writing my book.”


In our seminar, we delight in how Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts communicates joy; it’s the first work we’ve read with a positive emotion as its driving force. That it’s taken us several weeks to get to joy makes sense: sources of sadness lend themselves to the essay, to all forms of narrative—the tension between failure and conquering, loss and gain, the arc of overcoming.

Of her partner, Nelson writes: “What if where I am is what I need? Before you, I had always thought of this mantra as a means of making peace with a bummer or even catastrophic situation. I never imagined it might apply to joy, too.”

When I read this line, I feel my body relax. I imagine Nelson suspended, if only temporarily, above hurt. Without question, she has and continues to experience grief, but this moment of joy exists forever, and I am grateful for it.

I try to think up conduits of joy that might be emphasized in my collection and scribble them at the top of my notes during our discussion: womanhood, matriarchy, family loyalty. They all feel like a stretch, too abstract to mean anything.

When my former professor visits campus for a weekend workshop, she asks what I’m thinking about, and I explain my fears that I’m writing a joyless book. Later, when we read over my essay draft—about my estranged birth father, and his sister who died at twenty-seven—my former professor shares a grief-laden scene she’s working on. “I don’t write many things that are happy,” she says. “But I can write beauty, and I hope that’s enough.”


For our seminar and an independent study, I read the following book-length, lyric narratives:

A Bestiary by Lily Hoang
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz
Micrograms by Nicole Walker
Little Labors by Rivka Galchen
Ongoingness and The Guardians by Sarah Manguso
Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno
The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco
Afterglow by Eileen Myles
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
When the World Breaks Open by Seema Reza
The Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman
How to Sit by Tyrese Coleman

As a class, we also read the following lyric essays:

“Too Many Spirits Who Begged to Be Let In” by Jenny Boully
“Autopsy Report” by Lia Purpura
“Shoulder” by Honor Moore
“Thoughts on My DNA Results” by Tyrese Coleman
“The Professor of Longing” by Jill Talbot
“A Brief History of Her Pain” by Jen Soriano
“Self-Portrait with Parts Missing and/or Smeared” by Michael Wasson
“Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary” by Danielle Geller
“Pain Scale Treaties” by Laura Da’
“Part One: Redeeming the English Language (Acquisition) Series” by Tiffany Midge

We’re midway through the semester before I realize we’re reading lyric work nearly entirely by women. (John D’Agata, Ander Monson, and Dinty W. Moore are on the syllabus, but with craft essays.)

Compiling a list of lyric books by men takes more effort than I expect. When I ask devoted readers of nonfiction for recent titles, they think silently before finally offering one, maybe two. Eventually, we come up with the following:

The Face by Chris Abani
The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke
Ars Botanica by Tim Taranto
About a Mountain by John D’Agata
Feverland and Happy by Alex Lemon
Brilliant Imperfection by Eli Clare

Why is it so difficult to find men writing lyric books, lyric essays? Do they sense the wounds inherent in the form? Do they refuse to be wounded, publicly?


After my first reading among my peers, during which I read a lyric piece about my miscarriage and brief marriage, a friend asked if I planned to publish the essay.

“It was so, so good,” she said. “Or maybe it was just the public performance of vulnerability.”

I trust this friend, and her comment was genuine: it was a moment of deep vulnerability. For years, I kept that period of my life secreted away. I couldn’t write about it—at least not well—until I found the lyric essay. As Biss wrote, white space allows for gaps in logic and research, but sometimes those gaps are necessary to create narrative from experiences too painful to recount otherwise.

Still, my friend’s comment pressed on my persistent fear: that my work will be valued for the depth of its wounds, rather than the craft that conveys those wounds.

When I meet with a writer and she asks about my thesis, I find myself revealing more and more about my past with each follow-up question. (She writes fiction; when we talk about her manuscript, we don’t speak of her life.) Because she is kind—because I have divulged a litany of losses while sitting on her floor, playing with her baby—she expresses sympathy, and I feel compelled to refuse it. This isn’t the wound I’m talking about, I’d like to say. It’s the work.


Twice during my time in an MFA program, I’ve been audience to men speaking mockingly of writing about the self. (I should clarify that both were guests; one of the two had a significant platform.) These conversations are rote and uninspiring, inevitably leading to the insinuation that personal essays fall into the lowest category of writing: that which is therapeutic.

I would like to invite these men to witness the toll that writing about grief and trauma often takes on me. To sit in one’s pain for several hours a day over an extended period of time is no joyride; if it is therapeutic to come to the end of an essay or poem or story that involves the act of wound-dwelling, why would we ever begrudge the writer that temporary relief?

No one is making me write this collection. I often fantasize about the next project, which might mine less of my personal narrative—how much more work could I get done, I think, without those necessary, restorative days away?

Recently, though, I published a lyric essay about my young miscarriage and the ensuing fallout, and women reached out to me. Some offered similar stories; others simply acknowledged the wound. For once, I recognized the piece as both: a spiny and calcareous thing, craft and life, work and wound. Each of these women lifted me for a moment, holding me in a space that felt a lot like joy.


In her lyric book Tender Points, which recounts sexual trauma and the external disbelief of that trauma, Amy Berkowitz discusses the idea of “straight masculine prose.” She turns to the reader early on in the book and lets them know why she’s selected this stripped-down syntax: “That’s why I so firmly want prose here. Sentences. Periods. Male certainty. These are facts. No female vocal fry. No uptalk. No question about what I tell you.”

Berkowitz’s prose breaks down when she approaches the memory of the rape, her lines dismantling until they appear more like poetry. David Shields wrote in Reality Hunger that prose starts to naturally fragment when approaching difficult or traumatic topics, but how does that account for intentionality?

To say that prose “just fragments” when approaching trauma seems to insinuate that the writer couldn’t “maintain” the straight, masculine prose—that her feelings, and thus her lines, got away from her. The assertion echoes the idea of wound-dwelling as reflex, something that writers—women writers, wound-dwellers—have no authorial control over.

I want to say there’s another reason: that straight, masculine prose was the thing that couldn’t contain Berkowitz’s experience. So, she created her own form, that could.


When I write joy, it’s centered around my nieces. My mother had two daughters—my sister first, then me—but my sister moved away to live with her father when I was five. I felt, in many ways, like an only child.

Now my sister has two daughters, raised under the same roof. Full sisters, there’s no question of their connection. My sister sends photos of them entwined on the couch together, playing tag together, taking baths together, screaming together. They are teaching me about sisterhood; they are showing me what I’ll never have. (And yet—when I write of my nieces, I write of joy.)

Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors contains joy. As does, I think, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso. I love these books, but it troubles me that both are written by new mothers, both centered around children. Surely there are other things over which to express joy?

Or perhaps what I mean to say: surely there are other things over which I can express joy, in my own work.

Womanhood, matriarchy, family loyalty.

I’m still compiling a list.


Eliza Smith lives and writes in Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared in The Offing, The Pinch, Indiana Review, and elsewhere.

Monday, October 1, 2018

That’s Crazy: Why Nonfiction is Not Therapy

Recently I taught a nonfiction workshop that was the unique blend of curious writers, quirky personalities, and pure happenstance that can only be called (somewhat hyperbolically) magic. We geeked out on the essay, delving into craft and reading powerhouse sentences out loud. We took risks, experimented, tried our hands at flash and graphic narrative, at one-sentence essays, at the hermit crab essay, literary journalism. Some of the work was good, some was not. And some was stellar, leaving us a bit breathless in the workshop circle, students muttering “damn” while shaking their heads. We started arriving early, talking about essays and craft before class, but also music and anime and birds. More than one students had work accepted for publication before the semester’s end.

Midway through the semester, several students started saying, “This class is like a therapy session.”

Sure, many students wrote about mental health and trauma and poverty and relationships and illness, but this was not what they meant when they said our class was therapeutic. The class was not capable of curing or healing the trauma about which they wrote. And many did not write about trauma or pain at all, instead wrote delightful, quirky pieces about videogames or military service or collecting feathers or long-distance running. And still, these students and much of our class felt the workshop was something restorative.


This same semester someone asked if I would work with a writer who wasn’t interested in craft.

“She already has a story—she’s lived quite the life.”

This was not the first time I’d heard this, but the implication that anyone who has lived a terrible or terribly exciting life is guaranteed a narrative by way of experience is how we’ve gotten to the point where every minor celebrity has a poorly ghost-written memoir and some writers feel the need to fabricate extravagant events in order to sell a book. This is also the reason I have to remind students (and sometimes myself) that nonfiction is not always about tragedy or narrow escape or the worst/best day ever. Some of the best nonfiction is about observing, delighting in the mundane, relearning what we thought we knew.

More troubling, however, this notion implies that writing about trauma is somehow devoid of craft, removed from the intellectual rigor of the essay. Readers scoff at “confessional” writing as though one cannot write with ferocity and humor and insight about real human hurts. The suggestion also diminishes the trauma itself, focusing on its shock value and unbelievability, and thereby implying that narrative and narrator are somehow separate, that suffering is merely anecdote or legend rather than the author’s life.

The conversation progressed. “She doesn’t want to focus on craft. She really just needs an audience. The workshop will be like therapy.”

The cliché that personal writing—the memoir, the personal essay, nonfiction as a genre—is somehow able to heal is as exhausting as it is incorrect. Writing is labor-intensive, arduous. The ultimate in confusion, writing asks us to sequester ourselves in order to write for an audience we are too busy to ever spend time with. And though some describe writing as a kind of catharsis, writing nonfiction often seems the opposite of restorative, for the best nonfiction asks us to render our flawed selves on the page, question our motives and even memories. To dissect. In fact, writing nonfiction willingly invites paranoia about truth, that troublesome concept that has become obfuscated lately. Writing nonfiction requires great risk, tossing ego aside, inviting (self)criticism. Nonfiction writers try to weave the minutiae of their lives with the greatest threads of humanity, hoping like hell they end up with a braid, though more often the result is a knot. The goal is complexity, contradiction. Nonfiction often resists resolution entirely, instead a search in order to get lost, to not-know. Writing nonfiction is not therapeutic—it is maddening.

I don’t remember how I ended the conversation, which included soundbites like, “She’s an adult, so has more to say than kids in their twenties,” but I do remember when the talk turned to my own forthcoming book, which is, ironically enough, a nonfiction book about—among other things, I hope—therapy.

“You must know how good it feels to write without the pressure of an audience. To just get it out.”

That we writers of nonfiction are desperate for an audience yet gloriously unconcerned with how our words will impact readers is the reason nonfiction and nonfiction writers are sometimes called vain, navel-gazing, indulgent. But we are not—or should not be—solipsistic. Creative writing asks writers to read extensively, become literary critics, consider social and historical contexts, synthesize texts and ideas, research physics or phlebotomy (given the project), and become architects, weavers, engineers not simply of sentences, but entire worlds.

Writers of nonfiction—including students, who astound me with their nimble, wonderfully strange, tender and tenacious brains—are philosophers and sorcerers of text and testimony. And while they sometimes write about themselves—nonfiction can also be about bees and origami and blood platelets, the writer absent from focus—they always write with audience in mind. We labor over a scene so readers can imagine themselves there, fret over the way a line will sound on a reader’s lips, hope, desperately so, that readers will apply the particulars of our pasts to themselves, to the world.


In my early twenties I began to see and hear things, thought my body was rotting from inside, experienced dozens of daily panic attacks that left me unable to eat or leave my home, walked the slick edge of panic as though a tightrope, certain that hurt was my destiny. I saw asteroids and ghosts, lost feeling in my limbs, grew afraid of my own breath, ragged as a claw. I was surrounded by death, but therapy gave me back my life.

I wrote about this experience in Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, a book that I hope shares the difficulties of living with anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, while also examining the cruel history of treatment of mental illness patients in the United States and interrogating cultural attitudes about mental health.

Writing this book was hard—I had to relive terrifying moments, try to capture on the page what had been so wild in my mind, render myself vulnerable when much of my professional life had been about concealing this. I had to research, laboriously, doubt this research, navigate the anxiety that comes from thinking I had gotten something wrong and everyone would know and judge me and then I’d die in a ball of fiery hate flame hurled from the heavens (because that’s how the anxious mind catastrophizes). I wrote linearly and then chopped up time because that is how it was in my memory. I tried to make beautiful sentences about things that were ugly. I sat, day after day, month after month with myself and the lives and histories of so many other patients who have been told by our nation that they are wrong, bad, crazy, mad.

I had certainly “lived a life,” but this would not excuse poor craft. If anything, I felt increased pressure to get the story right, lest mental illness be blamed. I did not write for myself—I wanted to reach others who had felt bruised, broken. The writing was not medicinal—each day was a reckoning. I was alone, no trained professional helping me to seek clarity. Often I felt worse after writing, from the pressure of the task and each painful memory.

And while I gained clarity in the narrative—number of chapters, point of view, scaffolding, cadence—I did not necessarily gain clarity in my life. Writing did not cure my anxiety—if anything, the process increased it. I am proud of the book I have produced and the narrative it contains, but the ongoing narrative of my life has not been helped by the act of writing. My mental illness was not cured by writing about it. In fact, the months leading up to the book’s publication were some of the most mentally challenging I’ve experienced.

As much as likening personal writing to therapy contributes to the false narrative that personal writing is easy, soft, nonintellectual, the comparison also implies mental illness or trauma or violence or pain or grief or any of the reasons hurting humans seek therapy are an easy fix, a quick solution rather than a lifetime of painful negations. This comparison minimizes the real, active work of both nonfiction writing and therapy. As much as I am exhausted by the notion that nonfiction writing is an effortless kind of narcissism, I am also tired of the comparison that therapy is the same, for it too is reduced by the comparison. The comparison of nonfiction writing and therapy is one that seeks to misrepresent, and by doing so devalue the very difficult work of both.

I am fortunate that I found a wonderful therapist who provided me the tools I need to manage my mental illness even after her care. Sure, my experience with therapy can be compared to nonfiction in superficial ways—I mined the past, going down into darkness searching for a glint of understanding. I sought to piece together a cohesive narrative. I spoke stories from the privilege of present perspective. I used the essayist’s tools of circling my subject from many angles, using digression, saying, “I remember,” or “I can’t recall.” I revised. And I had scenes, metaphors, images—ice like glass caught in my throat, the sinewy muscles of a body that’s spent a lifetime prepped for pain, a fist cracking blossom onto my ribcage, the way someone whispering, “Why do you make me hurt you?” feels like blue, like ocean gone cruel, like stars turned to shards.

But therapy was hard in ways that writing is not. There are many things I could list here, but the most important is that no matter how I’ve worked, day after day, the narrative of my mental illness is never finished. “Butt in chair,” I say to creative writing students, to myself. “Just write the damn thing.” But I will not—I cannot—conclude therapy the way I do an essay and send it out for publication’s seal of approval. I rid myself of a subject—starfish, prairie grass—upon writing, but I will never be rid of mental illness.

What strikes me most about the comparison between nonfiction writing and therapy is that people do not make the comparison to be accurate. They make it to be dismissive. They make it to be cruel.

I did not go to therapy for an audience. I did it for myself. I did not go to therapy because I had “lived quite the life”; I went to therapy because I wanted a life at all.


All semester my students wrote and said, “This class is like a therapy session,” even though there was no trained professional across the room—while my PhD claims I am trained, most days I am shouting, “More carnival research! More clowns!” or wielding a pair of scissors and crying out, “Tetris this essay into cohesion!” Still, I knew what they meant, for that semester our class was the only thing I enjoyed.

Likening nonfiction to therapy is a poor comparison because unlike a writing assignment, the things for which people seek therapy often do not conclude. Over the years, my mental illness has changed, clever shapeshifter, keeping me on my toes—or rather, on my knees—just when I think I’ve learned to manage. While anxiety is an old friend, obsessive compulsive disorder is a new acquaintance.

That semester my OCD meant I could not look in a mirror because my face was sliding asymmetrical, was changing without me, a ghost or a demon whose imperfect reminder that nothing is permanent, that everything falls apart, I could not bear. I saw uneven surfaces, cracks, and carpet seams, and longed to flee spaces because they were wrong. Everything was wrong.

I counted steps when I walked, my throat catching when flights of stairs were not equal in number. Numbers mattered—palindromes for microwaving, for waiting for poison to leave a pipe before filling a water glass, for drinking water or washing my hands.

Nothing was clean. When people talked to me, I saw the way their skin was thick with germs, with filth, with contaminant. I did not want to be touched, no hugs or handshakes. I could not stand others in my office or home, where they scratched their heads and sneezed, sloughed off hair and skin onto the floor and furniture. Even I was filthy and so I used Lysol on my shoes, my purses, even my hands in a few fits of panic. I changed immediately each time I returned to the clean, safe space of my home.

Soon I clapped and cleared my throat, nervous tics, shaking my head side to side to be free of the thoughts that came sharp and fast, and that I could not be rid of no matter how hard I tried to rewrite or revise my life. I could not stand cracking bodies or fingernails, which made me sick, teeth, too, stabbing through the soft, smooth gums, shifting and staining and never lining up right right. Nothing was right. My hands shook when I looked at them and I licked and licked my teeth, pressed my tongue hard against them to keep from screaming until they, too, were shaking.

That semester I counted to remind myself to breathe and then I came home where I counted down until bedtime, hoping in sleep I would not count, though I clenched my teeth so hard I wore holes through my mouthguard. It didn’t matter if I was awake or asleep—everything tasted of blood.

I could not write, but if I could it would not have made me feel better.

During our nonfiction workshop, however, I did not have a decaying body. I did not see germs. I did not count. I did not have to try to remember to breathe. There was indeed something about the experience that distracted me, gave me purpose.

What I’ve learned through the process of experiencing mental illness, researching it for Quite Mad, and teaching bright, bold students who sometimes open up to me about their struggles is that mental illness is on the rise, especially for young people. Ours is a world where students fear school shootings and sexual assault and unemployment and staggering loans and poverty, the very real factors that lead to mental health struggles. A world where people believe “adults” have more to say, more to write, than “kids” in their twenties. An existence where the social and political world shifts beneath us. We are witness to a world where the unreal, the crazy, the mad, have suddenly become reality.

When my students said the workshop felt like therapy, they did not mean to say it was soft or easy or vain the way many who wield the comparison would argue. No, I believe what students valued when they arrived early and stayed late, wrote drafts far exceeding the required length, wrote essays that weren’t even assigned, researched and revised and risked, was the way the genre creates agency, power, possibility.

Though nonfiction is not therapy, it does provide space to be free, to experiment without the fear of failure, to wander and doubt without retribution. What is restorative is not that it is undemanding or coddling, but that it offers multiple realities, the ability to shape something, to construct and critique in a place and time that so often do not allow this.

Each day I was convinced I was dying, suffocating from the counting, which resonated inside me, louder than my heartbeat. Each day students struggled to pay their bills, to navigate marginalized identities in this national climate, to balance work and school and the same mental health struggles as me and so many Americans. And each day we wrote, butt in chair, risking, failing gloriously, trying again. Students went for the jugular, cut to the heart of a scene, ripping through bone to the marrow of a moment. They held up magnifying glasses to humanity.

It was not soft or easy. We wrote through blizzards and oppressive New England rain. We wrote about bees and origami and blood platelets, but also sexual assault and addiction and abuse. It was not vain. We were philosophers and sorcerers of text and testimony. All semester we wrote, and when the green returned, buds bursting to bloom, the dirt-rich smell of renewal, so did a small semblance of my sanity. Together we were architects, weavers, engineers not simply of sentences, but entire worlds.


Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women, Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch. Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011 and is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University..