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..