Brooklyn-based writer and poet Sarah Manguso developed a rare neurological disease aged just 21; a disease that paralysed her for weeks at a time throughout her twenties. Annie Condon spoke to her for Readings about her memoir on this experience, The Two Kinds of Decay.
This memoir is beautifully written. What were the main differences for you in writing a memoir as opposed to your poetry and short stories?
Thank you. Some people ask me why I stopped writing poetry and started writing prose, as if only one may be practiced at once. Some people who have read my poems get indignant when I call my prose prose, as if prose is a pejorative term. What I am interested in is something outside genre: clear and sustained perception and communication, which requires extreme empathy, and in the end is a kind of love.
Was your memoir difficult to write? Did you need to take breaks from ‘remembering’ and were there times during the writing you were overwhelmed with feeling?
During the summer of 2006, I spent ten weeks at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, where people like me are cared for and given uninterrupted time to work. Lunch is delivered, and one need not speak to anyone all day. For that reason alone, I was able to write the book in six weeks. No breaks. Then, the week before the book’s publication in the States, I stopped eating. (Or, to be more accurate but less polite, I stopped digesting.) I was convinced I’d caught a parasite, but for days people suggested my symptoms might be attributable to nervous worry. ‘Bah! Impossible,’ I said. I didn’t feel worried. The book was done, my work was done, it was all in the hands of the publisher now. But, as one might imagine, I was in fact out of my mind with worry. As soon as I recognised it, thank heaven, it went away.
Do you think your experience of illness and adversity contributed to you being a writer, or was writing something you had always wanted to do?
I couldn’t say. Before I got sick, I wanted to be a magician, then a doctor, then an academic. That covered the first twenty-one years of my life. Afterward, I wanted primarily to be dead. Then, not until I was about thirty, I wanted to be a writer.
Were you influenced by other memoirs or authors when you were writing *The Two Kinds of Decay?*
My influences were the Canadian writer Gavin McInnes and a few songs: Moonrainbow (The Comas), Monster Hospital (Metric), and The Dead Flag Blues (Godspeed You! Black Emperor).
The title comes from a sentence at the end of the book: ‘There are two kinds of decay: mine and everyone else’s.’ What do you mean by that?
I meant that one’s own death is a separate category of experience from that of the deaths of others.
You describe medical procedures – the process of blood cleansing, the implantation of a central line – simply and poetically. There is enormous restraint and control in your writing, which contrasts with the ravages and uncertainty of the disease. Was this purposeful?
My purpose was to write as clearly as possible, and often that purpose demanded restraint. I like Chekhov’s line: If you want to move your reader, write more coldly.
Did you write the memoir with a particular audience in mind? Who do you imagine to be your reader?
I didn’t have a particular audience in mind. I just imagined addressing someone who would listen to me. To my glad surprise, a number of psychiatrists have told me they liked it.