An interview with Sarah Manguso

Henry Ace Knight

Photograph by Joel Brouwer

“I like writing that is unsummarizable,” Sarah Manguso says in 300 Arguments, a slim volume of short compositions, interrelated but self-contained, straddling aphoristic, anecdotal, and comic modes. “A kernel that cannot be condensed, that must be uttered exactly as it is.” Much of Manguso’s work, as those familiar with it will attest, is just that: unvarnished, often non-narrative, unapologetic in its brevity, beggaring the reader’s impulse towards taxonomy.  

300 Arguments is filled with lines that tend to take up long-term residence in far-flung parts of the mind. They hibernate in the subconscious for a little while, until some mundane experience calls them back to the surface, verbatim. A recent example comes to mind. The mundane setting is a grocery store in Shanghai, the echo of Manguso’s line inflecting the stroll down the vegetable aisle with a visceral uncertainty: “My friend learns Chinese and moves to China, but her limited vocabulary is good for grocery shopping,” it goes. “When her heart breaks, she is obliged to ask, Why won’t you fuck me?” For me, the line prompts a series of equally cringeworthy questions: Why is my command of root vegetable names in Chinese so bad? It’s been five years and I don’t even know how to say kohlrabi. Who am I fooling thinking I can even approximate, let alone nail, the expression of feeling? In order to leave with my sanity intact, I am obliged to tell myself that I’m just reserving prime synaptic real estate, the kind that might otherwise be occupied by the marginalia of the vegetable stand, for more emotive vocabulary. 

Manguso’s earlier nonfiction—The Two Kinds of Decay, The Guardians, and Ongoingness: the end of a diary—is just as resistant to summary. Her books interweave elements of memoir, poetry, and philosophy. They never stall out on hills of indulgent lyricism or unmoored abstraction. To be made sense of, they demand to be read on their terms. 

Described by Leslie Jamison as whiskey twice-distilled, Manguso’s prose is mordant, pellucid, cut to the bone. It does not pussyfoot around. 

—Henry Ace Knight

In the essay you wrote for Harper’s on the aphorism, you alluded to the challenge of how best to name them. “Pascal called his Thoughts; Rochefoucauld called his Maxims. Even today no one seems to know just what to call them.” Why do you call yours “arguments,” and why three hundred of them?

I wrote about two hundred of the arguments with my back turned to the book I was trying to write, and have been trying to write for a long time, a book about whiteness and Boston and my family and hate. I can’t articulate the subject even now. But the arguments—those were small, complete works, and I loved the control I had over their small forms; I loved also that I wasn’t trying to write things that were similar in any way but length. There are accounts, manifestos, aphorisms, myths, regrets, apologies, jokes. I wrote most of the book before I thought it could be a book. Then I had to write a title for the book, which took almost as long as it took to write the rest of it. I collected words that I thought might work, and I made vigorous use of my old Latin grammar. The word argument is itself a tiny container of great capacity:

ARGUMENT: subject, theme, sign, mark, token, proof, hint, plot, declaration, evidence, burden, complaint, accusation, denouncement, betrayal.

For a while I wanted to include that list as a frontispiece, but I eventually cut it. Too expository.

As the project began to take shape, how did you arrive at a sequence for the arguments? I’ve read elsewhere that the book was initially organized under seven headings that you later scrapped. How did you choose to order the themes corresponding to these headings and how did you settle on an internal structure for each of them?

I was sitting at a cafeteria table, early for a job interview, and I’d brought the full manuscript with me. With about twenty minutes of free time, I started tagging the arguments with theme words, came up with about twenty-five themes. I eventually reduced those twenty-five to what I thought was an irreducible core of seven. As for the structure of each section, that took a bit more fine-tuning, but I tightened the screws as I moved in closer to the text. Do you know the book Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames? The process of putting the three hundred arguments in order felt like that.

What conversations with readers and other writers have these arguments initiated? Has your belief in any of them shifted since publication? 

I’ve changed my mind about some of them since the book was published, sure, but that happens every time I publish anything. And if any conversations have been spurred, they’ve taken place offstage from my little life. I’m not on social media; if I went on there, I’d never get anything done ever again. I’d go in there and just die. You’d find my corpse on Twitter.

What was the revision process like for 300 Arguments? With aphorisms do you find that once you have the kernel you obsess over the phrasing until you reach that “unsummarizable” state, or do you come back to them later with fresh eyes?

I pick at every sentence constantly until things are done; I practice no method of composition or revision other than constant picking.

You write in the book: “The word ‘fragment’ is often misused to describe anything smaller than a bread box, but an 800-page book is no more complete or unbroken than a ten-line poem. That’s confusing size with integrity.” Do you consider it part of your project as a writer to challenge the perceived relationship between size and integrity?

To the extent that I wrote that argument, yes—but I’m not sure how to elaborate on its three sentences. One year, I was asked by a glossy magazine with a huge readership to write a feature piece to accompany the book’s publication in the UK. Great, I thought; maybe I’ll make a little money. So they pointed out an excerpt that had been published in the States a few years earlier. “Just take this and make it, you know, three times the length.” I asked if they wanted me to extend the concept, to write about how the context of the work had changed in the intervening years (the book was a memoir, and more things had happened to me in the interim). “No, just write this exact piece, but make it three times longer.” I couldn’t do it.

“My least favorite received idea about writing is that one must find one’s voice, as if it’s there, inside you, ready to be turned on like a player piano. Its very existence depends on interaction with the world.” Which interactions do you think were most formative in the construction of your voice as a writer? 

Here’s the thing about that question, the question of influence: I’ve never been able to answer it with any confidence. I do, however, think that artists can readily hear or identify the influences in other artists’ work. You can try to imitate another artist’s work, but that’s not bowing to influence, exactly. Influence is what happens to you when you can’t help it. You sing your song and it’s just your song; it’s not a self-conscious expression of influences. And anyway, I don’t think it’s the artist’s job to write the wall text accompanying the exhibition; that’s the curator’s job. And the artist is, of course, free to disagree or ignore it.

Which essayists do you particularly admire and why? 

I admire essayists who ask questions rather than expressing certainties.

Do you think the aphorism is any more or less amenable to translation than other literary forms?

As a monolingual person I am not qualified to pontificate on translation; I can only step aside and leave room for those who can. I have a devotional respect for translators. Just this month I had the privilege of meeting my Italian translator, Gioia Guerzoni, and to work with her on an edition of my story collection. It’s a tiny little book, and she had already worked on every word of every sentence; together we lovingly picked at them until they all were executing the best meanings they could. I read Italian like a third grader, so I was able to sort of pitch in, as long as she explained the veritable encyclopedia of unintended meanings that every word brought with it. It was exhausting and good, like hiking in the mountains and swimming in hot springs, which we also did; we were in Alberta. Since Gioia is Italian, she smoked while we climbed, me carrying my American-style knapsack filled with gallons of water, first-aid kit, sunscreen, snacks, and so on. I think she was wearing sneakers, but I’m not sure. All she carried was tobacco and rolling papers. Our hiking together was the same sort of courtship, of mutual misunderstanding despite communion, as all translation is.

Do you consider each of the three hundred arguments to be its own discrete essay, or in their accumulation do they cohere for you as an extended essay? Both? 

It was imperative that they both stand alone and cohere, though I don’t think I’d use the word essay to describe them. With any collection, you have to decide upon an acceptable distance, or proximity of association, between the units. Each of the three hundred silences also had to provide a kind of meaning.

You’ve said that you were compelled to keep a diary by the anxiety of forgetting, or of arriving at the end of your life only to realize you weren’t paying much attention. Was there also a parallel anxiety in writing it, knowing on some level that it was futile as a defense against the acceleration of time?

I knew I couldn’t save all the data as written language, but I wondered whether there might actually be an upper limit to the amount that could be recorded in writing (an asymptote!), and I liked chasing that upper limit while also being thrilled by the futility of the chase.

There’s an interesting tension between the breadth of the diary—800,000 words over twenty-five years—and your affinity for brevity and economy in your published work. You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the kernels for some of your projects originated in the diary. Is there something about having so much of your experience recorded in an informal way that helps with ellipsis and omission in your published work? Did you write the diary in a style similar to that of your published work? 

The diary is long, but each entry is concise; 800,000 words over twenty-five years amounts to about eighty-eight words a day. The diary is a large gathering of tiny things, a sandy beach. And, yes, I’m not hiding some alternate sensibility in the diary; my published writing and the diary are of a piece.

What set the year of the diary that you destroyed—in which you found “nothing of consequence”—apart from the rest? Was it the writing itself, the pain or emptiness of what happened during that time in your life, the discomfort of revisiting the “artifact of who [you were] that year”? Or maybe they’re inextricable? 

It really was just that I found it so stultifyingly tedious and empty. Reading it was like finding a bunch of crap in the attic that you know you’ll never want to see again. Empty crates. Maybe all the years are like that. Maybe I was just in a mood when I read it.

Do you believe the diary reads as an autobiography that “also includes the events that failed to foreshadow” might?

It includes more of those events, but not all of them. And I’m sure I fall victim more than once to that assumption of narrative momentum, a force I distrust in life writing (and in all writing).

“I often prefer writers’ diaries to their work written intentionally for publication.” Which writers’ diaries do you particularly like? Did reading diaries affect the manner in which you wrote yours? 

While reading books about Iowa, as I was preparing to move there, I found the diaries of Sarah Gillespie Huftalen, a farm girl who became a country teacher. She was also a prodigious essayist and poet. Her childhood diaries are amazing: Our little colty died. Pa cried. Turks peep. Strawberrying. She taught me so much. Widening my net, I found that there are no hard rules; sometimes the books really are better (Woolf, Kafka) and sometimes they aren’t (Cheever, Renard).

I’m curious about the exercise that you do in your writing courses. What sort of responses do you get from asking your students to attend to empty time? 

Often the writing starts out sounding so frenzied or fearful that it won’t keep going, but once that initial spurt passes, what follows often possesses a weird energy, like the first sound the orchestra makes after it tunes. I think it has to do with the loss of writerly self-consciousness: if a student sits long enough (in the empty time) before writing, the autobiographical echo chamber sort of fades into white noise, and when the listening or thinking self stops being conscious of the writing or recording self, a kind of pure sensibility is able to emerge. Or so I fantasize or hope. I’m still working on teaching this.

Which memory theorists and psychology case studies did you find most compelling in the research you did while writing Ongoingness? Did any findings or theories within the field change the way you think of the relationship between memory and writing? 

Case studies, blogs, Eric Kandel, bits and pieces from old reading, and everything I could find about hyperthymesia, or highly superior autobiographical memory. That research was vigorous, highly distracting, and ultimately useless. I could have included so many fascinating bits and pieces in the book; they would have provided a fraudulent sheen of seriousness, bona fides of its status as serious nonfiction. An academic I hold in high esteem wrote this to me after reading the book in manuscript: “I practically giggled when you did ‘hypergraphia’ and ‘graphomania,’ which in an academic essay would have been 30 pages of ‘situating the argument,’ as a one-paragraph dismissal.” That satisfied me; it was one of the last notes before I let the book go. Right on schedule, on the day it was published, a reviewer for a major newspaper trashed it as too short, sparse, solipsistic, superior, insufficiently imagistic, unappealingly philosophical, proud, narcissistic, precious, windy, wispy, gooey—in short, a sort of literary period-fart. Perhaps this is an object lesson for aspiring writers.

Have you kept a diary of your son’s childhood? My mom recorded her impressions of mine, along with photos and newspaper clippings and the like, in a series of thick black leather-bound books that she calls the Henry books. As a writer myself I am quite eager to read them, but she won’t give them to me until she’s certain I have settled down enough to take good care of them. 

The story of the Henry books, forbidden to Henry, sounds like a book in itself! My impressions of my son could be lifted out and collected, but I’m interested in the commonplaces and miscellany and mishmash and chaos of the whole diary. This is probably just an identifier of poets, as opposed to narrative, which is what fiction writers are supposed to like. (Or so I keep insisting, as it makes my point for me—as long as it’s true, which it probably isn’t. And I should probably also disclose that I frequently deny accusations that I am, or ever was, a poet.)

300 Arguments and The Two Kinds of Decay convey a sense of how integral music was to your early life. Does it continue to be integral in your work too? Do you like to listen to music as you write or do you require absolute silence?

When I had fewer responsibilities choking off the part of the day I have to myself, I listened to music all the time, usually the same pieces over and over again. Now I go to YouTube for a precise recording of such and such, and then I turn the music off. Ten or so years ago, I listened to certain pieces hundreds of times as I wrote certain books. When I was a copy editor I’d listen to the fourth track of Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” on repeat for several hours at a time, or the second track of my Buddha machine, which belongs to my son now. But yes, even though my office is quieter than it once was, I still live in music as other people might live in images.