Interview: Sarah Fawn Montgomery
I have been a fan of Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s writing for a long time—first as a reader and a teacher, then as a writer drawn to formal innovation and passionate about Sarah Fawn’s subjects, then as an editor. Long before her recent essay collection, I was inspired by her poetry chapbook, Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women, which includes poems about literary madwomen, electroshock therapy, Freud’s “talking cure,” and Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, whose rest cure was featured in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Sarah Fawn’s essay “Teaching the Literature of Madwomen” in Literary Hub combines personal experience and family history with classroom scenes and literary criticism of other texts I was teaching in my own classes.
Her hybrid memoir made a deep impression on me. Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir chronicles her experiences with anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, and PTSD within the larger context of diagnoses and “cures” for mental illnesses, and the relatively new reliance on medications such as antipsychotics and antidepressants, developed and marketed by Big Pharma. “Obsessed with mental health,” she observes, “America labels mental illness both imaginary and epidemic.” Women, particularly, are affected by assumptions that they require treatment. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a wrenching account of a difficult upbringing and a chaotic brain.” A reviewer in The Paris Review called it “the wake-up call that we need.”
As an essayist, I was interested not only in her subjects and her voice but also the experimental forms of the essays she was publishing in literary journals. I was gratified when Sarah Fawn submitted work to CRAFT and we were able to publish her dreamlike lyric flash “Dash.” In her mother’s stolen moments alone at dusk, “the light goes diffuse, like slow motion, like simple. The backyard trees are velvet; cirrus swift brushstrokes make the sky seem safe.” Sarah Fawn’s prose verges on poetry as she expresses the truth of her mother’s life.
When Sarah Fawn contacted me to suggest a conversation about her new essay collection Halfway from Home, I jumped at the chance. The lyric essays in her collection address the importance of reflecting on the past and imagining the future at a time when the world is in climate crisis, our nation is deeply divided, and her family is being ripped apart by addiction, illness, and poverty. They are essays marked by her experience of place: Massachusetts, where she now teaches at Bridgewater State University. “This place resonates hurts and haunts,” she writes, “the Puritan desire for reform echoing over stolen land….” Nebraska, where she lived before Massachusetts. “The Plains resist empathy or understanding, demanding instead that we stand in awe.” The beaches and tide pools of California where she grew up. Among many other writers and cultural critics, Kwame Dawes praises the “generous vulnerability,” “searing intellect,” and “lyric intensity” she brings to her subjects.
This year we are encouraging writers to submit multiple forms of creative nonfiction to the 2023 CRAFT Memoir Excerpt & Essay Contest, and because Sarah Fawn’s work ranges so widely—from full-length memoir to expository prose to narrative nonfiction to lyric essay to researched nonfiction—we thought she would be the perfect fit for the contest. We were thrilled when she agreed to serve as guest judge. I welcome this opportunity to talk with Sarah Fawn about her work and what she looks for in creative nonfiction.
Jacqueline Doyle: At first glance, the forms your writing has taken may seem very disparate. In fact, my very first encounter with your writing was when I read one of your poetry chapbooks. I have been equally inspired by your researched memoir Quite Mad, your expository essays on writing and disability, and your lyric essays in Halfway from Home. What draws you to different genres? Are there some that you prefer over others?
Sarah Fawn Montgomery: For me, genre is quite fluid. I tend to write in multiple genres at once, sometimes even approaching the same story or subject matter in different genres. Sometimes an insight in poetry allows me to better understand myself in nonfiction. Sometimes writing nonfiction allows me to craft better fiction. And I always strive for my prose to read like poetry. I strongly encourage writers to play in and between and across genres to discover the best ways to tell their stories. Reading and writing across genres widens our access to craft techniques and builds the confidence we need to forge our own identities and practices. Lately, I’m especially interested in hybridity, in blurring genre, in subverting the expectations we have as readers and writers. I’ve been writing prose that reads like poetry, poetry that reads like prose, and playing with formal structures in individual pieces and book manuscripts. I also have a craft book on writing disability forthcoming with Sundress Publications.
JD: Place, specifically the three states where you’ve lived, is so important in Halfway from Home. I love the passage where you explain your title: “When I fly home to California from where I live in Massachusetts, crossing time zones and great distances like a space traveler, I spy Nebraska, another former home, another me in another time. No matter when I am or where I go, I am always halfway from home.” I have lived on both coasts but don’t know the Plains at all, and your exploration of the awe-inspiring landscape and all that’s hidden underground in Nebraska is stunning. How does place inform your writing?
SFM: There is a tendency to think of land as landscape, as a backdrop to our lives, but our stories are shaped by place as much—in fact, I would argue more—than people. My memories are deeply informed by place, which is why the essays in this collection explore the tide pools and monarch groves of California, the fossil beds and grass prairies of Nebraska, and the scrimshaw shops and tangled forests of Massachusetts. I cannot tell the story of my search for home across America without exploring these places, without considering the way nature has nurtured me. Ever since childhood, I’ve been in awe of the natural world, and I still stop to gather shells and stones in my pocket, to examine the gentle veining on a leaf or a mushroom pulsing itself into existence from the damp. I’m endlessly fascinated by the wonder that is right outside, and because it is so easy these days to become distracted by chaos, I try to spend as much time in nature as I can, delighted and surprised by all the things that teach me about myself and the world.
JD: How is home important for the writer? How do you define “home”?
SFM: Both home and writing are a kind of understanding, a recognition, a welcome. Both are reflective, restorative, regenerative. Good writing feels like home whether we read it or find ourselves in that miraculous writer’s rhythm where the words flow and the story makes sense, as if the process and product were always meant to be this way. But you have to work for both home and writing. You have to tend to them as they tend to you. The search, the dedication, and the protection are part of why they are so precious.
JD: You open Halfway from Home with an essay called “Excavation,” where excavation is quite literal—your father excavates the earth, you dig holes in search of treasures as a small child—but also has metaphorical resonance, suggesting something about the endeavor of writing essays, and perhaps about the progression of the essays in your collection. You put it beautifully in Essay Daily: “Essaying requires the same techniques as excavation. You must work slowly and proceed with caution. You first map out the area you hope to uncover, while acknowledging that what is beneath the surface is likely to sprawl in all sorts of unexpected directions, tree roots and mineral veins running jagged through the tidy plot at the surface.” Can you comment on the “digging” involved in these essays, what you uncovered, and where that took you?
SFM: Halfway from Home is about the restlessness I felt since leaving a chaotic home at eighteen to search for my place across the country, discovering and abandoning homes on the West Coast, in the Midwest, and on the East Coast, all while determined never to settle in one place. But throughout my travels, I found it very difficult to move forward when I was so compelled to revisit my past. As such, these essays required me to dig into personal and political histories, excavating stories that had been buried deliberately or by accident, and unearthing larger truths about what it means to be nostalgic for places and people—including versions of ourselves—that no longer exist. I had to excavate family secrets and shames in order to tell stories about addiction, violence, illness, and poverty. And since we tell the stories of our lives in order to understand the larger world, these essays also required digging into the current social and political maelstrom of our increasingly divided nation, as well as the devastating reality of what we have done to the natural world. I write a lot about loss throughout this collection, and excavating the ways grief and trauma are transformed through time was one of the main concepts I tried to uncover.
JD: In a post on the Brevity blog, you wrote, “I do not write to escape illness, rather I look to disability to guide my practice and craft. Disability and illness are essential to my writing—they shape my work as they shape my life.” Could you comment further on the effect disability has had on your writing—both how and what you write?
SFM: Disability certainly shapes the content of my work—I’ve written extensively about mental illness, neurodivergence, and chronic pain—but it also shapes my craft. My experiences of disability impact everything from memory construction in nonfiction to line breaks in poetry to a character’s decision-making in fiction. Metaphor, image, even point of view are influenced by my experiences as a disabled writer, for not only do I perceive the world differently through my body and mind, but also I am perceived differently by the world as a result. It is impossible to separate my storytelling from the story of my disabled body.
I cannot write every day, or even most days, especially when I am occupied with symptom management. Because I often do not have much time available to write, or because my disabilities limit the length of time of a writing session, much of my work reflects this process—collage or mosaic essays, short poems, flash fiction. The form of my work is determined by the form of my body, the form of my mind, and the disabled writing practice I have cultivated as a result. Lately, disability progression has limited not only the time I have available to write but also the means by which I write. I can no longer type or write by hand and instead write now via dictation software, which changes the way I interact with the page, the way I conceive of storytelling entirely. While it has been frustrating as a writer to rethink the modes by which I write, it is also exciting to consider how new access technologies are impacting my craft and how they will shape my stories yet to come.
JD: You integrate a great deal of research into Quite Mad. While researching my own hybrid project in progress, I felt inspired and validated by your insight in Wordgathering:
Instead, I drew strength for my story through research—hundreds of medical texts and historical accounts, literary analyses and psychopharmaceutical studies to demonstrate to readers that while I was mentally ill, I was also credible, that my anger was supported by my intellect and a chorus of brilliant voices. Adding research allowed me to more accurately write my memoir because American mental illness is the result of systemic ableism and medical sexism, so my experience is part of a legacy of women who have been sedated into submission throughout history, who have been institutionalized and lobotomized without their consent, who were burned at the stake or given the rest cure until they saw madness in yellow wallpaper.
Combining research with personal experience poses challenges in any hybrid memoir, but particularly so when the narrator’s emotional experiences require her to establish her intellectual credibility. What difficulties were involved in blending roles and voices in Quite Mad?
SFM: It is essential for any memoirist to establish credibility, for readers turn to the genre for truth. And in our contemporary climate, fact and reality are increasingly suspect, shifting the burden of proof even more onto the writer. When writing Quite Mad, however, I was faced with the additional challenge of proving my sanity and intellectual ability as a mentally ill person, as well as my wisdom and authority as a young woman who wrote much of the book in my early twenties. These are the kinds of burdens placed on many marginalized writers—proving our experiences, validating our identities, explaining ourselves to disbelieving audiences.
To combat these challenges, I turned to research, incorporating medical literature, an extensive history of psychiatry, and a discussion of America’s complex history of psychopharmacology to juxtapose my personal experience against an authoritative framework. But I also incorporated the voices of mentally ill women throughout history, women like me who had been silenced and shamed, but whose stories resonated so deeply with mine. Mental illness can be incredibly isolating, and I wanted to set my individual story within a larger chorus of voices to demonstrate the complexity of our community. But as much as I incorporated research to earn myself credibility, I also push against this notion throughout my memoir. I invite readers many times to question my memories and construction of the story itself, reminding readers that while the descriptions of mental illness are often met with disbelief, and patients are accused of constructing their stories, each story we tell—a memoir, a medical chart, even the facts of an illness—is constructed.
JD: You use research in Halfway from Home as well, often when constructing your braided essays. I was delighted to learn about myriad subjects ranging from rocks to scrimshaw to mirrors to moths to trees. I’d love to hear about your process of integrating research into personal essays, and also how you keep records of your research (if you do) and organize your research (if you do).
SFM: Research is an essential part of my work in any genre. Research provides the distance I need from a subject to fully explore it, as well as a unique lens through which I can view my experience, attitudes, emotions. But I’m not interested in merely reporting facts—instead I’m interested in using research to bring disparate ideas together, to juxtapose, to contrast, to provide tension and shades of possibility.
For me, the key to research comes down to wonder. I allow information to surprise, delight, and even confuse me, and then to lead me down various paths. I’m not as interested in framing research as the focus of work as much as I am in sharing a sense of wonder with readers. As such, I collect facts the way I collect stones or acorns. I pick them up and muse about them for a while before putting them in a pocket or on a shelf for me to consider later when I am lonely or in need of magic. Because of this process, I must confess I do not have a particularly strict organizational method for my research. Instead, I jot down facts or ideas in notebooks, on scraps of paper, in too many open tabs on my phone. I memorize my favorite facts until I find a use for them. Those close to me know my affinity for facts, and it is not unusual for friends to share odd bits of information with me. Nothing delights me as much as a rare bit of knowledge, and sharing facts with others—including readers!—is my way of showing love.
JD: In “Unlearning the Ableist Writing Workshop,” you talk about unlearning workshop advice and resisting publishers’ expectations of a “triumphant recovery arc” in books like Quite Mad: “Like many disabilities and chronic illnesses, mental illness is a lifelong negotiation. I did not want to sell a story that implied tidy resolution was possible. I did not want to write the ableist story of my disabled life.” Could you describe the alternate arc you constructed for that book?
SFM: Many stories around mental illness focus on recovery, framing symptoms as the antagonist, the search for treatment as the plot, and the narrator’s recovery as the resolution. But simple recovery is not how mental illness works. Like many disabilities and chronic illnesses, mental illness is often a lifelong experience that ebbs and flows rather than receding entirely. It was important for me to reflect this reality in my memoir, to suggest to readers that while treatment is possible, it is unrealistic and perhaps unwise to speak about recovery in such stark terms. I wanted readers to experience an honest narrative whose arc did not suggest a linear march toward triumphant recovery, but rather a seismograph whose peaks and valleys reveal the daily struggles of living with mental illness but also the immense joys that are possible in spite of—or perhaps even because of—our unique experiences.
More than that, however, I wanted to explore the rich identities associated with disability and chronic illness. When we frame disability and chronic illness as deficits, there is only one narrative outcome that seems preferable—one of eradication and erasure, which enact violence against both the condition and people who experience it. But neurodivergence and chronic pain are active parts of my identity and provide me understanding and tenderness just as they have also led to misunderstanding and trauma. As a result, the arc I constructed in Quite Mad is not one where the narrator becomes free of her illness, but rather one where the narrator comes to understand, explore, and even thrive because of disabilities and their rich cultures and communities.
JD: You’ve written in Essay Daily about making space in your own writing workshops for writers with disabilities. How do you counter ableist expectations in your teaching?
SFM: Traditional writing workshops often disempower disabled writers and stories, framing them for ableist readers or purposes and harming or even eradicating disabled points of view. As a result, many disabled writers have to actively unlearn traditional writing advice surrounding our stories and our practices if we are to tell our stories. Disabled writers can and should resist calls from the workshop to make their work follow a triumphant recovery arc, serve as hope or inspiration, shield readers from suffering, or perform trauma. Disabled writers can and should resist calls from the workshop to explain every detail about their medical histories or justify their experiences. Disabled writers can and should resist calls from the workshop to make every piece be about disability. In addition, the writing practices valued by workshops often do not support disabled writers, so it is important to offer multiple models for writing, revising, editing, and pursuing publication. Writing workshops are full of ableist writing advice that can actively harm disabled writers and their work, so it is essential we seek out disabled stories and strategies.
JD: Halfway from Home opens and closes with passages about your father, both written in child’s POV. How did you decide how to arrange the essays in Halfway from Home? Did you have a sense of an overall arc from the beginning?
SFM: Much of this collection is about time, grief, memory, and identity formation, none of which are linear. Therefore, it was important for me to arrange the collection nonchronologically. As a result, the essays shift in time and place, narrated by various selves at various life stages. Some are narrated in the voice of the child, while others are narrated in the voices of various women I’ve been throughout my life. The collection is organized thematically, with essays transitioning through similar ideas or images. Many of the essays are structured through collage or mosaic rather than through linear arcs, so the essays in the collection move the same. I like the way this organization privileges theme rather than plot, as well as the way it makes the reading experience interactive. Like a game of Tetris, the essays can be shifted around to create different meanings, and readers are as instrumental as the memoirist in making meaning through their participation.
JD: In an article in Hippocampus you mention the inspiration of Terese Marie Mailhot, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Jesmyn Ward, and Kathryn Schulz, who “provide maps for all the possibilities my grief would afford, the many routes I can could use to find my way out of the darkness.” Who are some of the other essayists and memoirists you would recommend to writers of creative nonfiction?
SFM: So many! Melissa Febos, Marcos Gonsalez, Elissa Washuta, Alexander Chee, Maggie Smith, Molly McCully Brown, Akwaeke Emezi, and the list goes on! But perhaps even more, I recommend that prose writers read as much poetry as possible. Some of my favorite poets include Chen Chen, Danez Smith, Donika Kelly, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, torrin a. greathouse, Ocean Vuong, Ada Limón, Tracy K. Smith, Franny Choi, and again, this list could easily go on!
JD: What will you be looking for in creative nonfiction as you read for the contest? Could you elaborate on what you look for in an essay? In a memoir excerpt?
SFM: I’m looking for work that does not follow predictable patterns, but instead reimagines structural and stylistic possibilities entirely, transporting the reader into a writer’s world as opposed to translating that world for the reader. I want to be immersed in the writer’s mind, experiencing their sense of self in all its tender, powerful, painful, and gorgeous uncertainty. I’m drawn to unapologetic vulnerability, a thorough questioning of subject and self, and an attempt to capture complexity that does not necessarily result in tidy conclusion. Bonus points for attention to image and language that sings.
JD: Thank you for agreeing to judge the 2023 CRAFT Memoir Excerpt & Essay Contest and for taking the time to answer these questions!
SARAH FAWN MONTGOMERY is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press, 2022), winner of a Nautilus Book Award. She is also the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018) and three poetry chapbooks, as well as a forthcoming craft book on writing disability (Sundress Publications, 2025). Her work has been listed as Notable in The Best American Essays many times, and her poetry and prose have appeared in Brevity, Catapult, The Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, New England Review, The Normal School, Passages North, Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and numerous other journals and anthologies. She is an associate professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. Find her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery.
JACQUELINE DOYLE is the author of the award-winning flash fiction chapbook, The Missing Girl (Black Lawrence Press, 2017). She has published essays and flash from her work in progress, The Lunatics’ Ball, in EPOCH, Passages North, Permafrost, F(r)iction, The Sonora Review, Pinch, The Collagist, matchbook, and elsewhere. Her work has been featured in Creative Nonfiction’s “Sunday Short Reads,” longlisted in The Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions, and has earned nine Notable Essay citations in The Best American Essays. She is a professor emerita at California State University, East Bay, and creative nonfiction section editor at CRAFT. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her on Twitter at @doylejacq.