For many years, I’ve been trying to write a memoir of what happened to me when I was seventeen: a manic psychosis, a diagnosis and hospitalization, the recovery and conflict that came afterward. Writing this has meant having to return to my psychiatric records and a variety of traumas, and though I have finished a full draft of this memoir, I found I was avoiding writing about the months right after my release. This period shortly after I got out of the hospital was, for me, the darkest time. I was grieving, for one thing, and I felt desperately alone. Writing about it directly seemed to be impossible.
I taught a summer workshop in creative nonfiction in 2019, and one of my prompts for my students was to use a found form. Part of our pedagogy was to write with our students. I thought of writing a book structured around the Dewey decimal system, starting with one clear memory I have of standing in front of the section with books about lizard-men theories of the universe and first-person accounts of alien abduction; I remember thinking, oh, when they say “nonfiction,” they do not mean “true.” Using the numbers from the Dewey decimal system allowed me to write this piece in a fragmentary way—not my usual style—which allows the titles of sections to add meaning to the fragments; it allowed me to write it outside of chronology and to think thematically. It helped me find a way to write about this time that was so painful for me personally.
LIZ HARMER’s first novel, The Amateurs, was a finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, and her second is forthcoming with Knopf Canada in 2022. She has been awarded fellowships at the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and her essays, stories, and poems have been published widely. She is at work on a memoir.