“Gatherer’s Blog” is an invited feature that provides emergent as well as seasoned writers with opportunities to reflect upon aspects of their own writing processes.
What’s Form Got to Do With It?: Finding Shape in Memoir Projects
by Sarah Fawn Montgomery
The narrative goes like this: Someone is mentally ill. She is almost always a woman in a drab outfit, limp hair, expressionless face. Her home is messy, partner and children left unattended and therefore unloved. In this familiar story it is hard to tell who is the villain—the illness or the sufferer.
But the narrative promises hope—readers see what the patient could be if only she were medicated. The “cured” woman wears bright clothes and socializes, suddenly popular as though mental illness makes one unlovable. She performs domestic tasks like hosting parties and cooking for her family. She walks in the park with her kids and the dog, always a golden retriever. She is back to her old self. No, in fact she’s suddenly superhuman—hiking without losing breath, balancing work and home to have it all, posing in yoga class as the face of calm control.
Memoirs surrounding mental illness often follow a similar, linear arc—the narrator is of interest because she is falling apart, though no one believes her pain, but the real protagonist is the prescription. The rising tension is the promise of redemption, because though it is incomplete, the narrative of treatment is an easy pill to swallow. And the dénouement reveals that traditional memoirs of mental illness are valued only if their narrators recover.
A more accurate narrative of mental illness is fragmented, non-linear, full of missing memories and gaps from trauma, full of sensory experiences like hallucination and other symptoms deemed “untrue” by those with strict views of sanity. Honest descriptions of mental illness are often met with disbelief, patients accused of constructing, when all reality is a construct, each story we tell—the facts of an illness, a medical chart, a memoir.
For many years, I did my best to avoid writing about mental illness. It was hard enough living with an anxiety disorder, PTSD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, lonely, painful illnesses that got in the way of my living, not to mention my writing. But I also avoided writing about mental illness because it is hard to claim space for yourself on the page when you have been told your narrative is shameful, when you have been taught to silence the details of your story. It is hard to write a memoir—the genre of truth, of fact—when no one believes your symptoms, your perceptions, when your very reality is suspect. It is hard to come to voice when you’ve been told your voice is not to be trusted.
When I finally wrote about mental illness it was because Quite Mad was the memoir I needed to read. I wrote a memoir about mental illness where—spoiler alert!—the narrator is not cured by a magic pill because this is not true for most mental illness patients. I wrote a memoir that is not bound to linearity because that is not how mental health works, instead full of flashbacks and setbacks and repeating cycles. I wrote a memoir that did not follow a triumphant recovery arc but one where the narrator finds happiness anyway.
Early on, big five publishers were interested in my story, but only if I could revise the narrative in a way that offered redemption. Recovery was what publishers thought would sell, and while I agreed, it simply wasn’t possible to revise my life. I had spent so long editing my life to fit the expectations of others that I could not edit my memoir to do the same.
The expectations for mental illness memoir actively erase illness by way of recovery. To participate in a canon that eradicates stories of suffering in order to make them palatable to a sane audience was not for me. So I leaned into madness. I took linear time and carved it up. I compressed memory, made moments go missing from the page the way they are in my mind. I flirted with the truth—forgive me—because madness does not obey the same rules in life so why should a mad story follow these rules on the page?
But just as I leaned into the poetics of madness, I also relied on the credibility of research. Mentally ill people are not trusted to be their own authorities and memoirs of madness often sensationalize suffering, patients required to perform weakness in order to garner sympathy. I needed readers to believe me but I did not want to feign meekness in order to be heard. I did not want to perform trauma only to pretend it vanished.
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.
The memoir that traditional publishing expected—linear, isolated, infantilized, suffering until saved—simply wasn’t true. To write my memoir, I had to resist traditional formal expectations and reimagine what they could be until a new shape appeared.
I was relieved when Quite Mad found a home with The Ohio State University Press, a publisher that valued the book’s resistance to the recovery narrative, valued its lyric form and its abundance of research. And I’ve been validated by readers who say that my nontraditional story reminds them of so much of their own.
Writing a mental illness memoir where happiness was possible even if recovery was not, allowed me, for the first time, to believe this was true. By reframing mental illness as a worthy subject, something I could write about free from shame and unrealistic expectations, I was able to see myself similarly.
Quite Mad was also the book I needed to create as a writer. Writing about mental illness, which obeys no rules of logic, which creates its own realities, has allowed me to do the same with my craft. My next book, Halfway From Home, which is out later this year with Split/Lip Press, is lyric and strange, a memoir-in-essays collage that blends Montaignian essays with hermit crab essays, that shifts and layers time, that incorporates stories of my search for home with research on everything from the psychology of mirrors to the art of scrimshaw, 1800s oil painting to the science of nostalgia, declining moth populations to the history of clockmaking. Writing it was possible only because I did not attempt to tidy up my narrative into something simpler. Leaning into the layers, finding value in the fragments, permitting what was messy to exist in that form, allowed me to build this next memoir, and, as nonfiction writing does, to build myself.
Editor’s Note: This Gatherer’s Blog is based in part on content presented during a 2022 AWP Panel with memoirists Tyrese L. Coleman, Krys Malcolm Belc, Marcos Gonsalez, and the author.
About the Author
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press, 2022), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018) and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery