In Conversation with Marin Sardy on ‘The Edge of Everyday: Sketches of Schizophrenia’
by Nicole Flippo
Marin Sardy’s essays and criticism have appeared in Tin House, Guernica, The Rumpus, Fourth Genre, The Missouri Review, ARTnews, and art ltd., as well as in two award-winning photography books, Landscape Dreams and Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has been the arts editor and editor-in-chief of Santa Fe’s Santa Fean magazine and has twice had essays listed as notable in The Best American Essays. Her first book, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia, a memoir exploring the mental illness that runs in her family, is forthcoming on May 26, 2019 from Pantheon Books.
Nicole Flippo, our blog editor, sat down with Marin to discuss her memoir, journey to publication, and perspective on navigating relationships with loved ones who are living with mental illness.
Nicole Flippo: Your memoir The Edge of Everyday: Sketches of Schizophrenia is forthcoming from Pantheon Books on May 26. Can you tell our readers a little bit about the book and what your experience was like writing it?
Marin Sardy: Well, I describe the book as a highly fragmented memoir. It's an essayistic memoir that started out as a collection of essays. I think it does have an overall narrative and tells a story, but in a very piecemeal kind of way. I did that intentionally because I wanted the form of the book to be able to convey something about the experience of living with mental illness and of having mental illness in one's family. That fragmentation felt very fundamental to what my experience with schizophrenia was. It also felt very fundamental to what I witnessed in terms of how it affected the lives of my mom and my brother. It was not an entirely conscious decision until pretty late in the process, but I think I had been driven by that desire for a very long time in terms of trying to communicate what I lived with, what I witnessed. I had tried in the past to tell those stories in a more traditionally narrative-driven way, but it never felt right to me. I ended up with some good writing, but it never quite got me excited. I always felt like something important was missing from it. And that something important, I think, was so integral that I couldn't be happy until I found a way to communicate it.
NF: Stylistically, so much of the memoir includes glimpses of imagery that allow the reader to feel as if they're almost looking at schizophrenia out of their peripheral vision. I think that speaks to some of the fragmentation you were talking about in your process of putting the story together. How do you typically approach the relationship between form and content?
MS: Well, I think that's really interesting, what you said about looking at schizophrenia out of your peripheral vision. I think that is a key idea here. For me, growing up with a mother—you know, my mother had her first big psychotic break when I was about ten. For me, I realized at some point her illness was not the story I wanted to tell, so much as it was the context in which the stories I wanted to tell had unfolded. That idea of the peripheral vision is very true to my experience of schizophrenia, which I think is common if, as a child, it's in your family. It just becomes part of the fabric of your life. So, I realized at some point that the content alone was not going to convey what I was trying to say. I realized that a significant amount of the meaning was going to have to be embedded in the form. And certainly, this is a realization that was 20 years in the making. I think I can go all the way back to my development as a reader of literature from the time I was a child. I do recall very clearly discovering different kinds of writing that were using a non-traditional form in a way that, to me, really conveyed an enormous amount of the meaning. And I think of the modernist writers. For me, it was people like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and William Faulkner who were doing this. Those were the first of these writers that I came across as a teenager and in my early 20s. I think that planted the seed for me that there was a way to do this using form. But I will say that it was a very unconscious process. I think a lot of my creative process is extremely unconscious. A lot of it, for me, involves getting out of the way enough to let it happen. After it's on the page is when I’m like, “Oh, I see what I'm doing there. Oh, I see what I've accomplished. That's what I was trying to do.” It's almost a backward kind of thing. But the roots of it go back a long way, definitely.
NF: I would imagine The Edge of Everyday must have been an incredibly emotionally arduous work to tackle. I would love to hear a little bit about what your emotional experience was like engaging with this material. Furthermore, do you have any advice for other writers who might be struggling to engage with or write about personally challenging subject matters?
MS: Yes, absolutely. There's a lot that I could say about this. It was incredibly emotionally arduous, and that was definitely compounded by the fact that this book took—I mean, from the time I wrote the first word of anything that's in there to today, we're looking at seven or eight years. And in that time a number of very emotionally difficult things involving schizophrenia, some of which are in the book, were happening. I was trying to have a normal life, and at the same time, I was trying to write about the most difficult things that ever happened to me. And at the same time, I was living through some of the most difficult things that ever happened to me. It was obvious to me that I couldn't just sit down and write any book about this all at once. I was going to have to take it bit by bit. I was going to have to give myself breaks.
Actually, that's how the essay writing kind of came about. [When] my brother died, I couldn't work on anything book-length for a while. It was just too much. I could not work mentally or emotionally. I wasn't prepared for a project of that scope. So, I went back to writing essays because that was what I could handle, that was what I could manage. I think anxiety-wise, the anxiety of writing essays is a lot less than the anxiety of “I'm writing a book.” I feel like, in a way, that was the best thing that ever happened. I think that was a real example of life informing the art. I mean, life can strain the art, but as a result, the art, I think, did a better job of reflecting the life, and that was what I was going for. I feel like working with the constraints of your life, any kind of constraints—I think that those can be some of your greatest strengths sometimes, rather than always fighting [them]. And also, just taking care of yourself. Everybody says this, but for me, especially physically, the anxiety that I feel in my body, often as a result of schizophrenia, is completely overwhelming. The only way that I really manage that effectively is with yoga. It’s an emotional problem, but the only way I've ever been able to tackle it is through a physical means. It works. I pace myself, and I make sure that if I'm doing the hard thing, I'm also doing the things to take care of myself. Because otherwise I just crash. Especially early on, I crashed many times. This was a trial and error kind of thing. I feel like I've gotten myself to a place where I understand how to make it sustainable, but it took a while. It was hard.
NF: Several sections of the memoir are dedicated to detailing grounding forces and figures in your life throughout the years. These include everything from gymnastics to David Bowie to witchcraft. What was your motivation behind dedicating space for these facets within the memoir?
MS: Oh, that's a good question. On some level I think it was another one of those things that was unconscious. But also, I think that I wanted to communicate schizophrenia as a piece of a life. I think part of what I have always wanted to do in writing about schizophrenia is integrate it into the rest of my life. But also, in society at large, schizophrenia is this other thing that is separate. I think part of my effort as an artist is to try to stitch the realities of schizophrenia, the experience of schizophrenia, back into the culture as a part of the larger story of being human. Not as this other thing that is apart. I have my own personal fascinations, I have my own things that I love. But everything, everything in my life in some way connects to schizophrenia. The places that are interesting for me to explore are the places where those connections happen. As I do, certainly, with David Bowie and with gymnastics. Also, I think a part of my progress has been a question of, “How am I going to take care of myself through all of this, how am I going to be okay in all of this?” That question is always in the back of my head. And it found its way onto the page, certainly, in some places.
NF: When you speak about stitching schizophrenia back into just the experience of being human and separating it from the otherness stigma that comes along with the illness, that brings to mind the section of the memoir where you talk about “Mr. Rain Jacket,” the column published in the Anchorage Daily News, which featured a belittling depiction of your brother during his years of homelessness. In what ways do you think depiction and representation of mental illness in media at large should improve?
MS: Well, I will say that I do see it improving, and that is very encouraging. I think that horror movies, and the horror genre in general, are one of the worst things to ever happen to people with schizophrenia. I think that mental illness, because of its unknown-ness, became an easy way to explain evil behavior in popular culture. I think that that is still with us. And I think not just breaking that link, but understanding in greater depth, and in greater subtlety, and in more human terms the places where those two ideas overlap is worth delving into. As I say in the book, there's not much of a link there. But our society has forged an incredibly strong, powerful connection in the public consciousness. I think that's going to be difficult to dismantle. Probably the single most powerful thing to dismantle it is the voices of people who live with schizophrenia themselves. I see this in terms of other aspects of identity that get othered and treated with prejudice and lack of understanding. You have to hear from the person themselves. Somehow people have to hear from the humanity of the person who is living with schizophrenia in order to really get that this is not what they thought it was. And I, of course, not having schizophrenia, I don't have that capacity. The best that I could do, the closest I could come, was to share what I see in my loved ones, what I experienced with them. And to hope that my love for them—the way that I relate to them, and have related to them as people I love first and foremost; as people with independent personalities, and fascinations, and interests of their own; as fully human people who also have schizophrenia—is what comes across.
NF: That's beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that.
MS: Well, I will say it feels really good to be sharing it. To know that this book will be going out into the world. Because I've been talking to people individually in this way for a very long time, and now to know that it can have a greater reach is a really wonderful feeling.
NF: Switching gears to your writing background, you received an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia University. In what ways do you feel that the MFA process has or hasn't influenced your voice and the way you tell stories?
MS: Oh, wow. Yeah. Okay, so that's a multi-part answer. My experience at Columbia was absolutely incredible. I don't think that this book could have been written without it. That said, the MFA experience is not without its downsides. But I will say first that one of the most important things for me was to have an audience that was receiving my writing in a positive way. When I started writing about schizophrenia, I just felt like, “Nobody writes about this. Nobody's going to understand this. I don't know how to bridge the gap between my reality and the reality of everyone else in this room.” But what I found was that my classmates were fascinated by it, and very encouraging, and very willing to learn, and open, and wanting to understand. That early reaction of “this is interesting; I want to read about it” was huge for me. When I started I didn't even know if people were going to want to hear it. And certainly, a lot of my life experience was one where you would mention the word schizophrenia, and suddenly, it was crickets. This still happens a lot of the time when I bring up schizophrenia. All of a sudden people don't know how to react, they don't have anything to say, they just sort of shut down. This is common, and it's become less common, definitely, even in the last five or ten years. But that was what was in my head for what happens when you say schizophrenia out loud, right? So, I thought maybe that was going to be the reaction to reading what I wrote.
But, in fact, it was the opposite. That then gave me permission—made it possible for me to give myself permission—to keep writing about this. Even long after I graduated, working on this book and the moments that were hardest to write about, sometimes I would just say, “Just picture that you're in the room. And that your friends are reading it. Just write it to your friends. Your MFA friends who want to read this.” That helped me to get it out. It made it easy. Because I was like, “You know, [there are] these three people that, whatever I write, are not going to say, ‘You shouldn't be writing this,’ or ‘Nobody wants to read this.’” It's just me telling them about my life. That might be the single most valuable thing that the MFA program gave me.
It was also very helpful that it's a large program, and so there were a lot of people. If your particular thing that you're doing isn't up one person's alley, there's always somebody that's going to be interested in what you're trying. Certainly, I was experimenting with these forms and trying to do some weird stuff that not everyone understood. But there was always someone who understood it. That community was certainly a make-or-break kind of thing for me.
That said, I do think that MFAs have their traditions, and they have their cultures. They have their modes of doing things. I sometimes was on the fringe of that. I didn't mind being on the fringe of it, but I had friends in the program who sometimes felt like the program was just really—they couldn’t find purchase with what they were doing. It was a bit of a struggle. I think the criticisms about the MFA culture, that it can be limiting and narrowing, has some validity. For me personally, the benefits certainly outweigh the negatives by quite a lot.
NF: It’s wonderful to hear that you had such a great community experience with your MFA, particularly when it comes to finding your readership and writing with specific people in mind.
MS: One of the biggest things for being in an MFA program that people don't realize ahead of time is that you have to be able to discern who to listen to and who to not listen to. I was a little older than a lot of [the other students]. I'd been out in the world a little bit more, and I think I had an ability to know who to listen to and who to ignore that was maybe a little stronger than other students. So, I didn't get as caught up in the confusion of that as some other people did.
NF: Do you have any advice on how to discern who to listen to?
MS: I felt often that I had some sense in the back of my head of what I was trying to do [with writing]. This goes back 20 years, even. You'll show people something, and they'll tell you you're doing it wrong, and that you’ve got to do it a different way. Then you try again, and they tell you that you’ve got to do it a different way. And then you try it again, and they tell you that you’ve got to do it a different way. But at some point I figured out how to do the thing that I was trying to do. [Then] people were all of a sudden like, “No, do it your way.” So, if you're not achieving what you're going for, people often won't be able to see what you're going for. They'll tell you to try to do something else. But once they are able to see what you're going for, then they start telling you, “No, do it your way.” There’s no way to not go through that. My advice coming out of that is don't let people tell you to do it another way. Ask yourself instead, “Do they see what I'm trying to do?” If the answer is no that's when I don't listen. If the answer is yes, then it’s like, “Okay, they see what I'm trying to do, and they're trying to help me do it.” Then I listen.
NF: Can you tell us a little bit more about your journey to publication for the memoir and what it's been like working with Pantheon Books?
MS: My journey to publication was as fraught as everyone else's. I actually was very lucky. I got an agent right out of grad school, and that was through the school itself. They have a program where they connect perspective agents with writers, and they basically facilitate the meeting. It was through that that I met my agent. It went very smoothly between my agent and I from the get-go, and that was really wonderful, as I know that many people have a hard time with that. But then I actually tried to sell a book once before this book. I got very close to selling the book, and I actually flew to New York and met with two different editors. But in the end neither of them bid on the book. That was a pretty devastating experience for me and a real lesson. As a writer, you're always on this tightrope between overconfidence, and crippling anxiety, and self-doubt. That seems to be part of the writer personality. Certainly, it's a big part of my personality. So, I had to accept that I had not gotten a book contract. I ended up just going forward, and then my brother died. When I wanted to try again, I had much lower expectations for the project. I thought, well, this is going to be a collection of essays. I'm going to ask my agent what she thinks. Maybe this is one's going to be published in a small press. Maybe I'm not going to take this one to New York. Maybe I'm going to try for a university press. I decided to submit it for the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, the annual prize that often goes to essay collections. I did not win the Graywolf prize. But in order to submit it I had to put together a proposal. I compiled essays they wanted. I described what more I was going to write. I had an overall view. So, then my agent said, “Well, let's send this out to New York, it's all ready.” That was when Pantheon picked it up. This is how things happen.
And Pantheon has just been fantastic to work with. They're very small and very selective. They have their interest. They have their tradition of what sorts of books they take on. They take it very seriously, and they do a wonderful job. My editor, Catherine Tung, is actually a vintage editor. Working with her in the writer/editor relationship on the book has been great. It's been my first time going through that, and I just found her to be a very keen reader and editor. Also, she's been so willing to let me pursue my creative vision and [has been] incredibly supportive with a book like this, which is an odd kind of book. The bigger publishing houses tend to want stuff that's more immediately comprehensible to a prospective reader, which is absolutely understandable. I wasn't really sure how much freedom I was going to get to have with this book. But I've been given all the freedom that I wanted, and I think that it's turned out just about as good as I could have hoped for.
NF: Do you have any advice for people who aren't necessarily living with mental illness themselves, but have loved ones living with mental illness, or are in a home environment where mental illness is present?
MS: I would say that opening up the channels of communication in all directions is probably the most valuable thing that someone in circumstances like mine could do. Caregiver stress and the stress of living in an environment with mental illness can be extreme. It’s important to have a community outside of that in which you can share your experiences, and learn, and let it out. I also think that communicating with the person who is living with the mental illness is hugely important, and in some ways my book is about our failures to communicate in that way. I feel very proud that I have been able to forge the positive relationship that I have with my mother despite all the limitations that her illness places on her own life and on her relationships. Sometimes the communicating isn't directly about the mental illness itself. One thing that often happens in families is that when there's a barrier with mental illness, it stops all communication. And it doesn't have to. You can still have the relationship. I want people to be able to see that. I also think that my mom's decision about her own mental health—her decision to not acknowledge that she has schizophrenia, her decision to interpret her experiences in a different way—that is her right, and I certainly believe in that. But I also believe that that decision was shaped by the cultural climate in the 80s, at the time when her mental health problems started happening. I do really hope that our culture can change to the point that people don't feel they need to be ashamed of having something like schizophrenia. I want our cultural climate to be one in which people can receive that information and just go forward with it in the best way to take care of themselves that they can find. I don't think that my mom had that. So, as a family member, trying to convey that idea is one of the main things I try to do.
NF: What are you working on now? And is there anything else that you'd like our readers to know?
MS: I have an idea for a new book. I don't want to say too much about it too early. But this [new] book is in a lot of ways picking up where the first one left off. It's not entirely a personal story. I'm going to be writing about an artist that I know about who passed away several years ago. She was an incredible artist who had a severe mental illness, and I've been doing a lot of research about her life and her art. That's my main subject matter, but I'm planning on approaching it in a non-traditional way. In which I'm certainly going to bring in aspects of my own life and explore it in a nonlinear non-narrative. I don't know if non-narrative is the right word for it. It's still pretty nebulous in my mind, but I'm very excited about this project. Like I said, right now I'm in the research part. I'm not quite sure what form it will take. But I'm on the same path in the general sense that this first book put me on.
Nicole Flippo is a current MFA in Writing candidate at Sarah Lawrence College, and the blog editor for LUMINA Journal. Previously, she received a BFA in Dramatic Writing with a minor in Creative Writing from New York University. She has interned with Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer. She was also a primary cast member of WNYU’s America News Now. Her writing has appeared in Grimm Tales Journal and has received awards with the Bare Bones International Film and Music Festival, Fusion Film Festival, Oklahoma State One Act Festival, Oregon Short Film Festival, Union Film Festival, Talent Factory’s Script and Storyboard Showcase, and others.