Discipline, pleasure, and arguments with a beginning, middle, and end
by Daley Farr
Photo by Andy Ryan
“I like writing that is unsummarizable, a kernel that cannot be condensed, that must be uttered exactly as it is,” writes Sarah Manguso in 300 Arguments, her seventh and most recent book, published by Graywolf Press earlier this year. Accordingly, 300 Arguments is a slim, refreshing jolt of a book, hard to describe but equally hard to resist: a collection of cutting aphorisms that read both like shrewdly dispensed advice for the reader and a cooly exacting interrogation of the writer’s most personal experiences. Like an exceptionally angular play on a gift book of quotes, the standalone passages are fully formed ideas, each reduced to its essence. But as the book rolls on, the aphorisms form a thematic arc, and each added argument resonates beyond the book’s 90 pages. Manguso says she is re-immersed now in work on a longer book, but we can expect her devotion to razor-sharp sentences –– the ultimate short form! –– to endure.
From her home in California where she writes and teaches, Manguso shared with me details of how her arguments project developed, the fundamentals of her writing process, other writers who possess the gift of perfectly turned sentences –– and the arguments she continues to write on the side.
Daley Farr: Your writing is so disciplined and precise — is your process for making your books like that as well?
Sarah Manguso: I would not call my compositional process disciplined at all, because my sense is that discipline refers to some practice that you’re following not out of pleasure but out of virtue, and I simply don’t work that way. I’m not a good student; as soon as I receive an assignment I find myself looking for some scheme to avoid actually fulfilling it. Despite that, I would say that I definitely work consistently, but I work on what I want, when I want.
SM: The fact that I work consistently is not a sign of discipline. I’m never going to run a marathon. But I have only respect for people who are able to. It seems to me you’d have to apply discipline to run a marathon. Although, I do have this serious runner friend and it’s very interesting to listen to compulsive runners talk about what they do. There’s as much overlap I think between any kind of compulsive behavior and the kind of writing that I do.
DF: It feels more like a compulsion?
SM: It’s pleasure. It’s not like a compulsion like washing my hands until they bleed. It’s more like I give in to a desire to try to make sense of something.
DF: How exactly did you get started on the arguments in 300 Arguments? You mention in the book that you assigned them to yourself.
SM: Oh, yeah. That was sort of the second phase. The first phase of its composition took place before I ever thought of it as a book, which I find is a really good way to get most of a book done. I was working on a different book, a book that I’ve now returned to, about bigotry, [specifically] the particular bigotry that I grew up in close proximity to in Massachusetts. And its topics grow ever wider. I’ve been working on this book for 15 years, since before I wrote The Two Kinds of Decay (Picador, 2009), and I found that I could not help but notice that my composition of what I later called arguments was becoming a more regular event as I tried and tried to write this bigotry book. And it wasn’t until I had about 100 of them that I recognized it as perhaps a legitimate project. And I recognized that the pleasure in it lay in its ability to allow me to have a complete thought. You know, a whole thought, a beginning, middle and end. And I’m sure it came out of this frustration with not being able to really see the outline of this bigotry book, which may still morph very easily into something else.
Once I had about 100, then I thought maybe 200 would be a worthy assignment, and then I got to 200 rather easily. And then I thought, maybe 300! And as I approached 300, I began to run out of steam — and this is highly characteristic. As I’m almost able to fulfill the assignment I start dragging my feet. And I did have a sort of wistful thought that it would be inarguably a substantial thing to collect 500 of them, but it took me long enough to be satisfied with the last 10 — I kept writing new ones and then throwing them away. So once I got to 300, I felt that the project had come to its natural end, and even then I didn’t think it was a book.
DF: Do the things that you value in your last two books, this kind of brevity and precision, and a kind of formality — are those the things that you value when you read, also? Or are they mostly just part of how you prefer to write?
SM: No, I find it very thrilling when I find a particularly efficient sentence or short passage. Maggie Nelson has this great line in Bluets (Wave Books, 2009) about this surety that we don’t choose who or what we love: “You just don’t get to choose.” I’m a sucker for a great sentence. I’m much less of a sucker for a great novel. Though I am a sucker for a short novel.
DF: You mention Maggie Nelson; are there other people working right now whose style or kind of application of those ideas —
SM: Oh god yeah.
DF: I’d be curious to hear —
SM: There are writers whose work specifically was informing the work on 300 Arguments, and then there are just writers who I like right now.
I’m teaching Eula Biss’s first book The Balloonists (Hanging Loose Press, 2002) in my undergraduate class, and I just finished it about 15 minutes before you called so that’s very much in my memory right now. It’s constructed on the book page of these prose units, about three-to-eight lines. It’s a short book, like a 70 page book. But it engages all sorts of different associated subjects simultaneously in all those starts and stops, so the form really serves as this wonderful, complicated introduction of all the various things that it’s engaging with.
Reading that is not for teaching — I’m finally reading Amy Fusselman’s third book Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die (Mariner Books, 2016). The most recent book that really blew me away was the essay collection by J.D. Daniels called The Correspondence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017) that came out in about February. That’s one of my favorite new things.
Daley Farr is a bookseller in Minneapolis. A longtime Midwesterner with desert roots, she reads books, plans road trips, and dreams of feminist utopias from her apartment in Saint Paul. Follow her on Instagram @daleyfarr.