Sarah Townsend is the author of Setting the Wire: A Memoir of Postpartum Psychosis. Her essays have appeared in The Writer in the World and Pitkin Review, and she co-authored a paper with Elisabeth Young-Bruehl that serves as a chapter in Subject to Biography: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Writing Women’s Lives. Townsend received her MFA in creative writing from Goddard College, her MA in counseling psychology from Northwestern University, and is a graduate of the College of Letters at Wesleyan University. Setting the Wire has been featured on Beyond Well with Sheila Hamilton, The Ish with Cameron Dezen Hammon, and in the Chicago Review of Books. Townsend writes and teaches in and around Seattle, Washington, where she serves on the advisory committee of Perinatal Support Washington and on the Postpartum Psychosis Task Force of Postpartum Support International. Angelisa Russo had the pleasure of talking with Townsend about her writing process, from choosing to get an MFA to writing about trauma.
Angelisa Russo: Can you talk about your process of going back to school at age 44 to get your MFA in creative writing? How did you make this decision and why?
Sarah Townsend: In 2012, a long-time friend asked if I'd be interested in joining her for an evening, year-long certificate course on memoir writing at the University of Washington. I'm not sure what prompted the invitation exactly, but we had started writing together—this was new for me, nonacademic writing—and we seemed to be working toward finding voice. That same year, a college friend died of brain cancer. She was a peer, a poet, and a librarian. At some level, I was undone by this loss. The combination of these two experiences—an intensive course in memoir and the death of a friend at midlife—seems to have catalyzed the recognition of myself as a writer. I went on to suspend my psychotherapy practice and enroll in the MFA program at Goddard College. When I arrived for what turned out to be such a fantastic education, the director noted how most often those who have come to Goddard have reached a point where "writing has become inevitable." I think this was true for me.
Also—midlife presents the opportunity to assess one's trajectory, to re-up and reconfigure.
AR: Your writing style seems to mirror the experience of fragmentation that occurred for you postpartum. Was this deliberate or organic?
ST: For the most part, that's just how the writing came out: flashes of memory, sketches of my parents. My first advisor, the poet and essayist Beatrix Gates, encouraged me to "write into the memories that are burrs in your consciousness." She challenged me not to know ahead of time what I would write. She suggested that I "see what arrives." At Goddard, I learned that surrendering to writing gives way to what wants to be written. The unconscious is the site of our creativity, it's been said.
Gates also encouraged me not to prematurely order the fragments so as not to foreshorten the bounds of a generative process with a planning mind. In time, I began to notice themes and eventually to store the writing in corresponding files. Two weeks before my manuscript was due, I printed it out and color-coded the fragments with sharpies. I cut them out with scissors and spread them across my desk and along the floor of my office, initially working horizontally and eventually working vertically as I had run out of space. I emerged with eight large binder clips full of fragments, which I then cut and paste into a single document. Four days before my deadline, I printed out the pages in their entirety, read them through, and decided to cut them up again! It was a back and forth process like that. In the course of working this way, ordering the fragments, and with attention to the sound of the language, I recalled that my father (who died when I was nineteen) had been a musician best known for his skills as an arranger. I felt very close to him in that moment. He had also exhibited bipolar disorder, then called manic depression. We had no words for this in my family growing up.
AR: Did you have literary examples that inspired you in writing Setting the Wire in a hybrid form?
ST: Early on, I read Cheryl Strayed's essay "Heroin/e" in which she juxtaposes her experimentation with the drug to the loss of her mother to cancer. I found this essay to be quite penetrating, and it helped me to see how I might construct a manuscript using alternating panels.
I would say that the structure of Setting the Wire is a spiral returning on itself. This is consistent with how we process our life experience—reviewing from different vantage points, moving in and out of time. Not to mention that traumatic memory is itself full of holes. Communication exists in the silence of gaps and in-betweens, and a hybrid form allows for this.
Along the way, I became most interested in the intimacy of voice that I found in Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of A Diary and Maggie Nelson's Bluets. For lyricism and precision of detail, I admired June Jordan and Mark Doty—the memoirs of poets generally. Bhanu Kapil, Selah Saterstrom, and Kate Zambreno further stretched my understanding of the possibilities of form and formal inventiveness. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home showed me how one story can be woven within another, in my case Philip Petit's tightrope walk in Man on Wire. Elizabeth McCracken also holds her readers close, and her book about the loss of a child, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, helped me to understand that a transformation of thought can itself be a narrative arc. From David Shields, I learned that, above all, literary collage must have momentum.
AR: How do you see yourself being a part of a broader movement in literature to write about the complex experiences of motherhood?
ST: Setting the Wire is an attempt to speak about what is most often an unspeakable illness. Psychosis retains a level of shame that is culturally hard to bear even as we bring birth-related mental illness into the public discourse.
Approximately one in five women experiences some form of perinatal mental health disorder—it's the most common complication of pregnancy. Postpartum psychosis is comparatively rare, occurring in one to two out of every 1,000 deliveries, but our lack of information on the subject leaves mothers and infants at high risk. Psychosis is a psychiatric emergency requiring careful diagnosis and immediate care. A small percentage of cases—four to five percent, those that have received the most attention in the media—result in suicide or infanticide. These tragic outcomes are both rare and necessary to safeguard against. They're indiscriminate. Postpartum psychosis is no one's fault, and it's treatable.
My intention was to write about the experience of psychosis from the inside out. This became a larger meditation on containment—how is it that we are held together as human beings in the first place. What is the origin of a self?
AR: Can you talk a bit about your experience of being a woman memoirist writing about a fairly marginalized experience? What, if any, were your fears about writing this? Were there any hindrances or pushback in the process—whether internal or external from mentors, in seeking agents, or on your road to publication?
ST: It's probably not a coincidence that two women editors selected my manuscript for publication, but I do not recall any overt discouragement from writing about this topic or on motherhood more broadly. In fact, an established female writer had counseled publicly never to hesitate to write about domesticity. So I carried this with me as an anthem, and it bolstered any hesitation I might have had. Of course, we don't know about the many agents and publishers who did not select my work. To the extent there was resistance, it was a hesitation about selling a book of this form. Setting the Wire is one continuous narrative. There are no chapter breaks. It relies on white space and juxtaposition. Ironically, what might have seemed radical has increasingly become fashionable. Hybridity is not new. Think of medieval triptychs in art, for example.
AR: What has it been like to meet your audience—what kind of feedback have you received?
ST: I've been so moved by readers of all genders who have thanked me for writing something akin to their experience. They feel less alone, they say. It also opens the possibility to discuss all that is upending about motherhood across the board and, beyond that, to the universal experience of loss. Others have been interested in discussing how our bodies hold and inform emotion.
AR: What made you want to write on this subject? For those writers who do write about trauma (myself included), there's a fear of re-opening wounds, re-traumatization, PTSD, etc. How do you protect yourself as a writer during the process of writing about traumatic life experiences? How did you push through any fears?
ST: My experience of postpartum psychosis is now twenty years behind me. I went on to have a second child with no subsequent symptoms. I returned to work as a psychotherapist. If there were a risk to me, it would be in not telling this story. And what harm we do to each other when we fail to describe the lived experiences of mothering and motherhood!
But that's not really what brought me here. My decision to write a book was not particularly intellectual. I simply birthed it. I made art. Art happened to me. If I wrote with an intention, it was to articulate my experience for my daughters and to express gratitude to my husband. "It's a love story, actually." That’s one response I've received.
Was I scared? Yes—I imagined being medevacked from a writing residency—only I had books to contain me. I was held firmly in the arms of other writers. I also had a very moving psychotherapy that I write about in Setting the Wire.
My desire throughout was to get as close to the material as possible, and I had the impulse to shed everything that I had written and try to get underneath it. My greatest fear had been of not remembering my illness because I equated the absence of memory with absence from my daughter.
Connecting with my body made it possible for me to write: writing with pen on paper, taking my shoes off, closing my eyes, a swim in the late afternoon, the sound of my own breath.