NER Nonfiction Editor J. M. Tyree talks with Sarah Fawn Montgomery about mirroring form and content, the dialectic of hope and despair in her essay “Doomscroll” (NER 43.2), and her forthcoming lyric essay collection, Halfway from Home.
J. M. Tyree: Your essay starts with an account of your student’s overdose and your sister’s addiction. But it expands from there to encompass so much of what I’ve felt and thought during the past few years about . . . well . . . everything. This is a historical moment in which it seems like everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. We have seen the proverbial hundred-year flood every year. Or every week! How would you summarize the essay and how did the creative process work in threading between the personal and the collective?
Sarah Fawn Montgomery: “Doomscroll” is a collage about our collective sense of drowning in disaster and the overwhelming grief that comes from feeling unable to do anything on a personal level to counter social, political, and environmental upheaval. As you mention, the essay braids many threads together, connected by images of flood, blood, and the shifting of seasons. I begin with my student’s overdose and my sister’s addiction to explore the hopelessness many young people feel about trying to build a future when the end of the world seems certain. I juxtapose this with my aging grandparents and my parents’ financial struggles, as well as with the uncertainty I face in deciding whether or not to bring children into a broken world. I also explore how gender impacts our response to disaster, women expected to perform much of the invisible labor during the pandemic and climate crisis. And finally, the essay explores the collective grief we feel over climate change as we witness mass extinction, storms, and fires, all furthering a growing disconnection between human and natural life.
Perhaps the most universal aspect of contemporary life is the feeling of being isolated, so it was important that the form mirror this. As a result, the essay is comprised of seemingly disparate sections—some personal, some collective—surrounded by blank space, that thread together through a repeating image, line, or emotion, and build meaning through the process of accumulation. I wrote this during the early days of the pandemic, so the form replicates the disjointed way the world received news during this time, as well as my own fragmented thought process. For me, essays work best when form and structure mirror the experience the writer is trying to convey, so I wanted this essay to have the same sense of collective chaos, of overwhelming grief as each section layers on top of the next to reveal emotional and environmental collapse. I’m especially interested in mosaics and weaving as a means of contemporary storytelling because they capture the collective voice so well.
JMT: How does this essay connect with the rest of your forthcoming collection?
SFM: Halfway from Home is a lyric essay collection about nostalgia, longing, and searching for home during emotional and environmental collapse. Throughout my life, I’ve always felt a sense of restlessness, and I’ve chased it across the country, claiming various homes on the West Coast, in the Midwest, and now on the East Coast. This book is about movement, but also about the challenges of moving forward when you long for the past, especially when your family, your country, and the natural world are under attack. Turning to nostalgia as a way to grieve a rapidly-changing world, this collection blends lyric memoir with lamenting cultural critique, searching for how to build a home when human connection is disappearing, and how we can live meaningfully when our sense of self is uncertain in a fractured world.
Similar to “Doomscroll,” many of the essays, as well as the overall collection, incorporate a layered structure to weave various times, locations, and perspectives, collaging the personal with the collective. Many of the essays also explore climate change, collective grief, and family upheaval, examining how the various places I’ve called home have been impacted in recent years, becoming increasingly unrecognizable landscapes and unstable places to live. I’m particularly interested in human concepts of and reactions to time—we fail to learn from history, we turn to nostalgia for comfort, we share uncertainty about our future—so playing with chronology is also an important part of the collection.
JMT: Your essay is both poetic and devastating. It goes into places that are raw, with brilliant and unflinching honesty, from your sister’s nearly-fatal struggles with drugs to the contemplation of collapsing ecosystems. But would I be wrong to think about this project also as a document of endurance in which the prose itself carries some of the vitality and even the hope implied by making poetic connections? There’s this false idea out there that writing must be nice or cozy in order to convey hope . . . Would you be interested in sharing any thoughts about this whole problem of resisting despair, either as a writer or a teacher, or both?
SFM: Much of the despair of contemporary living comes from being silenced. What is unspoken, ignored, or erased is a painful burden to carry, and it is maddening when even truth is under attack. Conventional means of storytelling like history, the news, and science are failing us, and our collective trauma compounds when truth about the environment, the nation, and the future are actively suppressed. Sharing our stories—especially those of despair—is a means of survival. There is power in vulnerability and hope in finding alternative ways of storytelling like poetry, art, and protest.
This essay and book are a way to speak the stories contemporary America would silence. Stories about collective grief, environmental injustice, and what it means to carry on in a culture convinced of its own destruction are essential to tell when the world seems broken. While we may doomscroll eager to find a distraction, the emphasis on resisting despair actually prevents us from the real work of finding solutions that allow us to endure the hardships that are happening and the challenges still yet to come.
JMT: I love the interplay between the subject matter and the rhythm of the sentences. It’s daring in an intellectual sense while allowing a reader to experience a subtle aesthetic distance that only increases the poignancy of the stories you are telling. I’m not sure I have said that exactly right but I’d love to hear your thoughts on style. Do you see your prose connected to poetry in specific ways?
SFM: Absolutely. Poetry is essential to my prose. Nonfiction derives value from its strict adherence to truth, but poetry creates emotional undercurrents and transports the reader into the author’s way of perceiving the world. Image, sound, syntax, rhythm, and pacing are all essential to how we comprehend our lives, and embracing these poetic devices allows nonfiction writers to move away from verifiable fact and towards emotional experience. This doesn’t mean that I’m not concerned with veracity—fact-checking and research play significantly into my work—but I’m more interested in disrupting the aesthetic expectations readers have for the genre in order to provide them an emotional experience that encourages them to reflect on their own experience, ideas, and values.
JMT: What do you think makes an essay work, on the most fundamental level, and what’s on your reading list right now?
SFM: What makes an essay work on the most fundamental level is using the personal in service of the political. We share our stories with others hoping to uncover larger truths about the human condition. Essays that fail to move beyond the writer’s ego simply don’t work. The best essays also dwell in uncertainty. Though nonfiction is a genre of truth, essays don’t exist in order to prove an experience or to justify a writer’s existence. We read essays to experience the mind of the writer and there is nothing more human than accepting the uncertainties of the world, the flaws of a narrator, the ambiguities that arise when we try to write about our truths. I’m less interested in essays that end happily or resolve entirely than I am in essays that explore complex experiences and ideas and provide examples for how I can continue that exploration on my own.
As for my reading list, The Invisible Kingdom, Meghan O’Rourke’s necessary nonfiction book about invisible illness, currently sits on my nightstand next to Crying in the Bathroom, Erika L. Sánchez’s latest essay collection. I recently finished You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty, Akwaeke Amezi’s gorgeous new novel, and Babe, Dorothy Chan’s latest poetry collection, which is a queer tour de force. And I’m eagerly counting down to the fall release of Alive at the End of the World, the new poetry collection by Saeed Jones, and Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, the new poetry collection by Chen Chen.
JMT: Thank you, and congratulations on your new book! Where can readers find your book and learn more about your work?
SFM: Thank you! Halfway from Home—the collection of lyric essays where “Doomscroll” appears—is available from Split/Lip Press and other places books are sold. Excerpts from the book, along with more of my fiction, nonfiction, and poetry are linked on my website. And I tweet about writing, higher education, climate change, and other doomscroll topics at @SF_Montgomery.
J. M. Tyree edits nonfiction and dramatic writing for NER. He is the coauthor of three books, Our Secret Life in the Movies (with Michael McGriff, A Strange Object/Deep Vellum), BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski (with Ben Walters, British Film Institute/Bloomsbury), and Wonder, Horror, Mystery (with Morgan Meis, punctum books). He is also the author of three books, The Counterforce – Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice(Fiction Advocate), Vanishing Streets – Journeys in London (Stanford University Press), and BFI Film Classics: Salesman (BFI/Bloomsbury).