Nontraditional Author Encourages Student Writers to Find their Own Voice

Sarah Manguso has been the recipient of many awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Rome Prize and the Hodder Fellowship. Photograph: Joel Brouwer/SarahManguso.com Sarah Manguso has been the recipient of many awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Rome Prize and the Hodder Fellowship. Photograph: Joel Brouwer/SarahManguso.com

Matthew Phillips – Copy Editor

For one hour in late October, author Sarah Manguso transcended the reality of the room she spoke in, providing the gathered audience at Clark with an intimate glimpse into the writer’s consciousness.

Manguso’s visit on Oct. 23 was the first event this school year of the Columbia Writers Series, a program that introduces a variety of authors to Clark students. Organized by the English department, the program is designed to inform and inspire students about a wide assortment of writing.

“I don't write long forms because I'm not interested in artificial deceleration. As soon as I see the glimmer of a consequence, I pull the trigger,” - Sarah Manguso. Theresa Matthiesen/The Independent.

“I don’t write long forms because I’m not interested in artificial deceleration. As soon as I see the glimmer of a consequence, I pull the trigger,” – Sarah Manguso. Theresa Matthiesen/The Independent.

As an author of seven books, Manguso found an unconventional way to convey profound and universal ideas through short-form literature, consisting of no more than three or four sentences. Her latest work, “300 Arguments,” is a collection of aphorisms; short phrases and paragraphs about different themes she gathered from her thoughts and memories.

“I used to write these while playing hooky on what I hoped would be my magnum opus. Assigning myself to write three hundred of them was like forcing myself to chain-smoke until I puked, but it didn’t work. I didn’t puke,” Manguso said in her book.

At the reading, Manguso read a portion of a new in-progress essay, “Entitlements,” before opening up Penguin Union Building room 258C for a question and answer session. According to Manguso, when she starts working on a new piece, it is often a reaction to her previous work. Like “300 Arguments,” her new essay continues her short-form observations about life, with a particular focus at times on the writing process.

Manguso’s approach and attitude towards writing is inspiring, especially for students who are trying to find their own distinct writing style. She encourages students to lay aside any sense of obligation they may feel to write in a certain form and instead write exactly what they want.

“There is no strategy besides sick devotion to the work,” she said. “All that matters is what you leave on the page.”

While writing and editing, Manguso employs the Japanese concept of ‘kaizen,’ the continual improvement of something by small adjustments. Manguso approached the large task of ordering the multitude of pieces that would become “300 Arguments” in a similar way, by sorting the various pieces into seven main themes, then further organizing those. In doing so, she created seven smaller and more manageable tasks.

“Progress on a book isn’t linear, it is oceanic,” she said. “[It is] one big thing, growing slowly but inexorably.”

The audience hung on her every word during the question and answer session, as Manguso revealed parts of her own journey as a writer. She recalled that after the publication of her first memoir, “The Two Kinds of Decay,” critics praised her unconventional and edgy short-form narrative style, despite her insistence that, “No, this is the best that I can do narrative.” Other revelations included that Manguso has kept a diary for over 27 years and that she edits the prose to help her clarify her thoughts.

A final piece of advice that Manguso offered the audience she attributed to Jeffrey Eugenides, author of “The Virgin Suicides.”  

“To write well, imagine you’re writing an email to your smartest and funniest friend,” Manguso said.

According to the directors of the Columbia Writers Series, Clark instructors Alexis Nelson and Jim Finley, Manguso’s visit was a success.

“I think for students to see someone who is really not bending to convention or what’s expected, but has found her own sense of form, her own style, I think is important for students to see,” Nelson said. “Just to know that there are many different ways to be a writer and to say what it is you want to say.”

Since the program was founded in 1988, the focus has remained on bringing authors from a wide variety of backgrounds and life experiences to Clark to ensure a diverse range of voices.

While in past years, featured writers have been primarily long-form writers or poets, the inclusion of writers like Manguso indicates a shift to include nontraditional writers. Upcoming writers include a journalist and both program directors would like to feature a playwright or screenwriter in the future.

“[The program] drives home the idea that writing isn’t just a school thing, it isn’t just something you do in a class,” Finley said. “It’s something happening out there in the world and is available to you as both an amateur and professional, and it can be important in your life.”      

All Columbia Writers Series events are open to the public and everyone is encouraged to attend.

“I think it’s easy for students to groan at the idea of a poetry reading. I think a lot of people have a preconceived notion of what that might be,” Finley said. “But to tell you the truth, they’re so often not like the stereotype that people might have in their mind.”           “I’m not sure everyone realizes how special the opportunity is to hear from some of these writers,” Nelson said. “I think students who are interested in writing themselves really appreciate hearing writers talk about how hard writing is, because we tend to have this perception that the ‘real’ writers don’t have the same struggles as writers who are just starting out. I think students have appreciated hearing writers talk about their lives and how much time and work has gone into the works that they’ve produced.”

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