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Extremely Uncool But Also Bliss
The Body, Brain, & Books: Eleven Questions with Sarah Fay
What are you reading now?
Right now, I’m “reading” Johann Hari’s Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. That’s in scare quotes because I’ve read it and am now reading it as a writer. Reading as a writer isn’t the same as rereading and is a skill every writer must have and few writers are taught. It’s when we go in and look at how a book (or short story or essay or Substack post) is put together, so we can use it as a model. Johann’s Lost Connections is a great model for weaving a bit of memoir into a work of journalism, which I’m thinking of doing with my new memoir Cured.
Cured started as a straight-up memoir, which my agent and I decided to serialize on Substack. Doing so has been amazing. Serializing has given me the ability to include extra posts that could never appear in a single-volume memoir. I’ve given my subscribers full interviews with the most renowned mental health experts in the country, tips, resources, and other people’s stories of recovery. It’s become so much more than my story. So when my agent goes to sell the book version, I’m thinking of making it a lot less about me and more about recovery and other people—which Johann does so well.
2. What are your most beloved books from your youth? Did you ever hide any from your parents?
I wouldn’t call it a “beloved” book, but the one that terrified me and has never left me is Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die. It confirmed all my fears about death. It’s about a girl whose sister is dying of leukemia. It’s graphic in an insidious, quiet way. The scene where Molly gets a nosebleed in the middle of the night and everyone in the family panics is harrowing. I have no idea why Lowry would inflict such terror on young girls, but YA people would probably argue that it was meant to teach me something. Looking back, it achieved what so few novels can: a visceral response to a scene. I actually wrote about it and the equally emotional-wrought YA novel Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia in an essay here on Substack.
No need to hide the books—or anything else—from my parents. They were pretty hands-off when it came to child-rearing.
3. What’s your favorite book to reread? Any that helped you through a dark time?
Your question has made me realize that I don’t reread “favorite” books, only those unsettled me the first time I read them! (I actually wrote about this for Writers at Work in a post on rereading.) Nearly every year, I reread Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. It’s Lily’s failure to take care of herself that made me weep the first time I read the novel in my twenties. Sob, actually. Full, heaving sobs. At the time, I wasn’t caring for myself and was Lily. I recognized in her my willfulness matched only by my self-destructiveness. Reading it every year, I get to see how Lily has stayed the same and I’ve changed.
What’s an article of clothing that makes you feel most like you?
I don’t care about clothes and hate shopping, even online. As long as it’s a soft material (modal, jersey) or denim and it fits, I’m good.
What’s the best piece of wisdom you've encountered recently?
Money isn’t evil; it simply makes you more of who you are. If you’re an unkind, ungenerous person, it will make you more that way. If you’re interested in helping others and being a light in others’ lives, it will make you more that way. (This is also true of fame.)
Tell me about any special relationship you’ve had with an animal, domestic or wild?
Oh, my—I’m a lover of all cats (well, most cats) everywhere, especially my beloved Baby Theo and Siddhartha, a.k.a. Mr. Sweets. I thought I was getting support animals, but, well, that’s not how cats work. With cats, you support them. There’s a reason dogs were the original support animals and technically still the only ones that get the official designation, despite the support pigs and peacocks out there.
Taking care of Baby Theo and Mr. Sweets has brought me such joy. Doing so was also one of the signs that I’d recovered from serious mental illness. You have no idea how exhilarating it is to be able to take care of myself well enough to also take care of two creatures (spoil them, really) after not being able to take care of myself for a long period of my life due to severe mental and emotional dysfunction.
What's one thing you are happy worked out differently than you expected?
My recovery. It looks nothing like I thought it would. I thought recovery from mental illness meant “normalcy.” All the trappings American society (and advertising) sells us on: being “happy,” being social, having a romantic relationship, partying (or at least drinking to celebrate), drinking coffee and eating processed foods, and having lots of “friends.” People don’t understand—or at least I didn’t understand—that mental health recovery 1) is possible, 2) looks different for each person, and 3) is a process of discovering a life that works for you. My recovery looks like being solitary (I love being alone), being home, avoiding parties and crowds and stores, experiencing depression and anxiety because they’re part of the human experience, having a couple of friends—though not close ones, writing, reading, and adoring my cats. I don’t drink, smoke, or drink coffee. I eat well. I go to bed every night by 9 or 10 and get up at the same time every day. Very routine. That’s extremely uncool but also bliss.
Singing in the shower or dancing in the kitchen? Or another favorite way your body expresses itself?
I sing in public if I think no one is around. If I sing in the apartment, the cats get freaked out. I dance in controlled environments—dance cardio when I work out.
What are your hopes for yourself?
Right now, it’s the hope—for myself and all writers—that writing becomes a viable profession again. The idea that writers shouldn’t want money is absurd. What other profession do we tell the highly, highly skilled people in it that they should work essentially for free or make so little money they can’t support themselves?
I really dislike the whole commerce versus art argument. We’re allowed to produce great work and have a good life. Money doesn’t taint “art.” I lived the impoverished artist’s life in New York City and can save you the trouble. I wrote much less and not nearly as skillfully as I do now that I have an apartment that isn’t in a basement that floods every time it rains and live with five roommates and roaches. As Elizabeth Bishop said (I’m paraphrasing), it’s a lot easier to write well when you’re economically secure and in a comfortable chair. Faulkner insisted that a writer should always struggle financially, but we can see how well that worked out for him in terms of his mental and emotional life.
What’s a kindness that changed your life?
The psychiatrist who told me that mental health recovery was possible. I shouldn’t think of this as a kindness. Mental health recovery should be the basis of all treatment. I’d been in the mental health system for twenty-five years and not once did a mental health professional (and I saw a lot of them) even mention the word recovery. Not once. They perpetuated myths (I think mainly out of ignorance) that psychiatric diagnoses and disorders are lifelong and biological and caused by a “chemical imbalance”—none of which is true.
Dr. R, as I refer to him in Cured and my first memoir Pathological, changed my life with one word: Google. He told me about a patient of his who’d fully healed from schizoaffective disorder and became an executive at Google. I didn’t believe him at first. Recovery? Google? I had no interest in working for Google, but I did want recovery. He saved and changed my life.
What’s a guiding force in your life?
Right now, it’s Writers at Work, where I support writers on Substack to discover who they are as writers, how their talents and expertise can translate into a successful Substack that helps others, and mentor them until they earn a very good income.
And serializing on Substack, which I also help writers do. It’s just a matter of time before the rest of the world catches up with Substack. On behalf of all of us, I’m so grateful for this platform. It’s completely changed writers’ lives.
Sarah Fay is on the creative writing faculty at Northwestern University and runs Writers at Work, a featured publication on Substack, where she helps writers master the art and business of the platform to further their writing careers. Her journalistic memoir Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses (HarperCollins) was an Apple Best Books pick, hailed in The New York Times as a “fiery manifesto of a memoir,” and named by Parade Magazine as one of the sixteen best mental health memoirs to read. She writes for many publications, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, and The Paris Review, where she was an advisory editor. The exclusive serialization of her new memoir Cured—the sequel to Pathological—is a featured publication on Substack and is available for free through 2023.
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To the comment section
If you’ve suffered from mental illness or poor mental health, has a doctor ever used the word “recovery” with you? Do you think money is evil? Do your pets freak out when you sing? Do you think writing is on its way to becoming a viable profession again?
Tell me all about it.