Sarah Manguso on Writing and Desire


On February 4, 2016, writer Sarah Manguso gave the annual Robert and Lillian Drake Endowed Lecture in Reves Recital Hall. I settled in to listen, aware of the title of her lecture: Writing and Desire. I was unsure of what to expect from Manguso, as sometimes, listening to writers talk about writing can get a little tedious; it’s often so tied up in our daily lives that talking about writing can be like talking about the particular patterns used when brushing teeth. We all do it (mostly) every day, but everyone does things a little differently, some more thoroughly than others. Claiming that “writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship,” though, Manguso lead the audience to insightful recognition of how little our actions, our craft, really matter at the end of it all, if we’ve refused to relinquish authority over what we should be doing when we sit down to write. She asked us to change the way we think about writing, and in doing so, change the way we think about life.

Manguso’s opening idea was an argument against trying to write exactly what we want to produce when we begin a project. Manguso related writing what we want to that feeling that occurs when we actually get what we want. While occasionally satisfying, when we do get what we want, it often falls a little flat if there’s no surprise included. Sarah Manguso made it clear that while yes, we need desire to write, we cannot be set on a final product before the end of a piece has happened, because it kills the possibility of something unexpected and great coming about on the journey to what we think we want. The process of writing should probably veer the work away from what we desire, in order to produce “potentially good work”.

Beyond changing the way I think about how a piece of written work comes into being, I’ve generally decided that Sarah Manguso is a magical kind of human being. Her statements about writing being an expression of “extreme empathy, and in the end, a kind of love”, and pointing out the differences between imitation and influence, that “imitating a revolution does not produce a revolution”, were astute and inspiring and a lot of my own feelings put into actual words. There was time for questions at the end of Manguso’s lecture, and some of her anecdotes and answers resonated with me, and many of my classmates: I also (almost) failed Chemistry and then decided I couldn’t be a doctor, also did not really do the undergraduate writing thing (at least, not nearly to the extent as some of my classmates), and many of my own previous relationships have failed because I was unwilling to let go of my own authority over them. Hearing a real human, an outstanding human, relate to us the steps that put her where she is now was reassuring for a large number of us. Her lecture, while probably something everyone in the audience needed to hear, was especially beneficial for those of us graduating in May, as someone telling us that we shouldn’t know what we want to do with our lives was particularly refreshing.

Manguso’s talk was wonderful in a lot of different ways, but it made me feel calm in this wild and unpredictable time, allowing me to feel okay about my lack of control over my life right now, if only for an evening. She argued this about writing, but I’m going to adopt this perspective on life, too: she said, “to write well, you must yield to the universe and impose your will on the universe in some particular ratio”. I don’t know what that ratio is yet, but it’s probably just a few sentences ahead.

–Shelby Morrow, Aonian Visual Art Genre Editor (2015-16)


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