Sarah Smarsh

Interview with SARAH SMARSH:

What were three of the biggest/most impacting landmarks in your trajectory to who you are right now?

When my parents divorced in the late eighties, I moved from a small rural elementary school where I was singled out for mistreatment by a troubled teacher to an excellent Wichita public school where I was singled out for the “gifted program.” My new teacher sent a personal story I wrote to a national children’s magazine, and it got published as a big, illustrated spread.

I changed schools many more times, which allowed me to witness human archetypes recurring through new incarnations—different little girls and boys, same cast of characters. But all that moving was within about 40 square miles in southern Kansas, and anchored by a grandparents’ farm, so I absorbed a constancy of place even as I learned the inconstancy of our presence within it.

In 2012, I got a divorce, found out my mom had cancer, resigned from a recently tenured professorship, sold most of my belongings, put my long-dreamed-of house up for sale and intentionally burned down just about every identity I’d created. One of the identities that survived was “writer.”

In your essay Poor Teeth you wrote, “I learnt early and often that one doesn’t leave a place, class or culture and enter another, but rather holds the privilege and burden of many narratives simultaneously.” How does this simultaneity work? Why does one not shed the other elements of oneself?

Our mental propensity to categorize ourselves by race, gender, class and so on carries some understandable functions but often limits recognition of our own vastness as individuals. I often write about rural and working-class experiences—having untreated toothaches as a kid, helping my dad on construction sites, waiting tables—because those are the threads of my life least reflected in modern letters, and that’s how I might be of best service to readers. But I hope my writing conveys enough nuance to suggest that we’re all immeasurable beings selecting narratives to bring forth. One result of my selections, and one reason I occasionally offer overt evidence of my worldliness in personal essays, is that people often have a hard time reconciling who I am with where I’m from. Yes, I helped butcher cattle on a Kansas family farm, but I’ve lived in many urban environments—Wichita, New York, Kansas City, Paris, Florence, L.A. Yes, my family is poor, but I know a thing or two about art and food politics and things only middle and upper classes have time to fret over. The tragedy of the contemporary idea of “branding” oneself is the market-driven requirement that we reduce ourselves to ideas easily filed under one or two words. Let writing get us out of tidy, false containers rather than put us in them. Let every line suggest a spiral.

How is the process of writing autobiographical pieces different from writing less personal journalistic pieces?

They both draw on research, but one is lived and the other sought. The lived data of human experience is readily owned and understood, if you’ve been paying attention along the way, but is more emotionally difficult to share. Journalistically reported data requires external effort to find and digest but feels less precious and is therefore easier to put on paper. So, along the nonfiction continuum, process responds to challenge: In organizing a piece of long-form reportage, I color-code quotes by sub-theme. In summoning a piece of memoir, I go for trail runs, swim, do yoga and cry.

Given the socioeconomic environment in which you grew up, what was the value for you, and the cost, of attending college?

In economic terms, the cost was that I went into financial debt, and the value was that I now carry greater potential for financial prosperity. My college tuition was covered by scholarships, and I worked to pay the rent; then I got into an Ivy League graduate school and borrowed an egregious amount of money to go. It was a Hail Mary pass, financial long-game, and for me it was the right play call. The popular questioning of a diploma’s worth since the economy collapsed, or popular criticism of kids who take out large student loans, is so obviously written by people who never worked in a wheat field that it really tickles me. Debt burden and being overeducated in an employer’s market is psychologically crushing, yes, but an assured lifetime sentence to manual labor can be more crushing—ask my dad, a brilliant thinker who has given me poems written at work in carpenter’s pencil on scraps of wooden two-by-fours. Most college graduates who are “under water” financially at least have fish to eat, and though I loathe debt, I indeed would choose it over starving. It takes a toll but buys a chance.

In personal terms, the cost was that my education widened a painful divide of understanding between me and the family I love. The cultural critic Richard Hoggart, who inspired some of Richard Rodriguez’s work on class, ethnicity and education, described being a “scholarship boy” who is “at the friction point of two cultures”: “He has left his class, at least in spirit, by being in certain ways unusual; and he is still unusual in another class.” To haul books across the Columbia quad a few years after I hauled feed across a cattle pasture was one hell of a friction point. But that’s the point from which I’m blessed to write. I remember as a kid hearing friends complain about piano lessons. We somehow ended up with a free piano in our farmhouse, but lessons weren’t even a consideration; when I touched the keys, I had such a strong feeling that it was a natural instrument for me—a feeling that proved right later in life—that the frustration was almost physically painful in my hands. For me, higher education was a release, a turning of potential into kinetic energy, a putting of tools to work.

What was your childhood ambition?

To be a writer, a paleontologist and a detective. When I was in my early twenties and stated as much in a personal essay, a writing professor pointed out that these are all the same thing.

What was your first job?

In childhood, peddling Chinese firecrackers under a huge tent along a two-lane blacktop at the edge of a Kansas wheat-field. Legally, as a waitress at a small-town Pizza Hut.

What/whom do you find yourself returning to for inspiration?

Ice T did an interview with someone that’s on YouTube under the title “Fuck It.” I watch that when creativity feels stymied by some amorphous shame. On Twitter I keep tabs on Cheryl Strayed, Margaret Atwood, Mary Karr and Elizabeth Gilbert, writers I admire for maintaining direct connection with their readers rather than holing themselves up somewhere and being tortured. I find a lot of conceptual stimulation in podcasts, especially “Planet Money” and “On Being” with Krista Tippett. In literature, right now I’m wowed by Rebecca Solnit’s connect-the-dots intellect, prolific output and uncompromising, prescient stances on social issues. In the visual realm, I’m inspired by Marguerite Perret and Stephanie Lanter, two Kansas artists with whom I’ve collaborated for years on feminist creative projects. They both do multimedia, multi-dimensional work that, like my writing, examines contemporary social imbalances through tangible, researched realities of body and environment. They could work in places where art is more congratulated, but they choose to work where art is most needed.


View Sarah Smarsh’s work here.