Writing Postpartum: A Conversation between Kate Zambreno and Sarah Manguso


At Work

Sarah Manguso (left) and Kate Zambreno (right)

Kate Zambreno’s oeuvre is not just a series of books but a body of thought, an uninterrupted exhortation on incompleteness and the intersections of life, death, time, memory, and silence. She challenges my own tendency to treat pieces of writing as discrete objects rather than divisions of consciousness, and I’ve long felt an intimate and continuous access to her mind, so I wanted to ask her about her newest book, Appendix Project, a collection of talks and essays written over the course of the year following the publication of Book of Mutter, her book on her mother, which took her over a decade to write. Her next book, Screen Tests, an excerpt of which appears in the Spring issue of The Paris Review, is forthcoming this July. —Sarah Manguso


As for publishing a “small, minor book,” to quote you from earlier … maybe we could start there? I keep trying to write a Big Book, a grand book, a centerpiece around which the rest of my books will gather, but either my fear of death or my general inability to be grand prevents this. And I’m almost always more interested in the small, minor books of people’s oeuvres, anyway. You also work in small forms—the appendix, the miscellany, the essay formed from small compositional units and assembled over a long period.


I am more interested in the fragment, the notes, what is ongoing or continuing. My desire in this new writing life of the past few years has been to be small, to stay small, thinking of Robert Walser. To write about what is ephemeral, the daily, and to use it to attempt to think through the crisis of the self and what is beyond the self. When I moved to New York, now six years ago, I felt paralyzed by the prospect of a first-person novel, which I was under contract for, and anxious about publishing’s desire to have the new “big” book, one that everyone talks about, that is on all of the lists, that is part of the conversation, where the self written is assumed to be the same self as the author, and the self is stable, charismatic, and articulate. I felt blocked from the novel for years, I just took notes upon notes, and eventually the novel became about block and paralysis. I thought for a while my sudden longing for smaller forms was a lack of ambition, before realizing that it is my ambition.

I began really writing again once I became a mother, and I think this is parallel to a sudden intense fear of death and renewed grief that completely transformed me. I could not imagine the complete devastation of motherhood, and how that would make me suddenly return to the grief and the desire for the ritual of working over that grief that were the impetus behind the Book of Mutter project. I think that’s why so much of Appendix Project is thinking through Barthes’s work from the last two years of his life, when he is grieving his mother, when he longs to write a novel he only ever writes about theoretically in his lectures, which Kate Briggs has translated and also wonderfully writes through in her reflection on translation, This Little Art. We think of Camera Lucida, his book on photography, as the major text, but I am more drawn to how his lectures, his diary project, all of it is consumed by grief, and how these texts form a constellation of his thought.


I’ve always loved Walser’s insistence, once he was institutionalized, that “I have not come here to write; I have come here to be mad.” And then he wrote his Microscripts, in code, on scraps of garbage that he picked up off the floor. I looked him up again just now and noted something that blew right by me when I was first reading him, in my twenties: his mental breakdown occurred after his books slowly became less popular and he finally became unable to support himself.

The ambition to write smaller is anti-capitalist and therefore impossible to reconcile with the rules of the marketplace, where, like a hopeful idiot, I continue to bring my small and constrained work to be validated. I also continue to feel the frisson of shameful desire to be glorified, nonetheless, as the marketplace’s great big grand next thing. Yet there’s an icy solace in not being glorified, and a useful freedom, too.


There is both solace and freedom to it—and that “shameful desire”—it’s so true. I think much of my block in writing my novel Drifts was this feeling that the work was supposed to “succeed” or “break through,” as they say in publishing. I’ve always been more drawn to failure. Walser did write his feuilletons and novels for money—and then he was less successful at it, maybe unable to play that game. I think that Melville’s Bartleby, his refusing copyist, is also a response to the seeming failure of Pierre, or The Ambiguities (his Wiki page is funny and sad: after Moby-Dick the entry is for “Unsuccessful writer: 1852–1857” and then there is “Poet”).

I recently reread what’s available online of the Paris Review interview with Anne Carson, where she speaks about thinking now of “Glass Essay” as a failure, of her personal writing as a failure. She says (I’m rewording) that she was able to record something like a sensual and emotional fact, and something of the surface of a life lived, but she failed at understanding the life. The interviewer asks her whether perhaps she views this undertaking as a failure because her life is still ongoing, and she acknowledges that it might be so. This allowed me to think about what I mean when I write that my recent books feel small, or like a failure, and also why I’m so ambivalent about and yet drawn to the first person in writing. I’m not sure what my project is, all this writing about grief, and the body, and the day, but I think it has something to do with trying to understand something of writing and life and its relationship to death, and I always feel I’m just scratching the surface. The work becomes a gesture toward unknowingness. That’s perhaps the failure of language, and the desire to always begin again, to try to express my thinking more intentionally. I think this is why Wittgenstein has become such a major figure for me, in recent years, and is a reoccurring figure throughout everything I’ve been writing. How difficult writing and thinking were for Wittgenstein, and his life was about finding a quiet and spare room in which to write and think, and how his texts are these quiet and spare rooms. How beautifully you write about all this in Ongoingness, writing and dailiness, writing and ephemerality, these meditations brought about by having a child and realizing something of the failure and futility of the diary project. Maybe small books, books with silences and spaces, allow more room for the reader to think, to write themselves through this process of reading/translation (as Briggs writes about in This Little Art).

With the talks and shorter appendixes I felt more liberated to try to think through a weird collage of concerns and ideas, a live-wire essaying. I allowed myself to exist in this space of unknowingness. Maybe it helped that I was not planning on publishing them as a book, until they became one. They were more ephemeral, they were refusing the monument. I think the appendixes came out of this desire to continue thinking, to continue scratching away.


What attracts me to your work is a fluency, a fluidity, that you always manage to pull off, no matter the form. It never seems like a pile of rock-hard constipated little pebbles, which is what I feel that I’m constantly fighting against.

It’s interesting that the publication dates of your books so easily distract me from what I know—I mean, I knew that Book of Mutter was a fifteen-year project, and I know from reading The Appendix Project that it took years, too. But I think of you as publishing, like, half a dozen books in as many years, which isn’t at all how they were written.

Part of the thrill of this conversation, for me, is the illicit self-help project, a freedom exercise, of learning how you work. I’m about a third of the way through rewriting this same novel for the third time. Instead of doing that I imagine you’d just write a different book, or several different books—though you did mention in passing that you had to produce something for your publisher per a contractual agreement, so maybe I’m mistaken.


The truth is I had pretty crippling writer’s block once Heroines was published … for five years? Two novels have been reissued, Book of Mutter came out, because I allowed myself to finally finish it, but I mostly wrote it before Heroines, before even the early novels. Now I have all this new work coming out but it’s all mostly from the past two years, the duration of my daughter’s life so far. I didn’t turn in the novel I had under contract until two years after its due date. I became pregnant, and my desire to make a book about solitude became impossible, or at least it felt so to me. A lot of my drive to finish it was to use the advance to pay for my partner’s two-month unpaid paternity leave. Which I failed to do. It was impossible to get back into the space of the novel while Leo was a newborn. I kept on trying, and castigating myself, and just creating notes and notes around it. And in those early months, I was teaching three classes, commuting all over, when I was still raw and recovering. Yet I also felt pressure to suddenly become a different form of ambitious, in order to pay for childcare to try to write, and also to be able to continue to teach. Which felt like an extension of the crisis of the project of literature that’s afflicted me ever since I’ve moved here. That’s still a crisis, a spiritual crisis, I’m trying to understand and write my way through.

I was asked to do these talks, which involved travel, bringing the baby because I was breastfeeding and had never figured out pumping, bringing my partner to watch the baby, and paying for babysitters to try to find the time to write, which I was able to do anyway only during her naps. Eventually John quit his full-time job because I had taken on these talks and commissions while teaching, and it felt impossible without him home. I had to just write wherever—some of the appendixes were written on planes, on trains, in cars, at various times of day, usually when Leo was napping on or near me. That forced me to get over whatever was blocking me. But it wasn’t easy. I have this other collection, Screen Tests, coming out in July, because I didn’t think the novel was ready, I wanted it to be slow, or, I was being excruciatingly slow, as you describe. Most of the shorts in Screen Tests were written this past summer to satisfy my contract in exchange for the novel (the other half consists of essays I wrote since Heroines). I only recently forced myself to finish the novel, after many rewrites, this January, and even now it’s not completely done. I think all the block for me around the novel was about not wanting to actually publish it, I think that energy of not-writing then went into the novel, thinking through Rilke’s process writing (or not-writing) Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. But it’s less of an option for me now—not-writing or that space of notebooking and meditating, which is the space of solitude. I have less and less of it. Most days, I cannot write, with a toddler, especially during the semester, so I often write only under contract or with a deadline. Maybe that’s another reason for the appendixes—I gave myself self-imposed deadlines where I had to deliver something, because otherwise I would never have found any time to write. Also these “screen tests” flash pieces that I wrote were a sort of daily restraint for me to actually get a piece of writing done every day, kind of like a poem that was sort of an essay and sort of a story. I guess in this way I wrote two accidental books. It wasn’t easy though. It almost bankrupted my health in the process, writing while immediately postpartum, writing and trying to think intensely while teaching a full-time schedule, commuting long hours, while nursing, while completely sleep-deprived. I think of Screen Tests as my shingles book—I loved writing those pieces, I felt so free and easy writing them, as a daily project, but it also gave me shingles afterward. I was so run down. I need to learn how to take time off.


Capitalism gave you shingles. May the system award you with enough money to prevent that from happening again.

I like knowing about the particular financial panics that resulted in your books and talks. It comforts me in my own financial instability. There’s a line by John Cage, quoted in Robert Adams’s book Why People Photograph, something to the effect that the true subject of all contemporary classical music is crippling financial anxiety.

I admire your ability to simply begin again, and again, make a new book after every failed previous book. Between books I have a prolonged depressive period. I take notes for years, and it takes forever to see the shape of a book in them. And until that point, I’m just floating in space, hopelessly waiting to turn back into a writer.

Your postpartum life reminds me of my own rude awakening to the fact that immediately after you give birth, time and money become equivalent. It’s a zero-sum game measured in minutes. When my son was a month old, I received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a hundred percent of which went to a sitter who came for three hours a day, four days a week, and then for one full day per week, which allowed me to teach. I pumped milk in my office, before and after class, like a good little American worker-cow, which is the flip side of your situation, having the baby with you at all times, which I was absolutely incapable of doing, mentally or physically. The bracing clarity of that time/money equivalence really fucked with my sense of what I’d been doing, as a writer, up to that point: like you, after giving birth, if I wasn’t teaching or working on a contracted magazine piece, I worked on the infinite mountain of household tasks until I fell, already basically asleep, into bed. The sort of work necessary to make a book, the sort of work that looks like nothing, that doesn’t accumulate daily, that might require that you write two hundred pages only to throw them away … I was imprisoned in a system of capital within which that kind of work held no value, and, chillingly, it very quickly stopped holding value to me. The books I’ve written since my son was born have been written one pebble at a time, not at all like the books that I once wrote while suspended in a prolonged dream state. It’s worth adding that I was privileged as hell during this entire exercise, and it still, as you say, devastated me. That’s what time does to a body, whether it’s a mother’s body or not. The postpartum period is just one particularly intense period of damage. Or of forward momentum, which is maybe a better near-synonym.

Your frustration and torture was invisible to me in the text of your Book of Mutter, but now that I’m more than a hundred pages into Appendix Project, I see it. I think failure and creative blocks are interesting, especially as they intersect with the double threats that occur after becoming a mother, of needing to make money and needing to remain a writer (or remain sane, or a self, or alive)—needing to remain a writer in the marketplace, but also privately, where one’s identity also becomes distorted. Regardless of this distortion, you’re still documenting a human sensibility operating under a particular time-based set of constraints, so in that fact alone your work has value.


The only thing I’ve been able to really read for myself since I finished the novel a month ago is John Cage’s letters … John Cage was always struggling for money, and trying to find commissions for Merce Cunningham as well … Now that I am in the process of having new books come out, and I have finished the novel,  I also feel shapeless, and I fear an extended period of this depression. There’s this line in Renee Gladman’s Calamities where the narrator wonders whether writing is a thing of the past for her, like Rollerblades. And I do think the time/money equivalency has fucked me up as a writer, or at the least as a person, since I gave birth— it’s fucked up that dreamy solitude, that I don’t have anyway, as a parent. I think the struggle is there in Appendix Project, maybe like a bruise under the narrative. One of the aspects that emerges from the book read as a whole is the quality and texture of sleeplessness. Leo grows up over two years in the book, and I write of her going through various sleep regressions, seemingly whenever I have to write a talk.  Also throughout is this meditation on the life of an adjunct—another form of an appendix—and the precariousness and impermanence within that—and the sense that I was brought to these universities to be sort of an outsider voice, someone seen as in the margins of the academy. But I think I write more of that existential and material crisis and complaint in the novel … and I hope in a future novel, which will deal with the first year of motherhood. But a novel is slow and one needs solitude and space to write a novel—and within that, still Woolf’s dictum of a room of one’s own. Early in my pregnancy I was freaking out about whether I could still be a writer afterward, and the poet Danielle Pafunda wrote to me in a thread on Facebook, saying it’s not babies that are the problem, it’s patriarchy and capitalism. And I thought that was so perfectly said and still feels utterly true. How new mothers are treated, their mental and physical health, how race and class play into this, the deplorable state of childcare in this country, its many costs, who can afford it, the incredible alienation of all this. I had the huge privilege of already being somewhat established as a writer before becoming a mother, and having a book contract, and invitations and commissions, and so I could claim that space, of needing to have time to write, especially when I had a specific project with a specific deadline. But still—I mean I’m applying to grants and fellowships for the first time. Before, I was able to support myself on my teaching salary and my writing, and my partner had health insurance. If I do ever get a grant, it will also go entirely toward childcare, and Leo’s school, and the costs of paying for a family’s health insurance, which are astronomical. The truth is that each talk was excruciating to write—each of the big ones felt like a bodily performance of one to three months.


I like your description of the talks as bodily performances—really, everything postpartum is a performance of bodily endurance—and I very much like your Appendix writing on adjuncthood. I’m married to someone who is more employable than I am, and we’ve moved a lot to support his career, which was the rational thing to do; I recently signed a contract for the seventeenth place I’ll have taught at in twenty years. It’s not exactly the life we were anticipating—my spouse is an artist, and now we’re putting on a drag show of American nuclear familyhood, brought on by parenthood and late-stage capitalism, but at least we’re still alive and still insured. I often remember Chris Kraus’s line about how she and Sylvère were Marxists, by definition; he accepted money from institutions that would never give Chris money, and gave it to her.


Everything postpartum is a performance of the body and endurance … it’s so true. Which is what writing is as well. The body is so often left out of the question of writing. I needed to be a writer after I gave birth—I needed to think and have a vehicle or container in which to think. I felt like Dürer’s Melencolia I in the weeks after, on the bed, in the dark, the baby on top of me, surrounded by my notebooks and Roland Barthes’s The Neutral, reading about exhaustion as a feature of the neutral. Maybe I also felt ornery—everyone was telling me that becoming a mother would take away that existential drive to make work—but it was the opposite. I have never felt more full of life and death, and it made me become reborn as a writer, through the joy, and the suffering. And also this constant cautionary tale that I would not be able to write, which, of course, is about time and space, which is about the material conditions of the life of a writer. I felt I had something to react against, to try to transcend. There’s this marvelous moment in Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, which I am again paraphrasing—where the narrator reflects that after having a child she is full of more rich thinking than ever, but the thoughts pass by, she has less time to write them down. Which allows for this fragmented form. Which connects to your Ongoingness. And that has been it for me as well. That partially explains the drive, the ambition, to try to capture something of life lived now, to try to understand it. We’re only beginning to approach the writing of new motherhood as a lived philosophy, and everything within that—the critique of capitalism, of the oppression of the family and gender roles and maintenance labor, but also the beauty inherent in a meditation on time and the body and mortality, the sense of connection and alienation, the uncanniness and intense love and porousness of that bond—and I think that’s because there are now writers who have the time and resources in order to attempt to make stabs toward it, even in the early years, even when it feels impossible.


Read Sarah Manguso’s essay “Oceans” and Kate Zambreno’s fragments from Screen Tests in The Paris Review’s Spring 2019 issue. 

Sarah Manguso is the author, most recently, of 300 Arguments (2017), a work of aphoristic autobiography. Her other nonfiction books include Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (2015), an essay on self-documentation, motherhood, and time; The Guardians (2012), an essay on friendship and suicide; and The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), an essay on living with chronic illness. Her work has been supported by Hodder and Guggenheim fellowships and the Rome Prize, and her books have been translated into six languages. She lives in Los Angeles.

Kate Zambreno is the author most recently of Appendix Project (2019), a collection of talks and essays written in the shadow of Book of Mutter (2017), both published by Semiotext(e). Forthcoming is a collection of stories and essays, Screen Tests, in summer 2019, from Harper Perennial, and a novel, Drifts, in spring 2020, from Riverhead. She lives in Brooklyn.