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Anna Spargo-Ryan on Memory and Memoir

Anna Spargo-Ryan

Anna Spargo-Ryan is the award-winning author of A Kind of Magic, The Gulf and The Paper House, and a winner of the Horne Prize. Her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Island, Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, Good Weekend, the Guardian, and many other places. She is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Deakin University, and nonfiction editor at ISLAND Magazine.

Following the impending release of her much-anticipated A Kind of Magic, Anna took the time to chat with our Writeability Program Manager, Jess Obersby, about writing mental illness, narrative medicine, and why communication rooted in an autobiographical understanding of mental health is necessary for care that is sensitive to disability and chronic-illness.

The idea behind A Kind of Magic was sparked by your PhD research. At what point did you decide it needed to be a memoir, and did you have ALL the feelings?

So, my PhD research is about the links between memoir, memory-making, and trauma and anxiety – specifically, how mental illness can change the way we remember, and whether that makes memoir writing any less true.

I think I knew I would eventually try to write a book like this. When you’re a writer living with mental illness, it tends to come out with or without permission. But the pivotal moment for me was when I was learning, through this reading, about why my memory functions differently from other people’s, and the impact that’s had on what I understand about myself, and realising this is really helping me. I began to have these revelations about who I am as a person and why, and it clicked together in such a profound way that I thought … maybe this information could help someone else, too.

You have described A Kind of Magic as an ‘anti-self-help book’. What do you mean by this, and what do you hope it is to people, instead?

To my mind, a self-help book tends to be prescriptive and retrospective, written by someone who’s “recovered”, or by an “expert”, often with no lived experience. I wrote this book thinking about camaraderie. I wanted to explore how a book could walk alongside someone as they were going through a difficult time, to be empathetic and to extend a warm hand of support.

My anxiety, and especially my depression, are much better managed than they were before I started writing, but this isn’t a redemption story. I’m not “fixed” or “cured” by the end, I just have a different way of understanding why I feel the way I do. I didn’t follow a dot-point list or guidelines or steps to recovery, but explored the science behind fear and so was able to rationalise it a bit and stop viewing it as a personal shortcoming.

I hope this book is helpful, but not self-help. It doesn’t ask the reader to do anything, but I hope that in reading it, they find their own new understanding and sense of calm.

The covers of Anna Spargo Ryan's books: A Kind of Magic, The Gulf, and The Paper House.

You talk about the language used when discussing mental illness, often quite technical, diagnostic terms that are hard for people to access and use effectively. How can family, friends, and of course medical professionals, help people find the language to communicate their needs?

First: listening. People with mental illness talk about how they feel using non-clinical language. Poetics – metaphor, simile, imagery, etc. – is rife in the way we communicate within our own communities. I feel like my heart is flip-flopping. My throat is in a vice. If I step outside, I will be swallowed by the world. This type of phrasing is often more concrete than the abstract clinical terminology, and I think medical professionals in particular can learn a lot from it.

Second: be guided by people with this experience. Use this language to communicate. In disability and chronic illness communities, people laugh a lot about being asked to rate their pain on a scale of 1-10. How can it possibly translate to better care, when it’s so subjective and so abstract? Take the language the community uses and deploy it – in your journals, in the way you communicate with patients, in the decisions you make about their treatment. Heck, get it into the DSM-V.

There’s a field of research called narrative medicine, which is sort of the intersection of medicine and the humanities, and it uses patient narratives – in a sense, autobiographical storytelling – to improve their care. It prioritises the wider context. Understanding these stories helps medical professionals identify commonalities in other patients, so they can also find more appropriate treatment, and faster. Imagine what might be possible if this medical care incorporated patients’ own language.

I have to ask, what’s the best response you’ve ever given – with a straight face – to the ridiculously rude, yet oft-repeated question ‘yeah, but what’s wrong with you?’

I wish I had a hilarious answer to this, but I’m usually trying to get help at the time and need to be direct or I’ll be dismissed, you know? Being your own advocate is unfortunately still so necessary and very hard work.

In my mind, though, it’s often something like, “My brain is trying to escape from my skull” or “I think I’m made of cardboard” or “fuck off”.

If there was only one thing you could say to others with mental illness trying to write about it – one piece of advice – what would it be?

Any way you express your experience has value. The words you choose to describe how you feel will help someone else who’s struggling to articulate the same feeling. Don’t worry about whether it’s the “right” way – trying to systematise mental health hasn’t worked, so go absolutely wild coming up with new ways to share yours.

Can you tell us about what you’re working on currently?

“Working” is a funny word to describe the bundle of panic I have become pre-book launch, but I’m fiddling with an historical fiction manuscript about abortion reform, infanticide and child abandonment. It’s been a work in progress for a few years now, but the horrific current events have changed my thoughts about what I want it to do. So, that, and I’m also putting together some very early thoughts about another nonfiction book.

You can find Anna Spargo-Ryan online at blog.annaspargoryan.com, on Instagram at @annaspargoryan, and on Twitter at @annaspargoryanA Kind of Magic is available for pre-order via Ultimo Press.

Courtesy of Ultimo Press, we have three copies of Anna’s A Kind of Magic to giveaway to three lucky members. To enter the draw for a copy, email your postal address to [email protected] by Sunday 9 October with ‘A Kind of Magic’ as the subject.

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