Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2018

“You’re Writing a Fucking Memoir”: Daniel Smith on his New Book “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety”

“You’re Writing a Fucking Memoir”: Daniel Smith on his New Book “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety”

Photograph via Artinfo.com

In 1936, when F. Scott Fitzgerald published “The Crack Up,” a series of personal essays in Esquire, he was criticized by the literary community for writing in a confessional mode, and for doing so in “the glossies.” In some sense, this attitude doesn’t appear to have changed much; in a 2010 New Yorker article, Daniel Mendelsohn characterized the literary world’s attitude toward memoir as highly skeptical, noting the genre’s reputation for narcissism and lack of dignity, and for exposing “the author’s life without the protective masks afforded by fiction.” But, though literary snobs might continue to turn up their noses, Fitzgerald’s ’36 series actually opened a window on the modern memoir, and since then, the genre has grown exponentially, to the point where critics have argued that there has been a “triumph of the memoir” in recent decades. Bestsellers like Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation reaffirmed American readers’ interest in the genre, and Joan Didion’s acclaimed book The Year of Magical Thinking showed that it can be an important part of a writer’s oeuvre.

There are reasons besides a large advance to write a memoir, and, more importantly, there are reasons to read one. Writing a confessional personal narrative can be euphoric, therapeutic, and challenging for writers who are accustomed to describing other people and foreign environments; reading one is like traveling through time with someone else’s mind and body as your vessel, and learning from the author’s experiences and reflections as you go.

In the case of Daniel Smith’s book Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, which came out in July 2012, we take the journey through the author’s lifetime of clinical anxiety in his sweaty, jumpy, early-adult body. We accompany him on awkward sexual adventures (the book opens with him losing his virginity to two women at once, an experience that opens his mind to fretfulness), witness the Freudian relations between his mother and him (he spills the beans about said sexual relations to his mama, which is the next step down the anxiety sinkhole), and are with him in times of panic and persistent self-doubt; we also join him in his therapy appointments.

I interviewed Smith in his Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, apartment, sitting across the kitchen table from him and drinking coffee out of the very Aunt Sally’s Original Creole Pralines mug from which he drinks Earl Grey tea while having a panic attack in the midst of writing the very memoir we discussed. The attack, he records in the book, registered an 8.3 on his “personal anxiety scale,” which “runs from zero to ten, zero being catatonic and ten being the guy in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, where, psychologically speaking, you’re on a bridge surrounded by strangers who are unable or unwilling to help you and the sky is blood-orange red and swirling and hectic and everything is so bleak and awful that you’d rather die than spend another second where you are.”

Smith, who appears far less anxious, and even funnier, in person than he did in his book, talked to me about memoir-writing, specifically about how to produce a memoir that people want to read. Smith’s first book, Muses, Madmen and Prophets (2007) was an historical, critical, and journalistic account of hearing voices. He has written for The Atlantic, n+1, and other publications about mental illness and treatment efforts, among many other subjects.

Construction: What made you decide to write this book?

Daniel Smith: I had always wanted to write about anxiety, and I had always wanted to write about that opening sequence with the threesome, and I’d been looking around for a form to try it in—I’d tried it in fictional form, I’d tried it in essay form. It never really worked. I finally thought it would work well in memoir form. But I hadn’t wanted to get a book contract because my experience of working under one was that it can really be a psychological impediment. To have people to answer to before you’ve answered to yourself and to the material can really mess you up as a writer. I didn’t want those voices in my head, so to speak, when I was in my office writing this book. But my wife and I were in an unstable situation, and we had a kid—so I hammered out a proposal. Also, I had never seen it done before—a good literary memoir about anxiety, I mean. There was William Shawn’s son, Allan Shawn the composer, who wrote a book about agoraphobia, but it did what a lot of memoirs do, weaving in the scientific and the clinical and interlacing that with the biographical.

Construction: And you decided not to do any research for this book?

Daniel Smith: Barely; it’s fairly experiential. I made an effort not to research anxiety and get that stuff in my head. I knew about anxiety from my mother and from being anxious. I didn’t read much Freud on anxiety; I didn’t read any of the big compendious clinical books on it; I tried not to dive into theory or clinical material, because the idea was that I wanted to do it out of my personal expertise—and to make it funny. In college I used to write funny, and I stopped for ten years and I wanted to get back to it. I missed humor writing desperately.

Construction: Once you’d sold the proposal and set out to write it, what did you decide beforehand in terms of approach, process, and structure, and how did you deviate from that?

Daniel Smith: A proposal is just first-stage thinking. I knew from having written a book that it can be better not to have very firm ideas about what the structure will be. In the course of writing, the structure will fall apart many times, and you’ll have to pick up the pieces. I had written the prelude and sent it to my editor early on, and I knew that it would go into the final book. I knew I wanted to follow a fairly chronological structure, I knew that I didn’t want to write a recovery memoir, I knew that I wanted to write in the comic mode, but I didn’t have grand or firm ideas about structure. Anything was on the table—even writing it in the third person. I knew that the ménage-a-trois had to be the inaugural episode but I didn’t know whether to go straight from there chronologically or to push the irony of the juxtaposition of having sex with these women and then going straight to my mother to tell her about it. I was still trying to figure this out pretty late in the game.

[pullquote_left]I purposely didn’t write on the computer because I wanted to slow myself down.[/pullquote_left]

Construction: How long did it take you to get a manuscript together?

Daniel Smith: I was given a year to write it, but that didn’t happen. A year is an insanely short time to write a book. I wrote by hand, on Staples legal pads, with black ink and Wite-Out. I have a bucket of spent Wite-Out bottles in my office. I had never written like that before. I purposely didn’t write on the computer because I wanted to slow myself down. There were months where, at night, I’d ice my arm and put on IcyHot cream. At one point I was pretty sure I was getting carpal tunnel syndrome.

Construction: Were you trying to avoid the distractions of the Internet?

Daniel Smith: Yes, but even when I’m writing by hand I don’t want the risk of getting on the computer, so I’ll unplug and hide my modem in a closet. To avoid distractions, I even went out and bought two-by-fours, a sheet of plywood, and Styrofoam and fashioned a giant panel like a plug into I could insert into my office window, to dull street noise—and I’d also use earplugs and a white noise machine. No Internet. White-Out. Paper.

Construction: What would you do if you had to fact-check or research something?

Daniel Smith: I’d try to wait until the end of the session, or I’d go and get the computer and plug in the modem and I’d do it, and then I’d spend an hour hating myself for not having had the fortitude to say “I’ll do it later.”

Construction: You talk with your mother a bit, and the conversation is woven into the book. Was this the only interview you did?

Daniel Smith: Not the only interview. I took notes on some of my childhood and teenage years and also spoke to friends who knew me around that time. But there wasn’t much interviewing. Just enough to permit me to work. I tried to write my first book before I really knew enough to get started. So with this one, I wanted to gather some wool. I went out to my mother’s office for the day and interviewed her with a tape recorder. But in the end there was still the usual problem: I had a pile of bricks and no blueprints. That’s the terrifying thing about writing.

[pullquote_right]Fear of exposure? I really don’t care about being exposed.[/pullquote_right]

Construction: You say this book is not a recovery memoir, but did you ever struggle with writing about your own weaknesses and pain and suffering?

Daniel Smith: Fear of exposure? I really don’t care about being exposed. In college I thought maybe I wanted to go into politics. But if you do that you have to be so reticent about your public self. And that’s so boring to me. It feels somehow like setting yourself up for a dishonest life. The fear I had was doing it wrong—coming off as self-indulgent, or having the writing not be good enough. But being exposed for my weaknesses, I don’t really give a shit. People write to me saying “thank you so much for being honest and brave.” But writing it didn’t feel like courage. It felt like writing. It’s me, but it’s not all of me.

Construction: What was left out? 

Daniel Smith: People who don’t know what “memoir” means say, “How can you write a memoir, you’re only 34?” But that’s not what writing a memoir is about; people confuse memoir with autobiography, which is a chronological account of one’s life from beginning to end. A memoir is a book-length work of non-fiction in which you are filtering your experience through a single or discrete set of themes. It is honest and it is my life. But I could write another memoir from those years, pushing it through another cheesecloth, and the outcome could be very different.

The book tells an autobiographical story through the perspective of this one experience, of anxiety. The second episode begins with college but only the first year. After that, I did struggle with anxiety, but mostly during the summers. I joined an improv comedy troupe in college and learned how to perform onstage; we toured around. But I did not include those years in the book. I could have, and talked about what it meant in terms of anxiety. But it felt like it might be a digression. There was a lot of material, but I left it out and jumped straight to the time after I graduated. Memoirs are highly selective. They are not definitive accounts of a person’s life. So, does it feel weird to have people know me? No, not at all—because they don’t know me. They know some things, although it’s true that they know those things well and accurately.

Construction: Did you have trouble prioritizing what went into the book?

[pullquote_left]You’re not writing poetry, you’re not writing journalism, you’re not writing research, you’re writing a fucking memoir.[/pullquote_left]

Daniel Smith: It was really hard. In that opening section where I meet Esther—that bookstore was populated by all these lovely freaks and geeks. I had powerful memories of that place and was writing a good deal about it. At some point my editor saw this material and said, this is really fine, well-wrought writing. You’ve polished this nicely. It’s funny and interesting. But it does not cohere to the theme. It’s not about anxiety, not even in a supporting role. Unity of theme is the most important thing. A few months ago I went up to Cape Cod to interview Annie Dillard, my favorite living writer, for The Paris Review. She let me read some of her journals; she’s got a lot of them. She was talking about Flaubert’s Parrot, the Julian Barnes book, and she observes that the great virtue of that book is unity of theme—of subject matter. Barnes changes styles and perspectives, and he can do whatever he wants, so long as there’s unity of theme. There was a lot of stuff I cut out that was about Jews, and I put it into a piece for the New York Times. I took out some historical stuff about Kafka and Kierkegaard, too. The book I wanted to write was one that describes what it feels like to be in a body and a mind that’s hardwired for this experience of anxiety. I’m dumb, and I don’t want to forget things, so above my desk at some point were the words: “A Memoir of Anxiety,” with “memoir” underlined—you’re not writing a novel, you’re not writing poetry, you’re not writing journalism, you’re not writing research, you’re writing a fucking memoir. So do that thing. Do that one thing, until you’re done.

Construction: Did you read any memoirs that changed how you went about writing your book? 

Daniel Smith: I was frankly never much of a reader of memoirs before starting this book. And I was reluctant to write one because I was like, Everyone’s writing fucking memoirs. But what cured me of that common complaint was realizing that it doesn’t matter—it’s just a form. I could’ve written this in novel form. I could’ve written an epic poem about anxiety. Forget about all the noise—“it’s the memoir boom”—yeah, it is. Fine. But Augustine’s Confessions is a memoir, essentially. Memoirs have been written forever; this is not a new form. Montaigne’s essays can’t be any more self-concerned, but they also can’t be any more wonderful. I read Dillard’s The Writing Life probably twenty times when I was working on my first book. Is that a memoir? Kind of. You know, the whole thing is kind of like the classification of mental disorders—categories exist for the purposes of psychiatric hospitals, insurance companies, and bookstores. But, just as mental disorders don’t fully explain who you are, literary classifications don’t predict the quality of anything.

Construction: What was it like finalizing the manuscript?

Daniel Smith: It became clear early on that a year wasn’t enough. I have a young child, I have a teaching gig. So I sent a manuscript that did not have an ending to my editor and we had many conversations over the course of several months. I mean, they signed up for an anxious guy to write a book. Of course I’m gonna be late. So this editor, who I really love, deftly steered me in a certain direction. And remember, I’d written it all by hand. I’d write a chapter, then soak my arm. Then I’d write another chapter and soak my arm. I didn’t know how to wrap it up. They had to postpone publication and eventually pry it out of my rigid, claw-like hands.

Construction: Was there anything that totally surprised you while writing the book?

Daniel Smith: That I had fun. I’d been doing journalism for years and I find the research tedious and dutiful. I always want to get to the work of making sentences. My first book was torture. Getting back to writing narrative was really great, and momentous.