What Real Men Do by Silas Hansen

TNS stands in solidarity with the trans community. As a show of support, today we are proud to reprint and celebrate the work of Silas Hansen.

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A real man isn’t afraid of anything.

            He has heard people say this his whole life, even when he was a kid, even back when he was still trying, desperately trying, to be happy as a girl—and later, too, after he told people the truth of his gender (“Just trying to help,” they would say)—so he knows it must be true: He shouldn’t be afraid of anything.

            Except that there are so many things that are actually terrifying, like outer space—sometimes he can’t even look at the night sky without his heart racing because it never ends, it literally goes on forever, there are just stars and planets and solar systems out there, and who knows how many, and how could that not be terrifying?—and bats—because they carry rabies—and raccoons—for the same reason—and also the dark, because who knows what’s out there? Can we ever really be sure?

            But he is definitely not afraid when he’s home alone at night, except when he accidentally reads something terrifying on the Internet or sees something on TV. He tells himself that the chances of falling victim to whatever he just read about online—killer bees, or a possible serial killer in southeastern Ohio, or maybe those mysterious lights over Los Angeles last week—are small, so unimaginably small, because it’s not like the scary things are hacking into his computer and looking to see what he's reading and then showing up just after he finishes the article . . . and yet he can’t help but immediately jump out of bed and go make sure all of the doors and windows are locked, just to be safe.

            And he is definitely not afraid of spiders, because they’re more afraid of him than he is of them. Except when he sees one walk across his ceiling right before bed, and then he tries to smack it with a broom, and he’s not sure if he killed it or just made it angry and knocked it into his bed, so he has to go sleep on the couch until he can do laundry in the morning and make sure it’s really, absolutely, 100% not hiding within his sheets. Or when he reads about brown recluse spiders—again, on the Internet, the starting point for all fears—and then goes outside to mow his lawn, opens the garage door, and finds spider eggs on the floor, and so he declares that the garage is dead to him now, he simply doesn’t have one; if he looks out the windows on the back of his house he sees just his yard, and the alley behind it, and nothing else, especially not a building that used to be a garage where he absolutely will not be keeping his car this winter because it doesn’t exist.

 

A real man watches football.

            He spends his weekends in his living room or in bars, wearing his team’s jersey while he drinks beer and yells at the TV. He gets upset—so upset he yells loud enough to scare his cat off the couch—when his team’s quarterback—their first real hope in years—is out for two weeks with a knee injury, and they put in the backup, a first-round draft pick who has never lived up to the hype, and he lets the Jaguars pick him off three plays in a row, and they go from 3–0 to 21–3 in just four minutes.

            He sits on bar patios and friends’ front porches and in his dad’s friend’s living room, and he talks about football. He talks about the NFL Power Rankings in Week 7, and about the NCAA’s new play-off system, and about how the Cardinals / the Bengals / Clemson / Ohio State might do in the post-season this year. He holds a beer in one hand during these conversations—always a beer, or maybe some whiskey; he saves the red wine or the mixed drinks for some other time, for at home or at a different bar or around people who aren’t his Football Friends—and he makes sure his voice sounds lower, lower than when he gets called “ma’am” on the phone or in the McDonald’s drive-thru, and he makes sure not to talk so much with his hands when he says things like “third-down conversion” or “pass interference” or “three-and-out” and waits for the approving nod from the other guys.

            When his social media feeds blow up with news of another football player accused of sexual assault, or another football player accused of domestic violence, or another coach who signs another player accused of sexual assault or domestic violence or assault and battery, or when another high school football player dies on the field or another one goes back in the game, even though he probably shouldn’t, he tries not to think too much about it. He tries to tell himself that he can like the game and dislike the players, that he can like the game and dislike the culture, that the culture can change, that the players understand the risks, and they’re adults. Because he likes football, that’s part of it, but even more than that, he doesn’t want to lose what watching football gives him: something to talk about with his father when they talk on the phone, something to talk about with other men that makes him feel like he’s part of the club, like he belongs there.

 

 

A real man knows how to do things around the house.

            When he buys his first home, just after turning 28, he tells himself he’ll do it all: pull up the carpets and install new flooring and strip wallpaper and paint the walls and maybe even build a raised-bed vegetable garden in the backyard, where he can grow tomatoes and cucumbers and zucchini. He buys a house that needs a lot of work—cosmetic work, though, nothing in terms of the structure or plumbing or electrical, at least not that he can see—because he wants to do it all. He grew up in a house where his father did these things—built decks and front porches, tore down walls and built additions—but he never helped, never learned, and now he wants to prove that he can. He wants to prove it to everyone else, of course, but he mostly wants to prove it to himself.

            But then he moves in and realizes the doors don’t close all the way—“probably because the house has settled,” his father says on the phone—and so he goes to the hardware store and buys a circular saw and the right blade to put in it and some clamps to hold the door steady as he cuts. He takes the door to the guest bedroom / office off its hinges and carries it to the dining room, where he can rest it on the table, and he tries to keep the door from hitting the walls, from getting stuck in the doorframes along the way, but he fails. The whole time, his hands are shaking because he’s never done this before, never used a tool more powerful than an electric drill to hang a coat rack or a picture frame. Once he gets the door on the table and clamps it down, he realizes his hands are shaking too much to hold the saw steady, so he grabs his laptop and watches circular saw tutorials on YouTube to try to convince himself he can do it.

            Eventually, he works up the nerve to go back to the dining room, to plug in the saw, to hold it steady. He remembers to hold it with both hands, to start it before he presses the blade to wood just like they said in the videos, and somehow, holding his breath the whole time, he manages to trim off just shy of a quarter inch.

            Later, after his heartbeat returns to normal and he confirms that he didn’t cut off any fingers, he carries the door back to the guest room / office, hitting it against the walls and the doorframes along the way, and puts it back on its hinges. He tries not to think about the big gap between the top of the door and the doorframe, since he accidentally took too much off, or the cut that is far from even, or the fact that it still doesn’t latch, and instead reminds himself that the door shuts, now, and he made that happen.

 

A real man doesn’t watch those TV shows and movies.

            By those, of course, he means things like Downton Abbey, which he definitely has not seen every episode of at least four times. Instead, he watches reruns of Sports Night and Friday Night Lights and The X-Files, and he watched every new episode of Mad Men when it aired, and he definitely doesn’t have 82 episodes of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman reruns waiting for him on his DVR right now. And when he watches movies, he sticks to Batman and The X-Men and Saving Private Ryan, and he absolutely does not watch Love Actually every year on Christmas Eve—which is absolutely not his one beloved Christmas tradition—or know a quote from Mean Girls for virtually all contexts, or know all of the major plot points of Runaway Bride, in order, nearly twenty years after it premiered.

            And if he does watch these things—if he does, sometimes, after watching football all day Sunday, need to counteract it all with a few episodes of Gilmore Girls before bed—he thinks that he’s the only one, that it’s weird, that he probably shouldn’t admit these things to people—until one day, when he’s on his friends’ porch.

            They have just finished drafting their fantasy football teams, and so there they are, six men in their twenties, sitting on the porch, PBR tall boys in their hands, talking about whether it was smarter to draft Dez Bryant or Julio Jones, or Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, and then, somehow—he won’t remember later how it happened—one of them says something about When Harry Met Sally.

            “Oh, best movie, hands down,” one of his friends says, and he says, “Really?” and his friend says, “What? You don’t think so? Don’t tell me you prefer the Meg Ryan of You’ve Got Mail,” and then his friend proceeds to rank her movies, with Kate and Leopold on the very bottom, You’ve Got Mail beating it out only slightly, City of Angels and Sleepless in Seattle in the middle, and When Harry Met Sally on top. They all argue about this for a while—the exact placement of You’ve Got Mail, and whether or not Kate and Leopold even deserves to be considered, and what about French Kiss?

            And during this whole conversation, even when he’s participating, he can’t stop thinking about how strange this all is, how unexpected—six men in their twenties, six guys with beards, most of them wearing flannel in August, debating the hierarchy of Meg Ryan’s 1990s romantic comedy performances, so wholeheartedly embracing this side of themselves. And, for once, he stops worrying about what he’s supposed to do, and he embraces that side of himself, too.


Silas Hansen's essays have appeared in The Normal SchoolColorado ReviewSlateRedividerHayden's Ferry ReviewBest of the Net, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor at Ball State University and the nonfiction editor for Waxwing.

Owning Our Experiences on the Page: An Interview with Sarah Fawn Montgomery

By Silas Hansen

Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir  brilliantly blends author Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s own experiences with mental illness with research about the history of mental illness (and treatments) in the United States and interrogation of the gendered stigma surrounding mental health. I recently had the chance to talk with Montgomery about the process of writing and publishing the book—due out from Mad Creek Books this fall—as well as why we read and write creative nonfiction and the ways that nonlinearity and memory often go hand-in-hand.

Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir brilliantly blends author Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s own experiences with mental illness with research about the history of mental illness (and treatments) in the United States and interrogation of the gendered stigma surrounding mental health. I recently had the chance to talk with Montgomery about the process of writing and publishing the book—due out from Mad Creek Books this fall—as well as why we read and write creative nonfiction and the ways that nonlinearity and memory often go hand-in-hand.

Silas Hansen: First of all, I wanted to say that I love the book. As another academic and essayist with an anxiety disorder, I kept finding passages where I’d stop and say, “Yes. Yes. That’s how it is. That’s exactly it.” You also did such a great job of making your experience accessible to the reader—even in the places where my experience or understanding of my anxiety has been different from yours, your writing made it so clear and concrete that I still understood exactly what you were saying. I want to ask you more about that later, but first I’m curious to know more about the process of writing the book. 

When did you first realize you had a book here, and not an essay? How long did it take you to write it? How has the book changed from the planning stages to the published version?

 

Sarah Fawn Montgomery: I’m so glad it resonated! It’s daunting to try and make the “unreal” seem real for others who might not have experienced it, or at least not in the same ways, so I’m thrilled it was accessible.

I originally had no intention of writing about mental illness, much less America’s history of medical treatment. My first foray into writing about mental illness was an essay mostly about noise pollution, but that also mentioned anxiety. One night at a dinner party, a colleague and dear friend who’d come across the essay in a literary journal brought it up, leaning across the table and saying, “I didn’t know you were so crazy!” I was immediately embarrassed, angry, sad. I’d always concealed my mental illness, but this moment is when I decided to write the book. I wanted to dispel the notion that mental illness should be concealed at all, interrogate why we have expectations about who is expected to be “crazy” and the treatment they should seek, and confront the dismissive nature with which we often discuss mental health.

Quite Mad took several years to write—early drafts were mostly stream of consciousness with little organization, later ones were rigidly linear and relied too heavily on research. Finally, I played with form, resisting linearity, moving in time, embracing fluidity, confusion, gaps in memory, and reducing the research in order to add parts of the story I’d previously been too timid to write.

The greatest change, however, came in my understanding of mental illness. Writing from a place of illness rather than the privilege of health was important—the largest change from draft to draft came from my own understanding of illness as an inherent part of my identity. I could not have written this book early on in my illness experience when I was still immersed in the language of cure and subscribed to the linear narrative of symptoms, diagnosis, prescription, recovery.

 

SH: That’s probably the thing I love most about writing CNF: the challenge of confronting the subject matter as well as issues of craft. On that note, I was wondering if you could talk more about the non-linear nature of the book. Why did you choose to write it in this way? Was it difficult for you to write—or did it seem like a natural fit?

 

SFM: I very much wanted to resist the inspirational narrative we so often see in mainstream representations of mental health—one that follows the arc of symptoms as conflict, the performance of suffering as character development, diagnosis as climax, and prescription and recovery as denouement. The world often seems unwilling to listen to stories about mental illness unless they are somehow tidied and involve recovery, which is not always the case. I wanted the book to disrupt reader’s expectations of illness narrative, through its architecture and with a seemingly unreliable narrator who does not necessarily find resolution in cure.

In addition, my experience with mental illness has been nonlinear, shaped by the fragmentation of trauma, anxiety’s quick bursts of panic and slow periods of dread, and OCD’s compulsive circling. Thus, the book structure follows suit—jumping back and forth in time, as I piece together the story of my illness; some moments slow motion, others full frenzy, missing moments occupying pages with their silence, absence, erasure, for mental illness leaves memory full of stopgaps. I also play with space—the literal space of a paragraph or sentence might be cluttered and claustrophobic like a panic attack, or the quick pointed fragment of PTSD. Form renders reality on the page, so my hopes are that reading Quite Mad will be reminiscent of experiencing madness, both a reframing for those who haven’t experienced it, and a kind of recognition for those who have.

Nonlinear form also allowed me to play with truth, which is essential for nonfiction, but suspect when writing about mental health. Those of us with mental illness are never quite trusted to report accurately, our reliability when speaking about pain or healthcare always framed by our tenuous relationship with sanity. Our experiences, however accurate, are often invalidated if they do not meet others’ expectations. I wanted to play with the spectrums of reality and sanity by encouraging readers to reflect on their disbelief. As a mentally ill person, my memory and experience are different, “unreal,” sometimes even to me, so experimenting with the concept of reality invites readers to question and frames a larger discussion of the doubt we place on those with mental illnesses, the reasons we do so, and the very knowability of abstractions like illness, health, truth, and narrative.

SH: I love what you’ve said about wanting to resist that typical narrative and the reader's expectations. It’s definitely something I’ve struggled with when teaching essays in my classes that deal with topics like mental illness (and, to a certain extent, in writing my own essays). Readers have expectations for what that's going to look like, and I have to talk to them about how real life isn't always that neat and tidy, and so good essays often aren’t, either.

That actually makes me wonder how much you think about the reader as you write. Do you worry at all about how to make your experiences accessible (or to use a word I actually hate, and have banned from my own courses: relatable, ugh) to a reader? And maybe this leads to a bigger question about nonfiction: what is the purpose of reading CNF? What do we want readers to be getting out of reading about our experiences?

SFM: I rarely worry about being “relatable,” because that leads to performance, to writing (and often revising) ourselves for others. Instead, I hope immersion makes my writing accessible. It was important for me to render mental illness for readers who might not have experienced it, but rather than abide by “normal” rules of logic and narrative, I wanted to embody those of mental illness, rendering insanity and refusing to justify my experience, because often the only way to explain mental illness is to edit or translate it for others, which is a kind of erasure. So while I don’t expect every reader to relate to me, and I try not to worry about their potential judgment, I do want readers to come away from the text having accessed my lived experience.

This is why I read nonfiction, after all—to immerse myself in the worlds of others. I want to experience the human brain at work, slog through memory, geek out on research. The act of reading can reflect my reality, but it also renders new ones—if an author does it well, their experience is accessible even if it isn’t relatable.

SH: That’s absolutely why I read CNF, too—and it’s one of the things I love most about the genre. I have vastly different life experiences than Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, Hanif Abdurraqib, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, etc., but reading their essays makes me feel like I have a better understanding of someone else's life, and how their experiences have shaped their thinking.

It’s interesting that you brought up your own reading practices in this answer. My semester just started and we read the first chapter of Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories for my undergrad CNF class this week. In it, he talks about how “reading is writing.” Is reading a large part of your writing practice? Who are the people you read—for fun and/or as models for how to write your own work?

SFM: Absolutely! I probably read more than I write. And I try and resist the urge to dissect what I’m reading in the moment or to think about my own writing. Instead, I follow the reading where it goes—reading inspires such pure emotion I don’t want to muddy it by bringing my writer’s ego to the page. There is no feeling like geeking out to a great passage or line, feeling passion or excitement or awe and going with the feeling further into the work. Reading is so transformative, creating such emotional but also physical responses, for we often read out loud, the words part of our body and breath, our fingers quite literally clutching at stories.

I do, of course, go back and make notes and take inspiration on subject and style. For the past year or so I’ve read primarily poetry because so many utterly devastating and joyful collections have been released, and their timeliness reminds me of the political power of poetry. They are art and artifact, matter and mirror. In the past month or so, I’ve read the latest by Kevin Brown, Lynn Melnick, Tracy K. Smith, Ada Limón, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Rachel McKibbens, Tarfia Faizullah, Victoria Chang, Amy Meng, Analicia Sotelo, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, and the list goes on.

SH: I love a lot of those poets, too—Rachel McKibbens, Tracy Smith, and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo are three of my favorites! I’m definitely adding all of the others to my to-read list.

I wanted to go back to something I mentioned earlier. One of the things I really appreciated about the writing in Quite Mad is the concreteness of the scenes, and the powerful imagery you used to pull the reader into those scenes. As I said, even in those places where my own experiences and understanding of anxiety differed from yours, the writing was so clear and concrete that I never had trouble understanding your experiences and accessing the emotions you were getting at in those moments. It actually reminds me of poetry, now that I think about it—the clarity of the images, the conciseness of the language, etc.—so I’m not surprised that you read a lot of poetry!

Is this something that comes naturally to you, or is it something you realized was needed later and had to consciously work on when you revised? One of the things I liked most about it was that it felt so natural, and also the conciseness of it. Do you have advice for writers who struggle with this? Were there specific revision strategies that helped you, or specific writers you’ve looked to as models for this?

SFM: I’m so pleased! Clarity was a main focus, in part because I wanted to make the mental and physical symptoms as concrete as I could for readers, but also because mental illness is often discussed in abstract terms, and being specific is essential to counter the mystery and vagueness, as well as disbelief and suspicion that can be so damaging to patients and our healthcare system. At the same time, however, much of my experience with mental illness has been about embracing ambiguity, contradiction, and the seemingly unreal, and understanding there is much beyond my power to name or control. So while I wanted to be as detailed as I could in terms of image and scene, I did not want to render my experience with the expected language. Clarity—and thus honesty—meant I had to allow the writing to embody madness, to utilize its rhythms, tones, and forms, and to share, without filter, those comparisons and descriptions that while accurate, often seem illogical or perhaps even untrue.  

My best advice is something a dear reader said about my early drafts. The reader said that they appreciated the parts where I allowed anger and frustration to slip into the prose. At that point, I was still trying to self-edit the personal as opposed to the prose, and the reader responded to moments where the desire to over-explain to the reader vanished and the real story surfaced. Not only was that invitation and permission welcome as a woman and someone with mental illness, but it has also been some of the best writing and revision advice—to edit for accuracy rather than performance. To be cognizant of cutting to the core of an experience, cracking through the protection of bone to scoop out the marrow, rather than editing for a reader’s expectation. We share our stories to hopefully move others, so we’ve got to be honest, even if it is painful, shameful, or odd. We must own our experiences to own the page. 

SH: That's such great advice! It’s something I struggled with a lot as I started writing CNF, and something I still struggle with, if I’m being honest, particularly when it comes to wanting to come across as a certain way—smart, likable, put-together, etc. It’s so natural to want that, but the honesty and reality is so much more important than performing in a particular way.

One last question: Now that the book is out, what are you working on next? What projects are you excited to focus on?

SFM: I’m currently working on two projects. One is a nonfiction book about the cultural performances of motherhood and the ways domestic responsibility is often fraught with violence and erasure. The other is a book of poems that deconstructs the mythos of historical, literary, and pop culture wicked women, examining how gender expectations construct what is perceived as evil. I’m in the midst of them both, researching, drafting, all energy and rush, which is, of course, my favorite part.

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Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women, Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch. She has been Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Editor since 2011 and is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. 

Silas Hansen's essays have appeared in The Normal SchoolColorado ReviewSlateRedividerWaccamawBest of the Net, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor at Ball State University and the nonfiction editor for Waxwing.