Sarah Manguso is a writer. She has published two books of poetry, The Captain Lands in Paradise (2002) and Siste Viator (2006), a collection of short stories, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (2007), and a memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay (2008). She currently teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Her work is elegant, her style uncommon. Sarah Manguso kindly answered a few of our questions, reproduced below. Conducted September 2009.

The Two Kinds of Decay documents your struggle with a rare disease; it also deals very beautifully with the concept of time and your relationship to it. Your illness stretched over almost the entirety of your twenties. Are the decade distinctions people tend to make between the "twenties" and "thirties" meaningful to you? Can you make generalizations about your twenties (or "the twenties") now?

SM: I do find that one’s twenties involve making many judgment errors and one’s thirties involve making fewer of them and ruling out certain possibilities. Ruling out possibilities has been the great relief of my thirties. Arthur Schlesinger wrote in his old age: “Why should I waste my declining years going into churches? I will simplify life by abandoning the inspection of churches, as in earlier years I have abandoned ballet, metaphysics, linguistics….”

JSE: You currently divide your time between teaching and writing. As of right now: what constitutes a productive day? Where do you spend your time?

SM: While writing TTKOD I assigned myself to write a K a day, a thousand words a day, but that hasn’t been a useful strategy for the book I’m working on now. My days and seasons aren’t consistent enough to determine a productivity baseline; I set daily, seasonal, and long-term goals, and reprioritize them continually; I like to be organized.

JSE: What is your reading-to-writing ratio? Do you believe in a prescriptive ratio for your students?

SM: I read all the time, in the interstitial moments, and write books during the summer. All year, though, every few days or so, I write some smaller thing, like this, for example, that helps me think more clearly and contributes to the larger projects of my writing and my trying to be a kinder and more useful person.

JSE: Finally, your writing, your relationship to memory, has lately reminded me of a line from Chris Marker's film Sans Soleil:
I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember; we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst? I love these lines, but their exact meaning has always eluded me. This might be an unfair question, but do these lines mean anything to you?

SM: I think he’s lamenting the essential impossibility of remembering sensations; one cannot really remember everything about a kiss. It’s coincidental that one day after high school track practice, drinking from an outdoor water fountain, I thought I would try to remember how thirsty I had been the moment before, and I gave my thirst the code word unquenchable. (I know, not very inventive.) I said it to myself, in my head, in a certain whisper, with a slight break between the first two syllables. Now when I think of the word the way I said it to myself twenty years ago, I remember that almost incredible thirst and the fact that I was thirsty enough that I thought I should remember it for posterity. And I did, but not really; the memory of the condition of thirst remains, but the sensation of that thirst is gone.