Through a Prism: A Conversation with Sarah Kasbeer

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Sarah Kasbeer’s debut essay collection, A Woman, A Plan, An Outline of a Man, was selected by Alice Bolin as the winner of the 2019 Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award. Kasbeer’s sentence-level savvy and emboldened, coming-of-age narrative is both artful and funny.

Her thirteen essays link together with a kaleidoscopic-like flow. Kasbeer’s narrator, almost seventeen, is introduced to us as she’s on her way to visit her boyfriend in prison. This collection is for anyone who has fired a gun, stuck their hand up inside a puppet, written a raison d’être office memo for the toilet brush, had a fuck buddy, taken a stuffed animal on the New York City subway, been a competitive diver, known the tremors of PTSD, pursued proficiency in their work, struggled with their emotions and intimacy, felt shame, sought clarity on the details of the past, or who has actively sought out levity in their life. In other words, this collection is for many of us.

Kasbeer’s essays, filled with dark humor, are presented with welcoming curveballs thrown to entertain, endear, and show a hopeful weirdness. Her formative years—experiences with abusive boyfriends, male sidekicks, and sexual assault—culminated in this book, a book Kasbeer couldn’t find on any shelf. Addressed within it is what Kasbeer calls “ordinary” traumas encountered by women—and how “trauma can be an integral part of a woman’s identity without necessarily eclipsing it.”

Over the years, Sarah and I have met at workshops and events. It’s a thrill to converse with someone whose work you’ve seen develop and flourish. By email, phone, and a shared cookie months before the pandemic, we talked about how her work emerged, its structure, and the emotional space needed to write this collection.

(Read an exclusive excerpt from A Woman, a Plan, an Outline of a Man. – Ed.)

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The Rumpus: Did the writing emerge from a particular question? A series of questions?

Sarah Kasbeer: I began this project in 2015, and couldn’t find many books that engaged with “ordinary” traumas experienced by women, like acquaintance rape, in ways that reflected my own experience. Either an assault would be a single chapter in a book about something else, or it would be the entire focus of the narrative, in which case it was almost always the archetypal “stranger rape” scenario. The former felt dismissive of the significance of such an event and the latter flattened the narrator’s experience into a singular journey from victim to survivor.

I wanted a book that fell somewhere in between. Showing how trauma can be an integral part of a woman’s identity without necessarily eclipsing it. I was wrestling the question of why I seemed to be the only person struggling with experiences I knew were common. There were already seismic rumblings of the #MeToo earthquake that was about to strike, which would offer an answer to my question. I wasn’t the only one suffering, and the cultural silencing was a major source of my struggle.

Rumpus: In the essays “On the Edge of Seventeen” and “The Diving Well” the narrator complicates herself in a gorgeous way. First she’s a rebellious high schooler with a prison boyfriend, then next featured as a twelve-year-old competitive diver. Both selfhoods teeter on the complexity of a childhood entering sideways through adolescence. What do you want the reader to understand from the start?

Kasbeer: I wanted narrative tension, and to thrust the reader headfirst into the meat of the book, which grapples with a series of formative experiences with men. The first essay, about my teenage love affair with a boyfriend who turned out to be a very violent person, was an inflection point in my life, and is the catalyst for the whole story. I always wondered if that hadn’t happened, would I have made the same choices later? Would I have valued myself differently? Would I have told someone about my rape, as opposed to tucking it away in that place I’d already carved out as a storage unit for bad memories? I actually put off writing this essay in full until I’d written almost all of the others, which should have been a dead giveaway that it was an integral part of the story.

It felt natural for the second essay to be about my childhood. I love how the jagged and smooth edges of essays in a well-arranged collection rub up against one another. For me, the transition from childhood to adolescence was jarring. Springboard diving was one of the few activities that spanned both phases of my life, and therefore became a kind of symbolic interlocutor. The rigor with which I was suddenly expected to approach the sport as a teenager was the first sign that things were about to change. There was more pressure and less joy—a harbinger of adulthood for sure.

Rumpus: Did finding the structure inform the work and bridge thematic content?

Kasbeer: Finding the structure solidified which topics needed to be covered, and how. I love how an essay collection allows you to look at events through a prism, which is kind of the way we experience them in real life. At different points in your life, you see things differently. It’s a balancing act to have a thematic connection (what’s inside the prism) without the book feeling repetitive (why do I keep looking at it through different angles?). Once I landed the prism concept, then achieving the structure became the most difficult part of writing this book.

Rumpus: The expert ordering of essays in the collection worked hard, too, as the engine of this book.

Kasbeer: I ended up with the order when I realized what the hell I was actually writing about—formative life experiences, some of them traumatic but not all. Arranging the book was challenging. I had all of these different pieces that I felt added up to the whole, but they weren’t in a chronological or thematic order. I ended up organizing them in a way that reflected my own internal process, how my perspective of these memories had changed over time and how I grew to understand them. For that reason, I knew the book needed to be an essay collection that functioned like a memoir.

Rumpus: What was the biggest change from the original draft to the finished book?

Kasbeer: My first draft was ordered chronologically and read like a disjointed memoir. It only came together when I embraced its true nature as a memoir-in-essays. This hybrid form supports both the transformative arc of a memoir as well as the thematic circling of an essay collection. I had an episodic story that was in conversation with a cultural context, and also a few weird digressions. This container felt like the right solution. Reading other successful examples, like Elissa Washuta’s My Body Is a Book of Rules and Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now, helped me figure it out. Every time I got stuck, I read something new and inevitably inched closer to an answer.

Rumpus: Was there an epiphany moment about the order of the essays?

Kasbeer: When I settled on the title, the order of the essays revealed themselves. A Woman, a Plan, an Outline of a Man was my original title, and the title of one of the first essays I wrote for this collection. A close friend told me it sounded like a murder mystery. I cycled through other titles, shuffled essays in and out of the manuscript, trying to find the one that could also be a larger metaphor for what the book was trying to say. Three years later, I landed back at the original title. It clicked for me that the book was about the imprint that these formative experiences with men had left on me. How they seeped into the rest of my life and affected my relationships for years to come. I used that as a filter for which essays to include, and the arrangement sorted itself out from there.

Rumpus: What did the emotional space to write this collection look like for you?

Kasbeer: Mary Karr has described a similar process. I would write for two or three hours on a Saturday and then need a two- or three-hour nap. I saved the emotionally difficult parts for the weekends, which gave me the mental space to dig in and not worry about having to snap immediately out of a scene from my past to answer a work email. It also gave me the opportunity to sit with whatever feelings came up and to think about what they meant, both to me personally and to the writing.

Rumpus: How did you balance difficult emotions that shouldered a self-help undertone while staying rooted in the landscape of creative nonfiction?

Kasbeer: Anytime you’re writing about recovery, you run the risk of having self-help undertones, insofar as in order to recover, one must help one’s self. Keeping to my own unique therapeutic formulations—which included going to the gun range or solitary puppeteering—helped me steer clear of cliché.

Rumpus: Did you develop these essays in writing workshops? Or, were they inspired by writing prompts? If so, did the prompts inform, or shape, the material?

Kasbeer: I don’t really use prompts. I write what nags at my brain, or keeps me up at night. Most of the essays were developed on my own, and some I took to workshops to improve. In 2018, at the Tin House winter workshop, I did get the idea for one of the essays, “Apollo’s Revelation,” while working on piece mentioning an email exchange with my rapist. The workshop instructor, Myriam Gurba, pointed out that such a written exchange was quite a resource to just be sitting on, and that I should definitely use it for an essay. I did, and it became one of my favorites in the book.

Rumpus: Did your skills as a copywriter influence your language and tempo?

Kasbeer: I like to think copywriting flexes a different muscle than creative nonfiction, or requires a different part of my brain. But that could just be a way for me to put a mental barrier between my day job and my art. Sometimes I catch myself using alliteration (a copywriting crutch) in my nonfiction and wonder whether I’ve crossed my wires.

Rumpus: What motivates you in your writing process?

Kasbeer: I tend to binge write, writing only when I have something to say. In between, I don’t write that much at all. It’s not so much a strategy as a surrender, which tends to produce less work than I’d like, but more pieces I feel satisfied with. I also prefer to mull things over for a while before I start writing, which may be me sorting through the larger ideas—or just a form of procrastination.

Rumpus: Was there one essay that stood out as the inspiration that helped you to complete the book?

Kasbeer: The title essay was the inspiration for this book. Also, once I wrote the essay “Lovers” about my sex life after assault, I really began to believe in the premise of my book—that my story had value and belonged in the world. I wrote it in a kind of fugue state, and was almost surprised by what I read when it was finished.

Rumpus: Which of your essays was the most challenging to write? Why? 

Kasbeer: They each had their own challenges. I write narrative-driven pieces where things happen, or idea-driven essays where the engine is a subtle hypothesis. One essay I struggled with in this collection, “Before Empowerment,” had the elusive “enlightenment” arc where I learned something about myself by tracing the meaning and motivation of events back to their original source. (Melissa Febos’s essay “Kettle Holes” is a good example of this.). I submitted a draft of “Before Empowerment” to Longreads, and the fabulous editor Sari Botton helped me figure out which pieces from my personal history helped explain my questionable choices in a later relationship I would categorize as a “booty call.”

Rumpus: A diving score combines the degree of difficulty of the dive with the execution of the dive. A score can only increase as new dives with greater degrees of difficulties are performed. Does this resonant with your writing?

Kasbeer: Yes. I hadn’t thought of the connection before you brought it up. Being more ambitious in style, form, or content is a risk, but one that comes with a reward no matter what. In diving, you’re bound to flop and face-plant several times. The end result—if not a glorious feat of physicality or work of art—is that you’ve exercised a new muscle and learned something from your attempts. My preference is watching a very well-executed simple dive to one of those complicated Olympic platform dives that begins in a handstand and involves a series of twists and rotations. I think the same could often be said for writing. But a lot of that comes down to personal taste and execution.

Rumpus: When did it become clear to you that the relationship with your parents needed to be fleshed out? Talk more about accomplishing this task, and its risks—as a writer, while still being the daughter, the wife, the friend—as the narrative arc of girlhood to womanhood to selfhood emerges.

Kasbeer: Part of how we recover from abuse is through our relationships with others. This question reminds me of an Elisa Gabbert quote from The Self Unstable, in which she writes, “The only natural responses to vulnerability are love and violence.” In order to heal from trauma a person must be able to put themself back into a vulnerable position and this time, receive love. It sounds simple, but relationships are complicated, and being able to trust someone enough to be vulnerable takes work.

I found my parents’ obliviousness to what was going on in my interior life to be quite devastating. It didn’t come from a place of neglect or lack of caring—they loved me then and they love me now. They did the best they could, given that I was rebellious and secretive, not an easy teenager to parent. But the lack of mutual trust hurt our relationship in the long run, and needed to be addressed in order for me to move forward. The two essays about my parents are the ones I worry the most about being out in the world; I worry that these essays will hurt their feelings or make them feel judged. This was not my intention, but they are, for better or worse, part of the story. If I wanted the book to feel true and reveal the full picture, it wasn’t really an option to leave them out.

To your point about the multiple selves, therapists will often say that when you experience trauma, the traumatized version of yourself is somehow split off and stunted. The work of re-integrating that piece of selfhood into a unified whole requires going back to that time and resolving outstanding conflicts. It’s why I brought these things up with my parents, emailed my rapist, contacted the state’s attorney who prosecuted my high school boyfriend, worked through sex therapy with my husband, returned to my childhood love of elephants, and befriended a pair of dog puppets. The overarching narrative of going from girlhood to womanhood wasn’t linear. It required me to revisit my younger self, who hadn’t received the kind of support she needed at the time.

Rumpus: Is there anything you would do differently in your writing process now that you’ve published a book?

Kasbeer: I would try to exercise patience and not worry about publishing while I’m actually writing. It doesn’t really help; if anything, it hinders. There’s value in spending a good deal of time alone with a project before soliciting input or feedback.

Rumpus: What books influenced your collection?

Kasbeer: The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, Legs Get Led Astray by Chloe Caldwell, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Abandon Me by Melissa Febos, Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz, Once I Was Cool by Megan Stielstra, and What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah.

Rumpus: What changes would you like to see in publishing?

Kasbeer: We need to put more support and resources behind publishing diverse voices, not just because their perspectives are a necessary counterweight to bigotry and oppression, but because their work is truly exciting. My favorite books of the last few years have all been by women of color—Myriam Gurba’s Mean, Tyrese L. Coleman’s How to Sit, and Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries. Their writing has changed the way I see myself and the world, which is what good literature should do.

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Photograph of Sarah Kasbeer by Taurean Smithe.


Yvonne Conza’s writing has appeared in Longreads, Electric Literature, LARB, Bomb Magazine, AGNI, The Millions, Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. UK’s Dodo Ink will feature her work in the 2020 anthology, Trauma: Art as a response to mental health. Find her on Twitter at @conza_yvonne. More from this author →