Now that The Empathy Exams, the thoughtful, brave, and honest essay collection by Leslie Jamison, is a New York Times Bestseller, it’s probably a good time to start my bragging: Leslie and I smoked weed together at Iowa. I bring this up not (only) to embarrass Leslie (and me), but also because one particular memory of her from that era remains distinct in my mind, and seems appropriate given that her work is so deeply felt and observed, beautiful as poetry and as probing as a deep sea satellite.
In the memory, our mutual friend A. has just gotten us high. He is a former journalist and a budding playwright as well as a fiction writer, and so social engagements with him carry with them a certain intensity, as if we’re not just hanging out, but being interviewed and excavated, the performative elements of our personalities both applauded and questioned. I cannot get enough of hanging out with A. Once we’re all rightly stoned, he asks me and Leslie how we might define the word dramaturge. In my memory, my brain stutters and stalls like a rusted old car; I am wishing for some cinnamon bread. “It’s…uh…,” I say, “…like…um…someone who helps a theatre company?” A. nods at me (with pity, I recall), and then turns to Leslie, whose arms are crossed. She’s squinting. Leslie is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and when I am high this frightens me a little. “I like to think of a dramaturge as a kind of translator between the text and the performers.” She goes on to describe the art of play production with such elegance and intelligence that I can’t help but feel humbled, jealous, and inspired.
This is how I felt reading The Empathy Exams. In a world where there are a hundred online quizzes along the lines of “Ten Things Not To Say to ___________” and twice as many confessional essays that read like ineffectual diary entries, it’s energizing to find a collection like Leslie’s, which engages seriously with issues of pain, suffering, and human connection and interaction. She is a translator for experiences I’ve had but could not find the right — or any — words for.
She was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email.
The Millions: I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to the essay form. Can you recommend 3-5 books for a reader who wants to immerse herself in this genre? How have these books informed your own work?
Leslie Jamison: Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard: Essays about boys, sure — and even a disintegrating marriage with one of them — but also about violence and squirrels and weird attachments that show up with unexpected intensity in unexpected places. Beard takes her pain seriously but is also funny, which I like. “The Fourth State of Matter” (about a mass shooting at the University of Iowa) is one of the most powerful essays I’ve ever read.
The White Album, Joan Didion: A classic. But whatever. It’s important, and so good. There are meaningful flashes of personal crisis and reaction amidst larger meditations on the chaos and ferment of the 1960s: Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, the California Water Authority. Didion takes on the world without trying to solve it; she honors the mess.
This is Running for Your Life, Michelle Orange: Imagine a woman who writes an essay about Ethan Hawke’s face but also goes to Hawaii to report on the annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association. This collection is cultural criticism that’s roomy enough to hold surprising pockets of deep feeling, and sturdy enough to launch rigorous intellectual excursions.
Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss: These essays weave together history and private interior life in extraordinary ways. It’s just electric to watch Biss’s mind and heart work through difficult questions about race and American identity — her writing is lyrical and associative but always charged by ethical concern. A fragmented history of the telephone poll becomes a charged history of racial violence. Biss asks her readers to be fearless and open and willing to encounter difficulty.
Some of these collections are more confessional than others, but all of them explore loneliness in ways that feel generative rather than just deflating, or solipsistic, and they offer visions of the ways that private feeling can charge and inflect the way we see the public world. Didion bleeds private and public in ways that have been formative for me. Orange is tender with the absurdities of the world. Biss thinks about guilt and privilege in ways that feel invested but don’t get utterly exhausting. Beard is brave enough to summon the past — and live there for long stretches of time — without apology.
I promise I read men, too. And even admire them.
TM: Maybe because I met you in grad school, when we were both (ostensibly) fiction writers, I’m curious about your omnivorous writing life. How does fiction writing differ from essay writing for you — in process, in aesthetic goals, in voice and style?
LJ: Essays tend to happen in extended bursts — a few weeks, a few months — while the novels I’ve written (one completed, mostly discarded attempts) were long-haul treks. Even the essays that took several years to write and re-write were largely generated in bursts, and then revised in bursts; I sink deep into something, but the horizon of surfacing is never entirely out of sight.
In terms of big aesthetic goals, I think there’s a lot of overlap between my fiction and my nonfiction — or at least, in my aspirations for what both might do: go deep into consciousness (whether an imaginary character’s, a real person’s, or my own) and excavate moments of surprise and awe and tenderness and hurt in that consciousness, and in its interactions with the world and with others. But that excavation happens so differently in fiction and nonfiction.
In my nonfiction — especially reported pieces — more of the work happens away from the computer: getting on a plane, recording an interview, exploring a place and writing down everything I see. These parts of the process — that feel exploratory and experimental and tactile — are part of what drew me to essays, offered a relief from a flailing second novel that had started to feel claustrophobic and contrived.
Nonfiction makes me nervous in so many ways that fiction doesn’t: I get nervous about interviews (standard-issue holdovers from social anxieties of a younger self); I get nervous about upsetting the people I write about; I get nervous — of course, and I hope productively — about getting things wrong. All these kinds of nervousness make me sweat, but they also keep things electric.
TM: In a piece for Publishers Weekly, “How to Write a Personal Essay,” you write about how personal experiences sometimes don’t fit into a larger piece: “I can’t fake connections; I know readers can smell it — the faint stink of forced correspondence.” You mention a “purgatory file” where you keep “every shard I can’t bear to throw away; so that I can resurrect them from the dead if opportunity presents itself — if I see how these old shards can do the work I need them to.” I wonder about this file. How extensive is it? I feel a longing for a Leslie Jamison scrap-heap of cast off material, maybe because I feel like you’d do something intriguing and thoughtful with it. Have you ever thought about building something from the shards alone?
LJ: Amazing question! Totally a question from one writer to another. Do you have a purgatory file, too? Do you call it something else? I actually have a bunch of these files, attached to separate projects. And yes, I have tried to work with the shards. There is one period of my life that I’ve tried to write about over and over again but never managed to capture, and my latest attempt was a kind of meta-essay that gathered together all the previous attempts — everything from early diary entries to old term papers, but mainly scraps of discarded essays from the past ten years — and basically making a collage of excerpts, all distinguished by font. I wanted to give a sense of the layers, the ongoing process of returning to something that’s been hard to narrate. I wanted all the fragments to give a sense of difficulty but also desire — the deep, ongoing desire to honor this part of my life.
TM: When I read these essays, I kept thinking about your inclination to problematize: your experiences, your feelings, essay writing itself. If that sounds like it has a negative connotation, that’s not my intention — I admire your striving to see everything from numerous sides, to investigate your own desires and motivations, and to remind your reader that the essay form should be interrogated and upended. Was that a goal with this collection, or did that just…happen? Do you think it’s the writer’s — or the essayist’s — responsibility to problematize?
LJ: If “problematize” means regarding a subject from multiple angles, confessing the bias intrinsic to my subjective position, and questioning my own assumptions — then I suppose there’s no way I wouldn’t; it’s just the texture of how my mind approaches anything. And insofar as the essays are approaching a central subject — though they all come at empathy from different angles — they’re also looking to find the complications and perils embedded in what we might be tempted to view in simple terms: empathy as unequivocal good, unequivocal gift.
But I’ve always thought of this kind of problematizing as a fundamentally recuperative gesture: if we see something as fully as possible, in all its flaws and troubles, we can pursue it and embrace it more fully as well — there aren’t secrets or dangers festering under the surface. I’m wary of saying that writers have an obligation to do anything in particular — most often, you’ll find someone who doesn’t do whatever thing so beautifully that they redeem its absence — but it’s hard to imagine an essay that would be satisfying without complexity, and it’s hard to imagine complexity without some version of what we’re calling problematizing: the negative capability of holding multiple possibilities at once.
A quick note on upending the essay form: In all honesty, I think that the “essay” genre has already been taken in so many fascinating directions — followed down so many engaging formal back roads — that it would be disingenuous and a bit hubristic to claim that I’d upended anything: with the essay, stylistic innovation is more like continuing the tradition than upending it.
TM: Olivia Laing gave The Empathy Exams a very positive review in the New York Times Book Review. She had one quibble, however: “These are the essays of a working journalist. Most have been previously published in magazines like Vice, Harper’s and Oxford American. Because they all work to some degree over the narrow field of personal experience, they inevitably turn up the same items of autobiography, perpetually introduced as if for the first time. This has a strange, unwitting effect in a book so preoccupied with the registering of and response to distress — it makes Jamison sound self-preoccupied, too caught up in her own stories to recognize that the reader has encountered them before.” I don’t quote this back to you to be cruel, but because I feel like you must have recognized the repetition in this book. It seems to me that the book’s echoes of pain, the repeated acknowledgment of it, is part of the collection’s project: the emphasis and reminder of selfhood and of pain that is revisited but not necessarily resolved. It feels like grief, in this way. Am I just bullshitting here? What’s your take on it?
LJ: I don’t think you’re bullshitting! In fact, I’d love to quote you on that. I do mean for the collection to acknowledge the ways that certain kinds of pain must be revisited without necessarily getting resolved. This certainly happens in conversations and in life. I’d like to think that each time I return to any of these “same items of autobiography,” I’m doing something different with it. For example, I mention several times that I was punched in the face by a stranger in Nicaragua — one essay invokes an obscure literary theorist to try to tell the story of this assault in terms of traditional Russian folktales; another uses the assault to describe what it felt like to read James Agee for the first time. I don’t tend to think of autobiography as a finite arsenal of weapons that can get deployed at various moments: here is where I whip out my abortion, my abusive relationship, my divorce — so much as a set of inexhaustible resources; each story from my past — or anyone’s — holding a thousand possible meanings, a thousand possible slants. But I do find it fascinating whenever anyone responds to the collection by suggesting its preoccupation with its own wounds — not because I disagree (I am preoccupied with my own wounds) but because I disagree with leveling this kind of accusation: why shouldn’t we be preoccupied with our own hurt? We should just do our best to let these preoccupations spur us into productive kinds of attention and action. And the final essay in the collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” is about precisely this kind of accusation — what it means to shame women for “wallowing” in pain — so it always interests me to see that phenomenon enacted in responses to the book.
TM: There are a couple of comic moments in this book when you mention the way your writing was received when you were a student at the Workshop (for instance, you describe how another student suggests during workshop that you give your main character a job). I’m wondering if you could talk about the workshop process a little — what it offered you and what it lacked. Sharing work for a group critique requires one to be vulnerable, but also, maybe, defiant. What do you think?
LJ: I have a lot of faith and trust in the workshop process, largely because it’s a model that can absorb and even articulate its own limitations — can be dynamic, adaptive, try to get better. I think it’s a total gift and privilege to have a roomful of people who care about writing pay attention to yours, and offer feedback — but I think it only works if you can set strong internal boundaries around how much that feedback matters. In other words: don’t let the voices crowd too close, or get too loud.
At my first workshop at Iowa, the wonderful Elizabeth McCracken told us that it would be a useful workshop if we incorporated 20% of what we heard — that didn’t mean we were being arrogant, to “disregard” the other 80%, just that part of our job was to sift through the feedback, rather than feeling like it was our task or obligation to incorporate all of it. That was liberating for me, and changed my sense of what a workshop was or how oppressive it had to be. I love teaching workshops because you get so many different voices in chorus. I do think it can be useful — especially with longer projects — to get some distance from feedback for a while, so you can get to know a project — develop a private relationship with that project and follow it somewhere before you expose it to the input of others. I wrote my novel entirely outside the workshop system, after I was done with Iowa, and I think that was important to getting a certain momentum going. I was riding the dream of the thing (sometimes nightmare) without interruptions from other sensibilities. I had to get the whole thing down before I was ready to hear any craft advice from anyone.
TM: And, because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?
LJ: Easy. Just finished it this week. Beautiful Children by Charles Bock. It’s full of harm and care and crisis and bright light and so much filth, and so much beauty, and so much heart.