Leslie Jamison: ‘I Was So Glad I Was Crying Over Something That Wasn’t a Man’
The Author of Make It Scream, Make It Burn on The Maris Review
On how it’s okay to be obsessed with yourself:
Leslie Jamison: I love how serious and passionate that my students are in the thing. They remind me of what happens when you bring yourself and your work out in the open, and how primal and vulnerable that is. There is a real beauty in that.
One of the strongest memories from grad school and being in an MFA program was how terrible a workshop could be and how I ended up in a bathroom stall just crying it out. I remember I had this thought when I was in this bathroom stall that I was so glad that I was crying over something that wasn’t a man. I loved that I loved it so much that it could wreck me too.
Maris Kreizman: I feel like that’s such a big theme in your work, that we’re complex people and we can be obsessed with ourselves and the people around us, and also all of these outside things.
Leslie: Right, that there is room and it’s not a finite economy of attention or obsession or vulnerability. It can be lots of things.
On the structure of the collection:
Leslie: The book really became a way of looking at what self-awareness does when you’re documenting other lives. How it can illuminate the complexities of those lives but also make it about yourself. A lot of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is about other families but it’s also about Agee too and the ways that guilt can become its own form of self-absorption.
Maris: This collection is so good at reinforcing the idea that anyone who is doing reporting is bringing their own viewpoints, biases, and personal affinities to reporting.
Leslie: I’ve aways been less drawn to the idea of banishing all that baggage or affinities or investments to achieve the impossible clean slate of objectivity. I’m more interested in what can happen when we confess those investments and baggage, and part of my hope in the structure of this collection is to not only confess about some of the baggage I brought but also to have the arc across the book start with these more reported pieces and end with these much more personal pieces that are examining a lot of these preoccupations around what intimacy looks like and how can we get close to other people, what does longing look like in our personal lives and what happens when our longings are satisfied, and to illuminate some of those grapplings that are running like subterranean rivers in me.
On writing personal essays:
Leslie: In my class, we talk a lot about this dilemma between wanting to resist the bowtie on the package or tying the ribbon too neatly on the moral of the story, but you don’t want to resist insight entirely. It’s connected to not wanting an essay that’s just a series of apologies or disclaimers. You want to see a narrator on the page extracting some meaning from experience, but how do you have the sense of arriving at some meaning without them feeling reductive or overdetermined or too much like the Christmas present?
Leslie Jamison is the author of the NYT bestsellers The Recovering and The Empathy Exams, and the novel The Gin Closet. She’s a contributing writer for the NYT Magazine. She directs the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia. Her latest essay collection is Make It Scream, Make It Burn.