Margo Jefferson: ‘If I Can’t Find a Way to Do That… Why Am I Writing a Memoir?’
From the Thresholds Podcast, Hosted by Jordan Kisner
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
On this episode, Margo Jefferson, author of Negroland and On Michael Jackson, talks about learning to write with more freedom, with more of one’s own voice and selfhood directly in play, in view, and at risk.
From the interview:
Jordan Kisner: Even just the act of pure honesty is a frightening thing to do as a person who has relationships with other people in the world. And I guess I continue to wonder whether there’s a way to negotiate that or push toward freedom while remaining a good person, while remaining somebody who cares about writing things that might hurt other people.
Margo Jefferson: I think negotiation and pushing towards or edging towards, I think that is genuinely possible, desirable. It’s nurturing. Because nothing is worse than hitting up against that knowledge that even if you are literally writing, that you are self-censoring, that what is coming out is being edited before it can even hit the page. That’s such a terrible feeling, and I think as writers, we struggle. At least I found myself struggling with it all the time—and achieving some breakthroughs, even while everyone I most loved—and feared, in that way we’re talking about—even when they were still alive. That’s where also, though, there’s question of techniques and strategies and craft and voice and form. There are ways of telling stories that can ease, without lying, the pain that you justifiably feel that someone you’re close to will experience.
In that way, writing is not so different from skills that we learn in life. Let’s say we’re about to have a very painful conversation, one of those reckonings, whatever the subject is, with someone we love very much. We go through the different ways of speaking, of even staying silent, the different word choices—if we really want this to be a significant exchange—that we feel will make it possible for them to hear, not to feel destroyed, not to feel eviscerated, but still to have to take up and take in this material that can range from the unpleasant to the hair-raising. That’s what we do as writers, too. And we’re lucky to have more resources as writers, ofttimes—or more time alone to work with those resources. We’re lucky to have those more as writers than we often have in real life.
Jordan Kisner: You described the spot where this started to shift for you actually involved just writing down or acknowledging on the page the feeling of impediment, saying “I was not supposed to.”
Margo Jefferson: Yeah, I wasn’t supposed to say this. I wasn’t supposed to write it. These are the rules that were given me. And the way in which I describe them, I hope you will understand they felt absolutely imperative and compelling. There’s so many memoirs around; I’ve taught some of them and I’ve read some of them. And it seemed to me the shadow of the form can really hang over you, and that the shadow—a distortion, almost a cartoon, but there it was—of, “That writer just [gasps].” The love, the pleasure, the exhilaration, the excitement—even when it was verboten excitement—of truth-telling, of letting it out. I felt, oh god, if I can’t find a way to do that, to give the reader that impetus, that drive, that arc, that pull, why am I writing a memoir? So to be able to say, I’m writing against myself in some way; a memoir is almost forbidden. And even when I embrace it, I want to question it, and its modes and its models. And I want this to be a memoir that is cultural as much as it is personal, and I want that self.
It also allowed me to recognize that there are various personae, various selves, expressed partly by pronouns and tenses, but also just by, again, is this a soliloquy you’re writing? Is it dialogue? You can use all those means. Being able to say that meant I was opening up formal possibilities, and that meant emotional and intellectual possibilities, that if I hadn’t put it on the page I would not have had access to.
Thank you to the House of Chanel for sponsoring this episode. See more at Inside.Chanel.com.
The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Margo Jefferson previously served as book and arts critic for Newsweek and the New York Times. Her writing has appeared in, among other publications, Vogue, New York Magazine, The Nation, and Guernica. Her memoir, Negroland, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. She is also the author of On Michael Jackson and is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts.