'Owning the Taint of Artistry': An Interview with Leslie Jamison

The author of Make It Scream, Make It Burn on being skeptical of skepticism and championing the ordinary. 

September 17, 2019

Kristen Martin is at work on a collection of essays that explores and meditates on grief—her personal and lasting grief over the deaths of her parents...

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Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Five years ago, Leslie Jamison published her collection The Empathy Exams and became the patron essayist of feelings and pain—a writer who wrestled with the wounds and bruises that haunt others and who grappled with her own. Jamison redefined empathy and peeled back the layers of why we disdain melodrama and the performance of pain. Her new collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn (Little, Brown And Company) explores different kinds of aches: obsession, longing, and desire for the things that lie outside of our grasp. 

Make It Scream, Make It Burn takes the reader through three states across its three sections—Longing, Looking, Dwelling—delivering us from being haunted by what we don’t have to showing up for what we do. These are essays about how our yearning to be understood might manifest in an obsession with a blue whale whose song soars into a wildly high frequency; about how a belief in reincarnation can “promise an extraordinary root structure beneath the ordinary soil of our days”; about a photographer who has documented the same Mexican family for 25 years, dogged by a desire for connection and completion that is impossible to fulfill. They’re also about Jamison’s own reckonings with her desires: realizing that she had “developed an attachment to the state of yearning itself” and learning how find “the pleasures of dwelling, which are harder and thicker than the pleasures of conjuring” in marriage and step-parenting and pregnancy. As in The Empathy Exams and her critical memoir The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Jamison is restless in these essays, circling and questioning until she lands on deeper understanding, and then refusing to rest there.

I first met Jamison in 2015, when I was a student in the Columbia University MFA program and she was teaching a master class on confession and shame. Now, she is the director of the nonfiction concentration. We met in her office on the first day of the semester to talk about how this collection took shape over seven years of writing and living, about representational asymptotes and being skeptical of skepticism, and about championing the ordinary.

Kristen Martin: How did you come to put all of these essays together? Some of them you originally wrote before The Empathy Exams came out. How did you come, over time, to start to see connective tissue between these different things that you were writing about, and also to revisit them, reshape them, rewrite them to create this book? 

Leslie Jamison: As with The Empathy Exams, there was an organic process. If I try to break it down, it’s like a three-stage process. There’s an initial wave of writing in a lot of different directions that don’t necessarily feel connected, where I’m just following fascinations or following assignments that speak to me on some profound level or following a personal impulse toward pieces I want to write. Everything from wanting to write about the Museum of Broken Relationships, that could also be an occasion to meditate on breakups and how we hold ended relationships inside of us, to pieces that came to me from editors but somehow struck some primal chord from the beginning, like the loneliest whale in the world or kids with past-life memories. But just sort of feeling less like somebody with an aerial, conceptual map, but more like a dog tracking a series of scents.

And then the second stage is that I start to sense the contours of the thematic concerns that connect those essays. In the case of this collection, this idea the really is articulated probably best in the epigraph [from Marilynne Robinson], that idea of “When do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it?”—how we’re defined by things we can’t have or know or touch. And that to me is what brings together obsession, longing, and haunting as three thematic anchors, and certainly what brings together different things in this collection. How are we made by the things we can’t have or don’t have? It feels important to come to those contours part of the way through the process of writing and following these ideas, rather than trying to impose them top-down from the start.

And then the third stage is once I have a lot of raw material and have some sense of the thematic inquiries that are connecting the pieces is thinking about how to create a collection that feels coherent, and that takes the form of structure and order—what order do I put these essays in? Which ones belong? Which ones don’t? In this case, thinking about the three sections as a way to guide the reader through the pieces. And then also revision within the pieces as a way to help them speak to each other more fully. This was everything from creating the arc of the collection, both in a conceptual sense of going from longing to having in some crude way, but also more of a method arc that goes from more reported or journalistic pieces, to more critical pieces, to more personal. But also, inside of any given essay, seeing that, say, the essays on Civil War photography and James Agee and Annie Appel are all referencing the same Sontag quote about how people “want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry”—how to make that not an unintentional repetition, but like, there’s this idea that these essays are all working through and we’re returning to it each time and hopefully understanding it a little bit better each time or in a different way each time.

As far as the things you wrote fresh for this collection, were those things that you wrote after you had started to figure out a structure and then you were filling in beats in the arc?

One was definitely the Second Life piece—which I wrote on commission, and the idea to write about Second Life was brought to me by my editor at the Atlantic. But the second she said it to me, I knew that I wanted to do it, not just because I was sort of obsessed with this idea of who is on Second Life, and it was more appealing to me because it was this weird sort of joke of a place that was obsolete—that was way more compelling to me than writing about Instagram. But also, part of why I immediately knew that I wanted to write about it was because I saw it immediately as the third part of this triptych, where I had written the piece about the whale, and written the piece about past-life memories, and this felt like the completion of this trilogy that I hadn’t even known existed, that had to do with people intrigued by alternate versions of themselves. Whether that’s the digital avatar, a whale, or a past life.

The last essay in the collection, “The Quickening,” I at a certain point was very explicitly writing as the last essay in the collection—which was also true for “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” that I knew that would be the last essay in The Empathy Exams. I think of “The Quickening” as not like a sequel to “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” but thinking about the idea of female identity as both shaped and shamed by too much fixation on wounds and what it means to hold in mind this other female archetype of the maker, or the mother. And to reckon directly with the parts of myself that wanted to grow up, out of being the wound-dweller and into being the mother figure, but to actually, as I’m always collapsing binaries, to collapse that binary too, and say of course I’m both at once. But I see it as an ending piece that’s also in conversation with that last ending piece.

In the first draft of the collection, there was an essay all about my eating disorder that was formally experimental, a kind of collage text of all the different times that I had tried to write about my eating disorder over a period of like fifteen years, and then a separate essay about my pregnancy. At a certain point, my editor and a couple of readers were pushing me on why I wanted the essay about the eating disorder to be there. And I kept saying, “I really like the way it’s in conversation with the essay about pregnancy.” And I heard myself say that enough times and I was like, if that’s why I’m invested in it, then I need to actually put them into conversation, and then that totally opened the door, and it was like, oh right, this is actually the form that this material needs to take, and at that point it really started to come together as this alternating, braided piece. By structurally braiding them, I was forced to reckon with how I was understanding these two personae—the shameful persona of the eating disorder narrator, and the more virtuous persona of the pregnant narrator, and I just wanted to come at that head-on rather than just having them both speaking to each other from across the space of different essays.

Something that’s interesting about the structure of this book versus that book is that in this book you start with looking at things outside of yourself—I mean, you’re in every essay, but your focus is more documenting other people’s longings and obsessions in the first two parts of the book, and then turning the eye back on to yourself in the last section. In The Empathy Exams, we start with you and then move away. Why did it feel important to invert that arc here?  

One answer to that has to do with the desire to create something new with every book, and to make the shape or the sculpture or the experience of each book feel distinct. And so, in that sense, I wanted to create a different kind of experience for the reader than the one I had already created. Of course it was going to be a different experience because the essays are about different things, and ranging over different terrains subject-wise and emotionally and even geographically. But whereas in The Empathy Exams I had been interested in how a narrator who began the collection by articulating these deeply personal experiences—what you get from following that narrator out into the world but carrying with you this knowledge of some of the emotional baggage that narrator was carrying with her. I was just as interested in the inverse of that experience in this collection, which is to say you see someone moving through the world, as we’re always doing—you move through the world on any given day and you see a bunch of strangers and don’t know all the baggage they’re carrying with them, but know that it’s there. That sense of getting to see that narrator—which again, as you say, I’m present in all of the essays—but to see this journalistic voice then peel away these layers as the collection continues to expose or articulate or ruminate on some of the personal experiences that are driving or motivating these interests in longing or obsession or being made by what we can’t touch. That’s an interesting arc to go on, to see how somebody’s interest in others is often fueled or inevitably dogged and shaped by what it is that they’re reckoning with in their own lives. It became exciting for me to think about how the structure of the collection could enact what we know to be true of the strangers we see on the street in an abstract sense, but we aren’t usually going through that process of seeing somebody move through the world and then seeing this exposed, X-ray version of what it is they’re carrying inside themselves. But it might be possible over the course of a collection to enact that X-ray.

I feel like one of the threads in the book is about the impossibility of fully documenting someone else’s story and this asymptote we come up against in being able to reproduce what has happened in anything on the page. At one point, you write, “making art about other people always means seeing them as you see them, rather than mirroring the way they would elect to be seen.” So, it’s not only this failure of language, but this failure of being able to know someone or fully empathize with them. When you were writing the essays about other people, and even with the essays about yourself, how were you reckoning with reaching that asymptote?

I guess one of the ways that I reckon with asymptotes is by confessing that they’re there, and it feels like documenting other people’s confrontations with the limits of representation and what’s frustrating about that is more interesting than the kind of more claustrophobic gesture of simply commenting on the incompleteness of my own representation of anything. You can feel like this very cloistered hall of mirrors if you’re doing a thing and then commenting on your own attempt to do the thing. It felt like it just let some oxygen into the collection to actually look at these other people’s attempts to do the thing rather than just self-reflexively lamenting my own incomplete attempt to do the thing. And certainly, I think, in a way, that’s why my essay on [the photographer] Annie Appel does feel like the culmination of that second section to me, just because her story feels like such a stark embodiment of the inevitability of completeness when it comes to representation, and the ways that that sense of incompleteness is both a frustration and an engine. It can feel like a flaw or liability but it’s also this very dynamic motivating force. And so the figure of this woman who with very little institutional support or funding had become obsessed with this single ordinary family and for 25 years just kept photographing them—there was just something so moving to me about that, and it just held so many of the tensions that I was interested in in art and art that was somehow documenting other people’s lives. Like the tension between finding extraordinary truths in very ordinary lives, the tension between never achieving complete representation but achieving something maybe more honest in recognizing that completion, and just being willing to do it anyway. Being able to say look, this representation is flawed. It’s not the whole story. But rather than simply give up in the face of that, we keep trying to put something out there. And the Borges parable that shows up in the essay about Annie also feels like a useful encapsulation of that—that for a map to show everything about the world, it would have to be as large as the world, and so that there is something useful that happens in that inevitable reduction too, that it makes it possible to see or to experience.

And even in the fact that by documenting this family, she’s also changing them. She’s involved in their lives—she’s not trying to pretend that her fingerprints aren’t on the photos.

Yeah, she’s owning the taint of artistry. Some of the most both compositionally and aesthetically but also emotionally interesting photographs of hers are the ones where she’s in there too. I love that photograph of her with Maria and Jaime at their kitchen table, where you see her camera is on the table, so you’re seeing that evidence of her role as a documenter. But you also see the fact that these are just three people who have spent a lot of time together, and have both the intimacy of that exposure but also the wariness of that exposure, and that all of those dimensions of their relationship are sitting there side by side in that picture feels to me as one iteration of her willingness to own her place in that drama. 

And then in the Civil War photography essay, responding to the portrait of the soldiers, not necessarily the battlefield photos of the soldiers. So, this constructed thing doesn’t necessarily have to be a failure because we see that it’s constructed. Something is getting communicated even if it’s clearly a representation and not a full reproduction.

Yeah! And in the same way sort of responding to the Alexander Gardner photograph of the rebel sharpshooter where the soldier’s dead body had been posthumously arranged, and responding to and trying to make sense of people’s indignation when they found out that it had been constructed in that way and that that made it inauthentic. But having a very different response that this doesn’t make it inauthentic—it’s another kind of authenticity, to  think about what sort of desire was at play when a photographer wanted to arrange the body in this way. There’s truth in that desire to tell a certain kind of story about war that’s even more interesting to me than the truth of how the body happened to fall.

A constant between The Empathy Exams and The Recovering and this book has been this skepticism of skepticism. In The Empathy Exams, you’re defending saccharine; in The Recovering, you’re defending the platitudes of AA meetings; and then here, there are moments where you’re grappling with wanting to believe in the people who believe that their children are reincarnated. When did you start to doubt doubt as a writerly pose, and how has that doubt of doubt developed and changed for you in your writing career?

[My] job talk [at Columbia in 2015] was the first time that I formally adopted that pose. I mean, obviously as you point out, it had been this throughline stance that I was invested in in my work—coming to the defense of something that seemed uncool or untenuous or unrigorous, to like sentimentality or to like clichés or to believe people who believed in reincarnation. All these forms of naiveté, I think temperamentally I’ve been drawn to defending them, and maybe that just comes from a desire to defend the underdog. Some of that was at play with Annie too, that there’s something so deeply earnest about her self-presentation as an artist that I think that same part of me was also like, I want to jump to this person’s defense or this cliché’s defense or this sentimental text’s defense. But that job talk was really the first time that I tried to put a real thematic name to that throughline that had been showing up in my work for a while. And I’m sure it felt satisfying to me to make that stance explicit at an Ivy League job talk, to be like, there’s a certain kind of skepticism that seems too cool for school and what’s that about?

I have literally never thought about this in relation to that—but I do think there are some childhood dynamics that are probably at play in terms of why that role feels like a natural one to me. I grew up in a household where I was the youngest person in my family by nine years, and my older brothers both had very rigorous, quantitative minds. They’re both economists, as is my father, and so all three of them were very smart, very critical, and very good at poking holes in arguments, and ruthlessly logical and pretty skeptical of a lot of things. And so I think it was sort of an available role in the ecosystem and probably had something to do with  gender too, to be the youngest and a girl and almost being the one who did something other than poke holes in things. I think that I could be the enthusiast in the room and that role hadn’t been cast yet, so I showed up and tried to fill it. So probably some of the deep grooves are borne of that kind of family dynamic. And then I think there is probably some emotional or social motivation behind it too, that I grew up in L.A. and was not one of the cool girls, and so I sort of developed this affective affinity for the underdog. Lots of people have an affinity for the underdog—it’s more fun to have an affinity for the underdog than for the overdog, it’s a tried-and-true mode of relation. But I think for me there was a little bit of this sense of wanting to defend things that are uncool, that had come from that teenage self too. So when I resist Didion, I’m resisting her dismissal and I’m resisting her skepticism, but I think I’m also a little bit still resisting the cool girls in high school. Because, you know, she’s kind of a cool girl.

With her packing list!

And her size 2 dresses and her bottle of whiskey and…I’m sure some of my relation to drinking was wanting to finally be one of the cool kids, and some of my relation to sobriety is wanting to sort of rehabilitate or defend the not-cool kid who’s not packing a bottle of whiskey on their reporting trip, that is packing a Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi instead. 

I think that something that’s a little different in this book is turning back around on the doubting doubt again. Like to say, who am I to say that nothing is alien to me, and do I really want to believe these people who believe their child is the reincarnation of a World War II fighter pilot?

Yeah, I think you’re exactly right! To some extent, it’s another form of ongoingness, which so many of the essays are interested in. I think one of the forms of ongoingness that I am compelled by is the continual turning of the screw in terms of an idea. So, you don’t rest on doubt, you don’t rest on the dismissal of doubt, you are constantly turning it another notch, or toggling between two signs of a tension rather than landing on either one. I think so much of my work sort of insists on oscillating back and forth between competing forces rather than settling on one, and I think skepticism and the resistance to skepticism is another one of those tensions.

I want to ask about the last section, Dwelling, where you kind of have an arc of your own. You begin with “Rehearsals” about being a wedding guest, and yearning, and “The Long Trick,” about the death of your grandfather, who was “the original absent man”—which is again, wanting what we can’t have, or don’t have—and then there’s this series of essays toward the end about showing up for daily life and finding spark in the ordinary. How did you come to put that arc together? I’m also curious if writing about finding spark in the ordinary has changed the way you see your daily life. 

First of all, it’s really gratifying to hear you articulate that arc, because it meant a lot to me to try to make an entire book but particularly make that final section in a way that didn’t just feel like some kind of crude, “all right, we’ll just put the reported pieces here and the critical pieces here, and then we’ll just put the personal pieces at the end.” That it really was so much more about creating that journey from outward to inward, but really also letting my ideas evolve, and within that third section, having a journey from longing to inhabiting.

I think that to some extent, it was a version of this logic that we’ve already been talking about—writing toward the things that I felt passionate about, not just in the external world, but in my own life, and then stepping back and noticing that, both because of what I had lived, but because of how the things I was living were shaping my attention, that there was this arc that emerged. And, there were certain things that I thought I first I was doing for craft reasons that I realized were serving that emotional arc. For example, “Rehearsals,” that essay about being a wedding guest, initially I had decided that I wanted to put it in—and actually, it was a late addition to the book, not because it was written late but, because I hadn’t initially been thinking about it as part of the collection. But I realized I was really attached to some of the writing in it, in that way that you feel you hit a sort of electricity in your prose sometimes. I felt like there was something there that I felt proud of. And also I liked the idea of an essay that had a different texture to it than some of the other essays—it’s shorter, it’s more lyric, it feels more like a burst of energy than a long-form piece, and I liked the idea of having some variation in the pieces. So, at first, I was thinking about it almost in a tonal or aesthetic way. But then I realized, oh, of course, content-wise it also makes sense to have this essay about being a wedding guest before I’m writing about my own wedding and becoming a mom! It’s almost like I tricked myself into a narrative arc in that sense. I think once I was looking at all the essays that felt like they were a part of this section, then these interesting conversations between them started to emerge. Like in “Rehearsals” I write about how we think about weddings as beginnings, but they’re also endings, and in the Museum of Broken Hearts, I’m essentially writing about the inverse of that, which is to say we think of the end of relationships as endings, but they’re also beginnings in a way of the afterlife of memory. To me, that’s what a collection is all about, is the way that these essays acquire this layer of meaning by virtue of both being present, even if you’re not always spelling it out. I guess what I really wanted to do in that final section is have that narrative arc where you are getting the sort of satisfactions that I think are real as a reader of watching a narrator move through space-time and move through the events of her life, but it wasn’t just that narrative journey—that there are also these ideas that are getting shaped.

And in terms of whether that attention to the ordinary has changed my relationship to living the ordinary—yeah, I think they’re in a real feedback loop. I would like to believe that finding ways of writing about ordinariness is constantly returning me to my daily life with some sense of, this isn’t just trudging or drudgery, that every moment of this life is a site for meaning. Which doesn’t mean that we can’t sometimes take a break and Instagram on our phones—it doesn’t always have to be the deep communion—but that we’re alive to that possibility in any given moment. 

I just read August 9Fog by Kathryn Scanlan, and it’s really like an erasure poem essentially. She found the diary at an estate auction somewhere in the Midwest of a woman who lived on a farm, and it was just her recording her ordinary, daily life, but Kathryn Scanlan sort of whittled it down into these very sharp fragments that are still ordinary life, but just like distilled and juxtaposed. It will be like “Niagara Falls jigsaw puzzle turned out very pretty / very hard,” that will be the whole page of text. You’re moving through the seasons and you’re moving through cycles of life and death, and there are these larger life events lurking in the margins that show up, but it’s a book that kind of trains you or invites you to see how luminous the ordinary really is. Anyway, I just read that last week, and I had that feeling of having one’s life philosophy better distilled and articulated outside oneself. So, I think I’m always on the lookout for the ways other people are finding ways to represent the ordinary as well.

And I think in a way—this is one of the chips on my shoulder when it comes to nonfiction—I think we’ve accepted for so long that ordinary life is viable material for fiction, and that fiction can make extraordinary things about ordinary life, but in nonfiction it feels a little bit harder for us to accept that. I think there’s more pressure in nonfiction for there to be something extraordinary about the narrative itself. And so, it’s almost like we need to claim that same space in nonfiction for the ordinary as art.

Kristen Martin is at work on a collection of essays that explores and meditates on grief—her personal and lasting grief over the deaths of her parents; cultural representations of grief on television, in music, and in literature; and our society’s ever-morphing relationship with grief and mourning. Her personal and critical essays have been published in Literary HubCatapult MagazineReal LifeThe HairpinGuernicaThe ToastGoogle Play Editorial, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and she teaches first-year writing at Columbia and Baruch College.

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