Leslie Jamison is the author of the essay collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn, as well as the New York Times bestsellers The Recovering and The Empathy Exams, and the novel The Gin Closet. A National Magazine Award finalist, she has contributed to publications including the New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Oxford American. She lives in Brooklyn and directs the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University.
Leslie Jamison’s forthcoming essay collection, Make it Scream, Make it Burn, begins with a premonition. Near the end of her first piece, about a whale with a uniquely high-pitched call and the people who are drawn to it, one of the whale’s most ardent fans tells Jamison, “You should have a baby.” By the end of the collection she does, writing an achingly beautiful essay about giving birth to her daughter. Between though, is a collection made up of reportage, criticism and memoir, where Jamison interrogates longing and obsession. Jamison has long had a skill for exploring the humanness of desire, and she brings her concern with empathy to Make it Scream, Make it Burn, exploring what happens not just when desires are met, but when the act of desiring can be a sort of comfort.
Below, I spoke with Jamison about the art of writing, the process of putting together her second essay collection, and how teaching has influenced her work.
Emma Grillo: I was hoping you could start off by telling me in your own words what the collection is about and if there are any overarching themes to it.
Leslie Jamison: Absolutely. For me, I think of the three ideas at the core of the collection as haunting, longing, and obsession, which are all different ways of thinking about how we’re shaped by, not just the things we have, but the things we don’t have or the things that we’ve lost or the things that we can’t quite touch. Those abstract ideas are sort of these subterranean tunnels connecting the essays, but part of what’s exciting to me about writing a collection is that the material, the substance of each essay can range so widely, so that those themes can track across subjects. Like a group of people obsessed with the loneliest whale in the world, and kids who have past life memories and the families who construct stories around those memories, the existences that people craft for themselves online, the objects that fill a museum dedicated to breakups and broken relationships—all of those are thinking about things we’ve lost, things we can’t ever fully hold, but they’re thinking about those ideas in a lot of different directions.
EG: I know that a lot of these essays have been published elsewhere. Did you start off with the idea for a collection in mind, or were you kind of writing essays and finding that there was this theme that had been pervasive in your work?
LJ: Much more the latter, which is almost always how my books come together and is certainly how my two essay collections have come together. I follow what I feel compelled to write about and start to notice in those pieces the contours of these like abiding thematic consistents. I’m sort of like a dog, following the scent of something on the trail. I don’t necessarily have an aerial map in which everything is all charted out, but I’m willing to kind of show up for things that compel me. Whether that’s some experience in my own life that I’m still wrestling with or somehow gnawing on, or whether it’s a museum exhibit that gets under my skin, like the installation of civil war photographs that I write about, or another artist whose work sort of obsesses me, like the photographer Annie Appel whose 30-year documentary project I spent about five years thinking about and figuring out what I had to say about. I really kind of follow those individual pieces, and then start to notice like, Oh, I’m really interested by absence, futility, incompletion, obsession, these are the things that seem to be cropping up again and again in the pieces, so how can I begin to construct the collection around some of those ideas, and let the pieces speak to each other? Because my hope, and my real faith, is that they do something together that they can’t do on their own. And kind of more concretely, almost every essay that was published previously I substantively revised. Some essays [I gave] even a kind of massive overhaul, in order to think about how they could speak to each other more fully. It feels very much to me like it makes something new in allowing all these pieces to be part of the same echo chamber.
EG: The collection is split up into these three parts. How did you go about coming up with those three parts, and also picking the order? I noticed that some of the essays reference each other—how did that process go?
LJ: So, the three sections of the book work in a couple of different ways at once, and the most concrete way has to do with method. The first section, “Longing,” is basically comprised of some big reported pieces. The second section, “Looking,” is largely comprised of critical pieces, whether those are looking at exhibitions, other works of art like a photographer’s documentary project, or like James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” or looking critically at a landscape as a piece about traveling to Sri Lanka to witness the war tourism ministry there. And then the third section, “Dwelling,” is much more composed of personal essays, even though there’s some reporting and criticism in there, as well. There’s one story to tell about how the three sections work together that has to do with methods—sort of like journalism, criticism, and personal narrative. But what I ended up loving about the structure and what it illuminated about my own relationship to this material is that there is kind of a little bit of a narrative arc across the three sections, as well, where a lot of the early pieces are invested in looking at what it means to reach for things. And then the middle section is thinking about what it means to examine and encounter things. And then the last section is like, what does it mean to actually, not long for someone, but build a life with them, or build a kind of daily existence that you keep showing up for? So, there’s a little bit of movement in terms of the psychic reality that each section is addressing itself toward.
EG: So much of these essays have you in them, even the essays from the “Longing” section. You’re very conscious in the writing of you being a presence and how that acts on the situation. I was wondering if there’s any conscious decisions you make when you write about yourself, especially knowing that people are going to read it, and maybe even the people who you’re writing about.
LJ: Yeah. I think that I have always been interested—like one of my primary subjects in writing is always this encounter between an individual consciousness and the larger world. Whether that’s thinking about the interpersonal dynamics of relationships, romantic relationships, familial relationships, that sort of consciousness, and encountering the consciousness of other people in the course of living a life; or whether that has to do with the kind of reporter’s consciousness encountering her subjects or her story; or whether that has to do with the critic’s consciousness encountering a piece of art. But because I’ve always been interested in that encounter, it’s always felt most natural for me, for my work, to stay in some version of that encounter. So, not to tell the story of a reporting project as if I wasn’t there, but to tell the story of the reporting project in terms of the kinds of reactions that it was eliciting in me, and sometimes when it feels appropriate or illuminating, the kinds of emotional baggage that I was bringing to the story.
And it’s always this delicate balancing act in many directions at once because for me, letting some of myself in, or honoring the fact that I was there, it’s important not to make that presence feel obtrusive, or sort of like I’m so much in the frame that it’s blocking the story or blocking the subject. But for me the metric is like, is there some idea that I can access, or some investigation I can conduct better if I let a little bit of my consciousness into the frame here? And if it feels illuminating, if it feels like it’s getting me somewhere I couldn’t get without letting myself into the frame, then I engage it. I always write big versions of pieces and then whittle them down to what feels essential. Sometimes there’s this sort of original draft in which there’s much more of me in the piece, and I sort of pare back so that it’s just where my presence feels like it’s doing some kind of constructive work. And then sometimes it moves in the opposite direction. Like the second essay in the collection, “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again,” was a piece where the original version of that essay, which was published in Harper’s, had much less of me in it. It was a much more straight reported piece. But when I revised it for the collection, I felt like it hadn’t accessed the layers of deeper meaning that I was really interested in. And so I did a lot of thinking about when I was reporting this piece and interviewing these families whose kids had past life memories. Why did I start to feel kind of protective of those families or defensive of those families? Even if I wasn’t sure if I believed in reincarnation, there was something really beautiful about their belief in reincarnation, and why did I find it beautiful? And so I started to sink into that question and realized that for me it had a lot to do with the role that full step recovery was playing in my life at that time, and the way that reincarnation, in these sort of surprising ways, literalized certain concepts that were at the core of recovery, around connection with strangers and that sort of inevitability of leading an unoriginal life. And so in that sense, letting a little bit more of my psyche into the piece allowed me to kind of wrestle with ideas that I couldn’t have gotten to otherwise.
EG: Do you have any sort of relationship with your subjects after you finish reported pieces? I know in the essay “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again,” it sounded like you had kind of a—you talked in the essays about the relationship that you had with the people that you were also reporting on.
LJ: Yeah, it varies. A lot of the time it’s a professional relationship and it doesn’t necessarily extend beyond the writing of the piece. Sometimes, if there is a personal connection there, I’ll remain in touch with the subject. I was in touch for awhile with a woman named Leonora who is a major figure and the first essay in the collection, “52 Blue.” I have an ongoing relationship with Annie Appel, the photographer I write about in “Maximum Exposure.” Sometimes there’s something more there. But sometimes there’s not, and that’s okay too. It’s okay for a relationship to be reportorial, and to be what it is.
EG: What draws you toward a subject when you’re looking around for an idea for an essay?
LJ: All kinds of things. I think one common denominator has to do with looking for a piece that can operate on multiple layers at once, where just the surface of the material is intrinsically compelling. Discovering a whale that has a call that’s a higher pitch than any other whale ever heard and that always seems to be traveling alone, how it becomes a kind of mythic phenomenon, like the loneliest whale in the world—like there’s something, to me, immediately compelling about just, like, the elevator pitch of that story. But the other layers that have to kick in in order for me to really pursue a story have to do with asking myself the deeper questions the surface of this material allow me to access. So in that case, some of those deeper questions that I knew from the outset were compelling to me—even if I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say about them‚were things like, where are the surprising places that people find a sense of solace or a sense of community? How is metaphor or turning things into metaphors, an inherently consoling act? What does metaphor even do for us as human beings anyway? I’m really drawn to that shuttling back and forth between something very particular, like the story of this particular whale, and things that are much broader and universal. I think if you just have one part of that and not the other—you just have particularity, or you just have the universal question—the piece can feel a little bit hollow. And so I’m drawn to those pieces where it feels like there’s a really compelling conversation going on between the specifics and then the deeper currents underneath.
EG: Were any of the essays assignments from magazines?
LJ: Yes. And some of the ones that were assignments in this collection were “52 Blue,” about the whale, “Sim Life” about Second Life, and the reincarnation piece [“We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again”]. In those cases, that’s exactly where I would be asking myself those questions that I was just articulating to you. Like, an editor comes to me with some subject and I think, a) what’s my gut reaction to the subject? Am I interested, or am I working hard to figure out some way to engage? And then b) what are the questions that I think the subject is gonna deliver me to? But part of what’s great about having done a little bit of writing is that when editors approach me now with ideas, they have a sense of what I’m about. So they’re much more likely to bring me an idea like the loneliest whale in the world, because they’re like, “Oh, this seems like something that LJ might want to tackle.” Or, for example, the editor who initially came to me with the idea to write about kids with past-life memories was specifically thinking about this essay I wrote a while back about Morgellons disease and people who have this kind of controversial skin condition that a lot of doctors don’t believe in, but who have sort of banded together to form this community around it. I think this editor was thinking, “LJ has a really interesting take on practices or beliefs that other people might dismiss. And so, how might she kind of enter this subject?” I think often I have a little bit of a head start when an editor comes to me because they might already know a little bit about what gets me going.
EG: Were any of the essays—I think you mentioned that “Maximum Exposure” was something that you’d been thinking about for a very long time—were any of these essays a really long time coming?
LJ: Yeah. Many of them. “52 Blue” was eighteen months of reporting and writing, “Maximum Exposure” was about, I would say four years of work. Not that that was the only thing I was doing for those four years, but I kept engaging with Annie’s work, feeling like I hadn’t quite done justice to what I wanted to say about it, or that I hadn’t quite found the core of it, sort of putting it away, coming back to it. And part of what was cool about that story was, it was almost like the ongoingness at the core of her own project, that she keeps returning to the same family, keeps taking photographs with them, never feels done, that this has been going on for thirty years, that there was a little bit of something contagious about that ongoingness. I felt at a certain point that I had caught the virus of her ongoingness, and kept coming back to that piece in the same way that she kept coming back to that family. The piece called “The Long Trick,” which is a personal essay about the men in my family, that was a piece that I wrote initially over the course of about eight months. But then when I picked it up again for this collection, a full five years later, I spent another six months revising it, rethinking it, trying to access layers of nuance and subtlety that I hadn’t been able to access the second time or the first time around. There’s a way in which it took nine months to write, and another way in which it took six years to write.
EG: You’ve published now two essay collections, a memoir, and a novel. How has it been writing in these different forms? Is it different, writing essays compared to writing The Recovering?
LJ: Yeah. First of all, I think that getting to move between different forms is really exciting to me, because it means that whenever I come back to a form I’m resensitized to what feels permissive and exhilarating about it. I don’t know if you have this experience when you come back home, especially when you come back to a new home for the first time after a trip, you sort of inhabit that home in a different place than you did before you left. And I certainly felt that about the essay, which is, you know, a genre that is hugely important to me and has this very special place in my heart. But I wrote The Empathy Exams and then embarked on the very different journey of writing The Recovering, which includes many of the same elements as my essays. It includes personal narrative, it includes literary criticism, it includes cultural history, it includes reportage, but it structures them very differently. It’s like one, long, 450-page weave. And that makes different demands on a writer and different demands on a reader. One of the demands that it made on me was like this sort of massive grid-work map on my office floor that was designed to help me not get totally annihilated and lost when I was working on the project. There was something about the scale of it that was overwhelming, challenging, and for those reasons exciting. But it also demanded more of a narrative through line. I felt like readers were going to want a single narrative thread to tether them, or to kind of keep them anchored in the book as they went through it. It involved something that looked a lot more like memoir, you know, the story of my life, in a way that essays have always let me sort of dip into my life where I wanted to and then leave where I wanted to. So it felt good to come back to the essay in that way, where I felt like I could arrange this little kaleidoscope of pieces for each essay in a way that allowed me a little bit more freedom than I’d been able to have when I was working on a kind of massive single book-length narrative.
EG: When you started putting this collection together, did you return at all to, like look back on, The Empathy Exams and see any of those essays in conversation with this collection ,or is there any kind of crossover in that way?
LJ: Absolutely. One basic answer to that question is that there are certain preoccupations that I’ll never be able to really leave behind. And one one of those is, how do we understand the consciousness of other people? The Empathy Exams is obviously and explicitly hugely concerned with that question. Like, how do we understand the pain of other people? What are the limits of what we can understand about other people? And I remember at one point my editor for The Empathy Exams” and the wonderful Jeff Shottsm who is at Graywolf, said, “You know, it might be that every book you, like the next book you write, is going to be like more empathy exams! The one after that is gonna be, like, even more empathy exams!” And he was totally right. Will I ever be behind that question of, what does empathy mean and how does it manifest? No, never. So in that sense, a lot of those ideas are very much at play in this new collection, as well. But I think one very concrete way of looking at the conversation between that book [The Empathy Exams] and this book has to do with the epigraph of The Empathy Exams, which is a quote from a Roman playwright named Terrance, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” which means, “I am human, nothing human is alien to me.” That was the epigraph of The Empathy Exams, and also a tattoo I got on my arm a year before that book was published. And that tattoo becomes this kind of character moving through the essays in this new collection, where I’m thinking about, and in lots of ways challenging, the implications of that tattoo in various essays in this collection. Thinking about, well, what does it mean to say nothing is alien to me? Like, do I mean that about a guy with a bunch of guns living in Louisiana? Do I mean that about a soldier in Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka? Like, how much can I actually say that nothing is alien to me? And so, in some sense, the kind of guiding or motivating idea that was at the core of The Empathy Exams, which I was both following and interrogating then, I’m sort of coming back to challenge it in even deeper ways in this collection. I think part of this collection is putting a little bit of pressure on some of the things about resonance and empathy that the first collection was articulating.
EG: You teach creative nonfiction at Columbia. Do you think that teaching the form that you’re working in has influenced this collection at all? Like, thinking so much about creative nonfiction?
LJ: Absolutely. I love that question, and I love talking about the relationship between teaching and writing because it feels very real to me and very palpable in my life. I am constantly telling my students things that I continually need to hear myself. Like getting more specific with their stories. When I tell my students, “Don’t just tell me you went through a breakup, give me the grain of that breakup, give me the texture of that breakup, give me what you ate for breakfast the next morning when you woke up heartbroken. Or the cigarette you smoked instead of eating breakfast.” I want all the specifics, and I actually, to a certain point, realized that I had repeated that imperative to my students so many times that I ended up just bringing them a cake that said “Get Specific” on the top.
You know, when I sit down to write the day after teaching a workshop, and I see, of course, that I’m being hopelessly general or abstract about something, because I’m afraid to get into it too specifically, because I don’t yet know what I think about it, because I’m worried that nobody would actually care enough to want to read this specific version. All the things that are at play for my students are also at play for me. I’m constantly hearing, not just the things that I’ve said to them, but the things that they’ve said to each other in class and realizing how much they apply to my own work, as well. It feels very horizontal rather than vertical in that way. There’s a saying, “the teacher teaches what she most needs to learn,” and I can’t count the number of times that felt true to me.
EG: Do you have a favorite essay in the collection? I know that’s an awful question.
LJ: I know. it’s like trying to choose your favorite baby. Probably for exactly that reason my favorite essay is the last in the collection, one of the pieces of writing that means the most to me of all the writing I’ve ever done. It’s an essay about being pregnant, and it ends with the birth of my daughter. I wanted in that sense to write an ending to the book. I always knew that was going to be the last essay in the book. I wanted to write an end that also felt like a beginning. I think that many of the best book endings do feel like beginnings in that way. And there were other points in the book previously where I was sort of challenging that hard and fast distinction between a beginning and an ending, thinking about say weddings, which we think of normally as beginnings, are also endings, how they also conclude certain periods in our life. Or thinking about a breakup, which we often think of as an ending, as also a kind of beginning. The beginning of the afterlife of that relationship and what it’s going to be in the aftermath. In that way, that the collection is sort of invested in breaking down that boundary between beginning and ending, I wanted the end of the collection to also feel like a beginning. And to me it felt so organic to close with the birth of my daughter because it feels to me so much like the beginning of a different and distinct era in my life. I wanted this book to hold what had come before. One of the things that was satisfying about bringing separate essays together into a collection was that I could create these little conversations between them. So the first essay, “52 Blue,” closes with this moment where one of my subjects, Leonora, says, “Vaya con dios, you should have a baby someday.” I liked the way that that first essay is then sort of anticipating or speaking toward that final essay.
EG: Adroit has a summer mentorship program for high school students. I was wondering if you have any advice for young writers who are, maybe for the first time, really diving into their writing and taking it more seriously.
LJ: Yeah. Oh, I love that you guys have that mentorship program as part of what you do! I think one piece of advice I could give is, write into the things that scare you. Write into the things that you don’t fully understand. Write into the things that you have questions about. Don’t try to write into the things that you feel sure of, or feel like you know exactly what you’re going to say, because I think one of the great gifts of writing is that you can surprise yourself along the way and in surprising yourself, you surprise your readers, which I think is always a gift. I really encourage and honor the emotional parts of writing in which you’re coming up against nervousness, uncertainty, where you might not know exactly what you want to say. I’d say see that moment of not knowing exactly what you want to say, or not knowing exactly what you think about something, see that as a moment of possibility rather than a moment of failure.