Leslie Jamison Is Hauling Out Her Emotional Baggage

"Make It Scream, Make It Burn" looks for the messy truths underpinning ordinary lives

Bird kite
Photo by rashid khreiss on Unsplash

In Make it Scream, Make it Burn, Leslie Jamison returns to the essay form that first brought her to literary fame.

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After graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop, Jamison published a novel The Gin Closet. But it was her second book, The Empathy Exams, that won Jamison widespread acclaim. Debuting on the New York Times bestseller list, the collection of essays was praised for its unique blend of memoir, journalistic writing and criticism. Her follow-up memoir, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, explored her alcoholism and sobriety alongside popular narratives of recovery.

The 14 essays in her most recent collection reflect evolutions in Jamison’s interests and personal life. The subjects of the essays range from reincarnation to visiting post-war Sri Lanka to marriage and pregnancy. But across them all, Jamison returns to what anthropologists would call a stance of “self reflexivity.” Her book constantly asks what is the relationship of the researcher (or writer) to her subject? How does this relationship act upon and inform the subject, the writer and the writing itself?

In our email exchange, we dove into how the tools of fiction shape her essays and how profound meaning can—and indeed must—be found in the day-to-day.

Raksha Vasudevan: The book is divided into three parts: “Longing,” “Looking,” and “Dwelling.” As the book progresses, the essays become much more personal, with the last section exploring your grandfather’s death, your marriage, and pregnancy. How and why did you decide this time to begin with phenomena in the larger world, and then turn towards your own life?

Leslie Jamison: The flip cocktail-party answer to that question is that I was sick of myself and wanted a break from my own life—or at least, my life as material. But whenever I teach, I tell my students to dig beneath the topsoil of their cocktail-party answers (I also tell them not to mix metaphors!) and find the messier truth lurking underneath. So here I go, digging: I think that turning from introspection to the world beyond (as I did in The Empathy Exams), turning from the external world back to the self (as I do in this book), or shuttling back and forth between them (as I did in The Recovering, exploring addiction and sobriety) are all ways of illuminating the ways we bring our emotional baggage to the world, and bring the world back to our baggage—the ways we are always seeing other people, other art, even nature itself through the cracked lenses of our aches and longings. 

I tell my students to dig beneath the topsoil of their cocktail-party answers and find the messier truth lurking underneath.

In this book, it felt like a fruitful experiment to begin the collection with some of the longform reportage I’ve been doing for the past five years, and then confess some of the personal reckonings that were informing my reportorial obsessions: How was my interest in digital avatars as a form of escape connected to my feelings about domesticity and starting a family? How was my investigation of reincarnation connected to my broader obsession with the “past lives” of former relationships and the residue of breakups? 

Part of the pleasure of a collection is that you don’t need to spell out all these collections; you can let them live—and remain multiple, generative, simultaneous—in the arrangement itself. For the essays that were previously published, almost all of which were substantively revised anyway, I believe they become something differently layered when they are put in the echo chamber of the collection—in conversation with other pieces in this way. 

RV: The essay from which the collection takes its name focuses on James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” a book about tenant farmers during the Great Depression. You remark that the author himself “is tormented about what it finds beautiful”—something that could be said of you, the narrator in this book, whether you’re writing about your own body, a woman you meet on a layover who at turns irritates and moves you, or a museum dedicated to objects from failed relationships. Is it possible, in your opinion, to find (and write about) something beautiful without feeling some torment or ambiguity about it? 

LJ: It’s funny; I’m typing my answer to this (very smart!) question as I sit in a park near my home, with my first childcare in a week, watching a man slowly unfurl and then fly a kite bearing the Jamaican flag—green and yellow and black and red—with a long trail spelling J-A-M-A-I-C-A, and I was freshly struck by the primal awe of a kite: how it satisfies some deep human impulse, something slightly beyond language, to make something FLY. It does what we can’t.

I found myself speculating about this man’s story—fiction-writer at heart, always, I’d rather wonder than ask him—and whether he misses home, whether that’s why he’s flying this kite; why he’s alone on a Sunday afternoon (as I am, too). Point being: I can’t seem to find a way of encountering or writing about this beauty without somehow providing the chiaroscuro of darker tones: homesickness, aloneness. Why is that? Why does beauty invite torment or ambiguity? There’s an aesthetic imperative here, sure, some version of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every beauty, there exists an equal and opposite force…That somehow it would be unsatisfying or too easy to simply let beauty stand unencumbered; that it requires some darkness to be compelling. But I think it’s ultimately about honesty rather than aesthetics.

When I’m finding the pain in the beauty—the heartbreak underneath the beautiful relics of love, the difficult and messy real lives behind the glossy online paradise, the residue of civil war lurking behind the Sri Lankan tourism industry—it’s less about craft, and more about recognizing that essential truth: No beauty exists in isolation. It’s all dappled with pain like shadows on grass. 

RV: In the essay about Annie Appel, who kept returning to Mexico to photograph a family over 25 years, you make this observation about artists like her: “photographers who take ordinary people as their subjects and insist on the importance of their ordinary lives.” Was that also a guideline for choosing the subjects of this collection? Has this imperative—to center “the importance of ordinary lives”—changed over the past few years, in light of recent political events (where “extreme” characters and views garner much of the attention)?

LJ: It’s certainly part of what compelled me about Annie’s work—that her photographs document an ordinary family, and that everything that feels infinite about her work is a testament to the infinitude of any given ordinary life. I believe in that infinitude absolutely. That’s certainly part of why I find myself documenting regular folks—regular folks obsessed with a whale, regular folks creating online lives, regular folks donating their toasters to a Croatian breakup museum. It’s an idea that was at the core of my last book, too: The Recovering explores how “ordinary” stories help people stay sober not despite their ordinariness but because of it.

It seems like we’ve accepted the premise that fiction can be about ordinary lives—and still hold meaning, profundity, etc.—much more readily than we’ve accepted it in nonfiction, where there’s still some idea that it’s hubristic to write about your life if you haven’t, like, died in six car crashes. I think it’s fascinating to put this idea—about the significance of ordinary lives—into a political context: so many politicians appeal to the “common man,” or position themselves as his advocate, but you are absolutely right that the news cycle inevitably caters toward extremity. Maybe this is part of the role literary writing can play in the ecosystem of all our cultural narratives: it can direct its gaze toward quieter lives, for more sustained periods, and find their truths, too. 

RV: Another recurring theme in this collection is letting your subjects—even yourself—subvert the narrative you anticipated they would slot into. Consistently, you anticipate certain reactions from yourself and others, and end up with quite different ones. Is this for you the most exciting thing —this subversion of expectations—that an essay can do?  

LJ: I love surprise. I used to struggle with the fact that an ex-boyfriend told me he was “rarely surprised by anything,” which made me insane because I wanted to surprise him AND because it felt like such a cloistered way to live. The comedian Kyle Kinane has a great bit about burning his own laundry and not even knowing it was possible to burn his own laundry, and partway through he tosses off this little bit of earnest profundity that most comedians wouldn’t be caught keeping hidden in their pockets but he just openly owns: “All a miracle is the world letting you know it can still surprise you.” (h/t Mishka Shubaly, a wonderful writer and another guy breaking down boundaries between funny and profound…). It’s so beautiful! And so true! And such a weird, optimistic thing for a comedian to say! In a weird way, the fact that it’s surprising to hear him say it makes it an enactment of precisely what he’s describing. 

In any case, as a writer, surprise is one of my holy grails. I know I’m on the right track when I surprise myself during the course of my reporting/remembering/revising. Often, I like to keep the fossils of my own expectations layered into the piece, so that the surprise is something that the text actually dramatizes, rather than simply a secret history buried inside of it. I like the essay to confess that I thought it was going to be an essay all about my drunk air force pilot grandfather, but it ended up becoming about my suburban father/brother instead…or that I thought I was going to be ruthlessly skeptical about folks with past life memories, but ended up feeling a kind of tenderness toward their beliefs. Illuminating the arc of surprise across a piece is one of the most satisfying intellectual plotlines available to the essay, I think. 

And now the Jamaican kite has fallen to the grass! The man is struggling to make it fly it again, but it keeps falling down—and this, of course, is where the heart of the essay lives: in the falling kite, rather than the flying kite; in the ways the story takes another turn. 

RV: Pain is another theme of both your last essay collection and this one: the ways we bear it, try to escape or ignore it, and sometimes even long for it. In the essay on Second Life, for example, you write about a woman with multiple sclerosis who rides waterslides and another with bipolar illness who rides horses through a virtual Yosemite. But in writing about your eating disorder and your pregnancy, you discuss the relief that these particular types of suffering both induced. What fuels your ongoing urge to write about pain? And what is it, in your opinion, about the nature of pain that births all these diverse reactions or emotions?  

No beauty exists in isolation. It’s all dappled with pain like shadows on grass.

LJ: Yes! This is a beautiful observation. We seek ways to escape pain, but it also—often—offers an ineffable kind of relief. It can consolidate us. Part of that consolidation resides in the fact that we get a sense of ourselves and our edges from pain; we exist in it. But I think it’s naïve and sort of blind to talk too much about what’s generative or appealing about pain without acknowledging that most of the time—and certainly in the most extreme cases—it’s just painful. Randall Jarrell said it pretty well in 90 North: “Pain comes from the darkness / And we call it wisdom. It is pain.” So sometimes you just want to build an online world and ride its waterslides. Or go skinny-dipping at night.

In an essay called “Young Adult Cancer Story,” the wonderful writer (and my dear friend!) Briallen Hopper writes, “pain makes demands, but being felt is not always one of them.” This is an essay about taking care of a good friend with terminal cancer, and living through what they called “The Summer of Care and Delight,” just after her diagnosis: drinking vinho verde, re-watching Mystic Pizza, driving down Alabama backroads with an open bag of hot Atomic Fireballs between them…I love that notion, as a writer and a human being, that we can document pain not only in terms of the price it exacts from us, but in terms of the beauty it inspires us toward. 

RV: Part of what makes your writing so compelling is that you are comprehensively honest about your judgements and thoughts towards situations and characters, especially when those reactions might be considered shameful. Do you think this can ever go too far? That is to say, can an essayist ever be too honest?

LJ: There’s a brief scene in the final essay in the collection—“The Quickening,” which is a piece about pregnancy and anorexia but really about longing and expansion, how and when we permit ourselves those states—where I recount a man in my first nonfiction workshop who said, in response to one of my pieces, “Is there such a thing as too much honesty? I find it incredibly difficult to like the narrator of this essay?” In the piece, I’m using this comment to explore the divide between the “unlikable” woman who is too obsessed with her own pain, and the “likable” woman who is gracefully gestating another life. But it’s also a way of thinking about the shame of being “too much,” a shame that the essay is reckoning with from a thousand directions, and one of the things I’ve been trying to reckon with my whole life: the fear of having too much body, too much need, too much pain on the page. Part of what was fascinating to me about pregnancy was that it felt like a state in which the cultural script finally—for once—not just accepted but mandated that I be “too much”: that I eat as much as I wanted, that I make my body large.

Which is all to say: I’m quite interested in the dynamics of excess, and what it even means to call a narrator or an essayist “too honest.” What veins of discomfort inspire that critique? I’m suspicious of the sweet spot of honesty that grants the texture of revelation without really risking anything. I like Phillip Lopate’s dictum on confessional writing: “the trouble with most confessional writing is that it doesn’t confess enough.” I think often, for me, the material or judgments that feel shameful also hold important truths—which doesn’t mean you disclose them for the sake of disclosing them, but you might be able to follow them to generative insights. 

RV: In all of your writing, your recall of detail—around setting, what you ate, what you and others looked like—is remarkable. Do you keep a diary? Do you keep it with the intention or potential for using the details in your essays?

LJ: Whenever I’m reporting, I take meticulous notes. This partially comes from my background as a fiction writer: I’m obsessed with world-building, visceral specificity, and the small details that pull together a scene or a character: the purple hair scrunchies and bent spoons of this life. The fiction writer who wants to have access to all those details is constantly coaxing the reporter—immersed in the scene itself—to take better notes, so I’ll have it all available to me when I write.

How do we relate to our own longings? How are we defined by the things we don’t have? How are we shaped by our fantasies as well as our realities?

In terms of lived experience, I have kept a diary—inconsistently, but ongoingly—for much of my adult life. I’d say my diary has definitely become less wholly abstract, and more populated with concrete details, over the course of my life. That’s less about intentionally wanting to mine my diaries for details down the road, and more about the ways I noticed that putting down concrete specifics—what I ate for breakfast, what I saw on the side of the highway—meant my diaries captured the world (and even, often, my mood in the world) more fully than when I stayed ruthlessly interior. When I talked to Chris Kraus for Interview Magazine a few years ago, she and I had an exchange about precisely this phenomenon, the impulse to make your diary more exterior and concrete. I loved how she described the diary as a kind of self-reporting: “I realized that a diary is a kind of report—or self-reporting. And if you report, you have to give details.”

And now the Jamaican kite is back up! Higher than it’s been at any other time this afternoon, maybe a hundred or two hundred feet up—as high as a high-rise. And it’s not that I know what it’s a metaphor for—just “things can fly again, even after they’ve fallen?” Could it be that simple?—and more that I’m interested in transcribing it—the kite going up tentatively, coming back down, going up again—and maybe later these details will arrive in service of some question I’m reckoning with. Sometimes it’s liberating to just transcribe the world and let the meaning filter in later. 

RV: In your essay on visiting Sri Lanka, you quote a journalist who says he would only go to Jaffna, the city at the heart of the 30-year civil war if he felt “useful” doing so. This idea of utility runs throughout the collection: the utility of writing and art, of witnessing and telling ourselves stories about what we’ve witnessed. How do you think about usefulness or utility in relation to this book specifically? What purpose do you hope it serves?

LJ: The great anxiety! What good is writing, anyway? Or rather, what good is this writing? How is it useful? There’s a particular kind of utility that the journalist in Sri Lanka was referencing—in terms of active contribution to social justice—that I think it would be naïve to pretend like my literary essays were really making a dent in.

But yes, I think about usefulness. And yes, I hope this book is useful. I hope it invites people to think about certain ideas in new ways: Where do we find surprising sources of solace and community? How do we relate to our own longings? How are we defined by the things we don’t have? How are we shaped by our fantasies as well as our realities? How does it shape us—challenge us, terrify us, inspire us—to show up for daily intimacy? Ultimately, I’ll always be a bit of a romantic when it comes to literature, because I’m such a devoted and desperate reader—I need books. I crave their company. I crave their disruptions. And my belief in the utility of my own work is a function of that craving: If I could just write something that offered some fraction of the grace I’ve felt as a reader, that would be enough.

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