Leslie Jamison's incredible new essay collection, The Empathy Exams, covers topics ranging from random violence to HBO's Girls to abortion to bad romance to stereotypes, proving she can write about anything. Here, she tells us how she approaches personal nonfiction writing, as well as provides tips.
When people ask what kind of nonfiction I write, I say “all kinds,” but really I mean I don’t write any kind at all: I’m trying to dissolve the borders between memoir and journalism and criticism by weaving them together. I write about deeply personal experiences (getting hit in the face, getting an abortion) but I also write about reality television and Bolivian silver mines and the history of artificial sweeteners. I write in all these modes because I’m fascinated by the ways personal experience connects to larger histories, and because I want my writing to matter to the people who read it—people who are, by definition, not me. Which raises one of the crucial questions of autobiographical writing: How can the confession of personal experience create something that resonates beyond itself?
When I talk about writing essays that resonate beyond the personal, I don’t mean that personal material isn’t sufficient. Of course it is. Or, it can be. If you honor the complexity of your own life—if you grant us entry into moments that hold shame or hurt or heat, and if you’re willing to follow that heat, to feel out where all the small fires burn, then your readers will trust you. They’ll find flashes of themselves. “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles,” Emerson wrote. “Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related.” I believe that personal experience is infinite, but I also believe in different kinds of infinity: as mathematician Georg Cantor proved in the 1800s, there are many different infinities—there’s an infinity between zero and one, and another one that counts everything beyond. Both ranges are endless, but they map different terrains.
I’m interested in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience. I’m wary of seeking this resonance by extracting some easy moral from the grit and complication of personal particularity: love hurts, time heals, always look on the bright side. Instead, I’m drawn to essays that allow the messy threads of grief or incomprehension to remain ragged, to direct our gazes outward.
In “The White Album,” Joan Didion connects her own nervous breakdown to the cultural disorder around her: the arrest of Huey Newton, the unfolding of the Manson Murder trials, what she calls an “authentically senseless chain of correspondences.” She makes links but she refuses to flatten these links into an easy moral; she wants them to remain provocative but “senseless.” In “No Man’s Land,” Eula Biss positions a personal account of her own Chicago neighborhood inside several larger contexts: the history of the American frontier and the troubled racial politics of urban spaces. In “Upon This Rock,” John Jeremiah Sullivan confesses his own religious background partway through an ostensibly journalistic account of a Christian rock concert.
In my own essay, “The Empathy Exams,” I tell several personal stories—an abortion, a failed heart surgery—inside a broader inquiry into the terms of empathy itself: What does it consist of? Can it be taught? I write about my work as a medical actor—following diagnostic scripts—and I write about falling in love and drinking too much wine and crying on the phone, but I also write about a neuroscientist who is using fMRI scans to figure out which parts of our brains light up when we feel for other people. I quote scientific studies and an eighteenth century moral philosopher; I don’t offer them as intellectual accessories so much as I deploy them as tools: how can these other sources of light illuminate my own story better?
This is one of the central imperatives of combining personal material with history or criticism or reportage: each thread must do some work that isn’t being done by another; that can’t be done by another. Scientific studies show the magnetic signature of empathy; my own life shows the perpetual mess of how it plays out. Sometimes I imagine history and science and memory are puppets, and I’m pushing them onto the stage of inquiry and asking them to have a conversation—to share their knowledge, to argue with each other. It’s a lab experiment: what explosions are uniquely possible in combination?
The flipside of this experimental process isn’t just knowing what to include—being capacious, being brave—it’s knowing what to cut: which connections don’t work, or can’t hold. Once I’ve given myself the freedom to let personal experience throw its filaments everywhere, attach to everything, I need to be prepared for the fact that some combinations won’t work. I can’t fake connections; I know readers can smell it—the faint stink of forced correspondence.
This is the hard part of gathering broadly and summoning the whole world to be part of your story: you can bring everything home, but you can’t use it all at once. I have a purgatory file where I keep every shard I can’t bear to throw away; so that I can resurrect them from the dead if opportunity presents itself—if I see how these old shards can do the work I need them to.
I often think of the subject of an essay as something like a courtyard full of questions—questions about grief, or longing, or memory, or empathy. Writing means walking a furious labyrinthine path in order to peer at them from every possible direction. Every mode of inquiry—history, memoir, criticism—is a doorway that opens onto this courtyard from a different angle. Each glance offers some gift: the pages of a medical acting script, or the humming heart of an fMRI scanner; the grainy resolution of old photographs or the tiny time-machines of old text messages. You can gaze down on the past from the obstructed aerial view of retrospection, or you can gaze up from a hospital table, the folds of a paper gown crinkling underneath the goose bumps on your arms. That’s the thrill of pushing the personal essay beyond itself: the electricity created between erudition and flesh is something fierce. You can move from the rigors of scientific inquiry to the pale vulnerability of an IV piercing a vein. You can travel that distance in a sentence—if curiosity demands it, if the sentiment can hold it.
When you’re lying on a hospital gurney, it can feel like there is nothing else in the world—nothing but your fear, or your chill, or the promise of anesthesia, or the shadows of the surgeons who are about to cut you open. It can feel that way—and that feeling is a truth, but what it believes isn’t true at all: because you’re not the only thing in the world—the only person who has ever hurt, the only person who has ever worn a paper gown. In truth, there is a whole world beyond you, in that moment and always—a whole world of other hurting bodies, of surgeons and their training; there’s a whole world of hearts, heart anatomies and heart myths, hearts transplanted and broken. There is so much outside the false cloister of private experience; and when you write, you do the work of connecting that terrible privacy to everything beyond it.