Writing Personal Essays Memoirs Of A Goldfish

Leslie Jamison's incredible new essay collection,The Empathy Exams, covers topics ranging from random violence to HBO'sGirls 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.

Family Dinners

By Lucy Hester
age: 17

For the first eight or ten years of my life, dinner began the same way. My mom would tell my brother and me to bow our heads, and together my family would recite the dinner prayer. “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food. Amen.” I do not remember being taught this prayer, but I do remember not knowing the right words. For a long time, I thought the dinner prayer was said in a foreign language. Nightly, I would bow my head and recite with confidence, “Goddace grace, Goddace goo, lettuce thanken forrar foon. Amen.”

We ate dinner in a kitchen with blue and white linoleum floors. My dad picked out this pattern when my parents first bought our house. He liked it for the UK colors. Our table was an eight-sided phenomenon that was attached to the wall on two sides and supported by a single pole in the center. Each person had an assigned seat. My father sat next to the wall on which the telephone hung. If it rang during dinner, he answered with a resounding “Hesters’,”—never a hello—and asked whoever was on the other line to please call back later, because we were eating. I sat next to him and next to me sat my brother. My mother’s seat, by the other wall, was considered to be the worst because from it there was no clear view of the fourteen-inch television that sat on our table.

My family has always eaten dinner with the television on. On the nights when my father was home and the whole family was eating together, we watched the news. We always turned to NBC and watched Tom Brokaw, because my dad liked him better than Dan Rather. I understood little about politics or world events, and I asked too many questions, but during the commercials my dad explained anything I was curious about. From him, I learned how the stock market works and the difference between Republicans and Democrats. I asked many of the same questions repeatedly, but no matter how many times he had already told me what the Dow Jones was, my dad was never at a loss for words.

Many nights, my father did not make it home for dinner. The phone would ring at around six o’clock and my mom would set down the knife she was using to slice apples, or the can-opener she was using to open a can of Chef Boyardee cheese ravioli, and she would answer the phone with a rehearsed “Hello, this is the H. residence.” A thirty-second conversation would ensue, and then my mom would take the glass plate cover out of its cabinet, put it over a food-laden plate and push it to one side. On these nights, she let my brother and me watch whatever we wanted. Often, we watched Wishbone or Bill Nye the Science Guy. If it was later in the evening, we watched Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy. Sometimes we would keep score as we played along. Naturally, though, we never lost points for the questions we got wrong.

Gradually, dinner came to incorporate responsibility. It was my job to pour the milk, because I was taller and stronger than my brother was, and more able to handle a full gallon of skim milk. It was his assigned duty to set the table, but I could not stand that he always did it wrong, so I would follow along behind him and put the silverware in the right places and fold the napkins. At some point, we learned how to run the dishwasher and wash dishes by hand and on nights when my father was feeling particularly parental, he would tell my brother and me that we “got” to clean the kitchen, like it was a big treat.

At some point, my family outgrew the “God is great” prayer and we moved on to our own, improvised devotions. My greatest dinnertime fear (aside from the presence of squash casserole on my plate) became my mother’s occasional request that I bless the meal. I would breathe deeply and quickly utter something that sounded appropriate. Once finished, I sighed in relief at the knowledge that my prayer duty was fulfilled for at least a couple of weeks.

After my dad moved out, dinner became strange. We ate a lot of Papa John’s pizza and Chinese food. During this period, my brother ate at a neighbor’s house nearly every night, and my mom wore sunglasses at the table. I pretended not to notice. We did not talk, because the only things to talk about were things that could not really be said. I baked a lot that year.

My dad moved back in and dinner became lively and home-cooked again, though pleasant conversation was forced. We did not watch television during the meal anymore, because we needed to “focus on each other.” My father moved out again. He moved in again later, then still later, out. He came and went and moved and stayed, and sometimes he ate with us and sometimes, he did not. I began ignoring all of his attempts at conversation. Wheel of Fortune became all consuming.

During one of my father’s stays within my home, my parents decided to put an addition onto the back of our house. The construction, however, did not begin until after my father had left, finally for good. The addition included a new kitchen. The old octagonal table was ripped from the wall, the blue and white checkered linoleum floor was peeled away, and the wall where the telephone had hung was demolished. The new kitchen has wooden floors and marble countertops and yellow-painted walls, and lots of windows. We eat at a table that stands on four legs and wears a tablecloth. My mom does not wear sunglasses indoors anymore.

I wish I could say that at dinnertime, we bask in the warm yellow glow of community and thrive on the hum of harmony. I wish I could say that we excitedly and intellectually discuss world issues and our own lives. I wish I could say that we linger at the table, enjoying each other’s company long after our meals are gone and dessert has become an aftertaste on our tongues, but I cannot. That would be the most acceptable picture to paint, but what actually happens is this: we eat together often. Not every night, but most. I pour the milk—still skim—and set the table for three, while my mom finishes putting together the meal. Usually, she cooks. She makes salad, or breakfast, or soup. We take our seats, which are always the same. Mine is considered to be the worst at the table, because it is the chair that does not face the television. When she remembers, my mother says a prayer before we eat. I generally do not attach myself to her prayers anymore, but I still always close my eyes and fold my hands, out of habit and the long held belief that I have held since I was young, that although her eyes are closed as she prays, my mother will know if I don’t bow my head. She will know, and God’s disappointment will befall me.

After “amen,” we eat. Sometimes we will talk to each other, but usually we turn on the TV—we have a big-screen one now. We laugh together at re-runs of Will & Grace or Seinfeld, or play along with Jeopardy, or watch the news. We watched Tom Brokaw until he retired this year. Now we watch his replacement, Brian Williams. I ask questions during the commercials, but my mother has never been good at explaining anything. I ask more out of a need to clarify my confusions to myself than with hopes of obtaining information. When the meal is gone or we are too full to eat more, my mom pulls a deck of cards out from a kitchen drawer. She spreads them out on the table—which is covered by a black and white checkered tablecloth she made last year—and amidst the groans of my brother and me, we each draw one. Highest card does the dishes.

Every month or so, I meet my dad at a restaurant so we can eat together. He orders salads and talks about politics. I order fish sandwiches and conveniently forget to mention that I am a Democrat. I usually come home afterwards to find my mom dozing on the couch, in front of the television. She wakes up when I come in, and sleepily asks, “How’s Dad?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I respond, “the same, I guess.” Then I put my leftovers in the refrigerator and lie down next to her, to watch what she’s watching.

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