It was a way to pull the puppet strings of the world, or convince myself — for a moment — that it was possible to control what lay beyond my grasp. Lying, at its core, is little more than this: an attempt to tell the world a story, or tell yourself a story, and to believe that the telling of that story is enough to make it true. It never is. But sometimes it can be enough to help you figure out what the false world you’ve forged might say about what you want from the world itself — the one you are bound to, the one you cannot bend to your will.
Big lies, small lies, lies of omission. Leslie Jamison fesses up to how lying had become a way to avoid conflict, her flaws, and having to face up to and deal with her uglier emotions.
In this excerpt from her book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison recalls how in the early days of recovery, she examined the work of newly-sober writers like John Berryman and Charles Jackson for clues about how sobriety would affect her as a writer. It wasn’t until she read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that she found “proof that sober creativity was possible.”
But the truer story of my drinking is really a story about tedium, about claustrophobia and repetition. At a certain point, it started to expose itself as something that wasn’t revelry, that wasn’t about connection but isolation, that wasn’t about dark wisdom or metaphysical angst — that wasn’t about anything, really, besides the urge to get drunk, by myself, with no one watching.
The night of my first meeting, when I was 26 and desperate, I drove across the river to an address near the hospital, crying all the way across the Burlington Street Bridge, my tears streaking the streetlamps into bright white rain. It was almost Halloween: cobwebs on porches, hanging ghosts made from stuffed sheets, jack-o’-lanterns with their crooked grins. Being drunk was like having a candle lit inside you. I already missed it.
Once I got sober, I became more interested in the question of what little, as Berryman put it, could be said for sobriety. If addiction stories ran on the fuel of darkness — the hypnotic spiral of an ongoing, deepening crisis — then recovery often seemed like the narrative slack, the dull terrain of wellness, a tedious addendum to the riveting blaze. I wasn’t immune; I’d always been enthralled by stories of wreckage. But when I got sober, I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart. I needed to believe they could.
Over the years, I’d come to realize that many of my drunk icons had actually gotten sober eventually, or tried to, and I went looking for proof that recovery had not blunted or destroyed their creativity. It was like the desire the poet Eavan Boland confessed when she asked for poems with women who weren’t beautiful or young: “I want a poem/I can grow old in. I want a poem I can die in.” I wanted a story I could get sober in.
This week, Emily devotes her reading list to Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams.
“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.” – Leslie Jamison
This week, Choose Your Own Adventure with Leslie Jamison. I’ve compiled a collection of interviews with and essays and short stories by the author of The Empathy Exams. But the way you approach this list is up to you. Ready? Let’s begin.
To read Jamison’s interview with the Virginia Quarterly Review, proceed to number 1 (this is a good introduction to the author, if you’ve never heard of her or only know her a bit).
To read Jamison’s interview with Flavorwire, proceed to number 2 (best if you’ve already read The Empathy Exams, or are about to).
To read Jamison’s interview with The Paris Review, proceed to number 3 (best if you love the particular flavor of Paris Review interviews and have not read The Empathy Exams yet, because a version of this interview appears there).
Want to get to know Jamison through her writing first? To skip these interviews altogether, proceed to numbers 4 or 5.
1. “An Interview with Leslie Jamison.” (John Lingan, VQR, April 2014)
2. “‘The Empathy Exams’ Author Leslie Jamison on the Empathy of the Internet and the Limits of Opinion.” (Elizabeth Donnelly, Flavorwire, March 2014)
This week, we’re sharing stories from Doug Bock Clark, Thomas Lake, Leslie Jamison, Paul Thompson, and Jude Isabella.
Doug Bock Clark | GQ | April 30, 2020 | 34 minutes (8,638 words)
“At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, one ill-fated cruise ship became a symbol for the panic and confusion that would soon engulf the globe. Doug Bock Clark uncovers what two harrowing weeks trapped aboard the ‘Diamond Princess’ felt like — for unsuspecting tourists, for frightened crew members, even for the captain himself.”
Thomas Lake | CNN | April 23, 2020 | 34 minutes (8,600 words)
“Richard Phillips survived the longest wrongful prison sentence in American history by writing poetry and painting with watercolors. But on a cold day in the prison yard, he carried a knife and thought about revenge.”
Leslie Jamison | New York Review of Books | April 23, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,922 words)
Leslie Jamison reviews “Private Lives Public Spaces,” an exhibition of home movies and photography at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. What makes the exhibit fascinating is the thread of desire that runs through it — that keen human need to document our present as it all-too-quickly turns into our past.
Paul Thompson | The Ringer | April 24, 2020 | 13 minutes (3,343 words)
Paul Thompson, a deft and versatile writer, delivers an engrossing and utterly entertaining profile of Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, the 25-year old album that would vault rappers Prodigy and Havoc — one a Queensbridge native, the other a NYC nomad — into the stratosphere of rap amid the Big Apple’s glory days holding the mic.
Jude Isabella | Hakai Magazine | April 22, 2020 | 22 minutes (5,500 words)
“The island of Borneo is the only home of the proboscis monkey, an endangered primate that is surprisingly resilient.”
This week, we’re sharing stories from Jessica Lustig, Ed Yong, Leslie Jamison, Rosa Lyster, and Geoff Edgers.
Jessica Lustig | The New York Times Magazine | March 24, 2020 | 12 minutes (3,227 words)
“You shouldn’t stay here,” he says, but he gets more frightened as night comes, dreading the long hours of fever and soaking sweats and shivering and terrible aches. “This thing grinds you like a mortar,” he says.
Ed Yong | The Atlantic | March 25, 2020 | 22 minutes (5,549 words)
“The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.”
Leslie Jamison | New York Review of Books | March 26, 2020 | 6 minutes (1500 words)
A month after filing for divorce, single mom Leslie Jamison contracted COVID-19. She wrote this meditation on single parenthood, loneliness, longing, and frustration while sheltering in place — and sweating out the virus — with her 2-year-old daughter.
Rosa Lyster | London Review of Books | March 25, 2020 | 11 minutes (2,810 words)
A look at another crisis the world is facing: water scarcity. Rosa Lyster examines the water-stressed cities of Cape Town and Mexico City — cities grappling with issues related to climate change, infrastructure, and inequality.
Geoff Edgers | The Washington Post | March 18, 2020 | 15 minutes (3,857 words)
“She tore up a picture of the pope. Then her life came apart. These days, she just wants to make music.”
This week, we’re sharing stories from Elizabeth Weil, Neena Satija, Dan McDougall, Leslie Jamison, and Amos Barshad.
Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | February 2019 | 29 minutes (7,983 words)
In December, I turned in the first draft of my second book. I assumed that when I finished it, I would stand up and scream. Actually scream “YES!” followed by a stream of sundry obscenities, then collapse on the floor and make my husband take a picture for Instagram.
Instead, I was in a quiet back room of Hillman Library, on the University of Pittsburgh campus, drinking a 99¢ mug of coffee, googling Erich Fromm quotes, when I suddenly realized I was done, and I just sat there mildly stupefied, then caught the bus and went home. It was an appropriate end to a writing process that felt a lot less like glorious creation and a lot more like survival and persistence: just getting through one day, one page to the next, trying to keep the pyramid of information, ideas, and sentences from collapsing into a wet heap. It sucked, but in the way most serious creative endeavors suck, with a lining of deep gratification that afterward allows one to pretend that it was all in the service of a mystical something and not really, at base, insane.
It was an appropriate end to a writing process that felt a lot less like glorious creation and a lot more like survival and persistence: just getting through one day, one page to the next, trying to keep the pyramid of information, ideas, and sentences from collapsing into a wet heap.
What made this second book so difficult was research: not the process of doing it, not compiling and organizing it, but the quandary of how to make it creative. How to write a book that felt like it spoke to huge questions — the meaning of life, what matters and why, all the things one gets misty-eyed about around a bonfire — via gobs of information.