Hybrid Interview: Leslie Jamison
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re thrilled to share this conversation between Leslie Jamison and Yvonne Conza, who also essays about Jamison’s new memoir, Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story. —CRAFT
Essay by Yvonne Conza •
In Splinters, Leslie Jamison exposes a live nerve that makes vivid connections between emotions of motherhood, marriage, artistry, and selfhood. Alive and strengthened within this endeavor is Jamison’s iconic, singular awareness, that like her previous work, is in pursuit of the truest, deepest expression of her own life and identity. Changed—evolved really—is the apology-free tone throughout the pages. The truest a person can be is accepting that survival is shaped by loss, joy, and hope. And that, according to Jamison’s confidante Harriet, “No one moves through this world without causing harm” (emphasis added).
In 2018, I interviewed Jamison for the first time in Electric Literature. Then and now, a similarity to our conversations highlights what should be obvious, but might not be.
Then: The Recovering is not an addiction memoir.
Now: Splinters is not a divorce memoir.
In Jamison’s fourth new work of nonfiction, motherhood is a weight-bearing detail that supports all the other components of the book. Her self-examination, call it a splintering impulse, steers directly into lessons Jamison continues to learn: “The difference between the story of love and the texture of living it; between the story of motherhood and the texture of living it, the story of addiction and the texture of living it, the story of empathy and the texture of living it.”
Jamison writes quietly, sparingly, about her father and their relationship. This quality might not catch a reader’s eye on the first read. Many of her finest lines hold a crisp tension in what’s implied, not said, such that the line, “She [her baby] needed to understand me as the one who would never leave,” rings with double meaning. As a reader, I initially focused on the breakup of her marriage, not seeing Jamison’s complex truth offered upfront: “I was myself a ‘child of divorce,’ as they say, as if divorce were a parent.”
First loves are with our parents. Was becoming a parent opening an old, unresolved grief? Did Jamison’s lovers have to navigate the origin of her own father-and-daughter story? Parental bonds are often tricky and leave a lasting impression. “Years later, when I sent him [Jamison’s father] a manuscript I’d written and asked if there was anything he wanted me to change—mentions of his infidelity, or his drinking—he asked me to change only one moment. ‘When you describe me as powerful, I’d rather you use another word,’ he said. ‘Powerful isn’t quite right.’” In that exchange, so much said, so much left unsaid.
By seventh grade when Jamison’s parents are separated, her dad visits her mom’s house to discuss the B-minus grade she received in World Cultures. “He said, ‘This isn’t you.’ It was thrilling to realize—through negation, at least—that he had a clear sense of who I was. Sometimes I felt not just invisible but at risk of dissolving.” Jamison apologizes to her dad, describing the moment as one in which “some resolve hardened inside me. Whatever the opposite of getting a B- was, I would spend the rest of my life doing that.”
Circling back to divorce in this book, I did the one thing that I hate other people doing when it comes to reading writing about personal experiences. I was reductive. Are we so conditioned as a culture to the tabloid landscape of life that the achievement of art gets lost? Searching the digital galley of Splinters, I type “divorce”— it’s found forty times, “husband” twenty, while combinations of “newborn/infant/baby/toddler/daughter” are found on 274 pages. Then, responding to a question I sent, Jamison included a line from Raymond Carver’s essay called “Fires” in the collection by the same name. It’s an honest piece about the responsibility of being a parent and how his children’s lives influenced his writerly state of mind. Carver is at a laundromat waiting for a dryer to become available:
In a daze I moved away with my shopping cart and went back to waiting. But I remember thinking at that moment, amid the feelings of helpless frustration that had me close to tears, that nothing—and, brother, I mean nothing—that ever happened to me on this earth could come anywhere close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children. And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.
With Splinters, Leslie Jamison has written the version of herself she kept alive while reconciling a personal loss. It’s also another kind of love story, a book with adjacent intimacy to Karl Ove Knausgård and his ability to be highly personal and devotional to self-investigation. Their granular stories are birthed in discomfort and desire, then incubated in cavernous introspection that transforms over time. And, despite the gender double standard that has been so deep-rooted in literature, Jamison’s dexterity and insight (258 pages versus Knausgård’s six entire volumes), even more so within this book, achieve a heightened success that pinpoints the exactness of her own interiority, though still echoing the lives of others.
I see an athleticism in Jamison’s impulse to forever seek out where the story begins to “explain my own vulnerability,” while simultaneously writing and living toward the discovery of what she doesn’t yet know about herself. Truth to her isn’t gendered, nor is it always pretty. It has sharp edges. With capable hands, Jamison toggles truth and its messier tensions without judgment. Keen, curious observation is her narrative gold.
In a revelatory moment, Jamison likens herself and her hunger to make art as shark-like actions: “Sharks need to keep swimming to breathe. I was an art shark. I never stopped walking, except to nurse.” I understood those lines. Many times my husband has called me a workaholic, like it’s a bad thing. Last night it was late, he and our dog were in bed as I worked on this piece. These days, with more bylines acquired, my husband has come to see that while I lack balance, I do need to do this thing…“to keep swimming to breathe.” Writing gives form to my own vulnerability and offers pathways to truths I don’t yet know about myself. This drive I have is shark-like, too, and was illuminated while reading Leslie Jamison’s new book, which creates shapes and metaphors for painful as well as joyful parts of our lives.
Yvonne Conza: Splinters brought to mind Knausgård’s My Struggle. Responding in a 2014 interview with Andrew O’Hagen as to whether the book had been therapeutic and if he conquered his fear of his father, Knausgård’s partial reply included: “It’s nothing like that to write, I think. To write is much more about becoming free of everything, becoming free of what you know.” Does that connect to your experience with Splinters?
Leslie Jamison: That’s fascinating, the notion that writing is a way of becoming free of what you know. It makes me think about the artist Robert Irwin: “Seeing is forgetting the name of what one sees.” Or James Baldwin: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” It makes me think of a conversation that happens between me and my friend Harriet in Splinters, when she asks me something like: “What do you not yet know about yourself?” I make a joke in the moment (“Whether I still have an STD or not?”), but in truth, that question has become a kind of mantra for me, an experiential/spiritual battle cry—I’m a person who would always put a question mark at the end of my battle cries.
I certainly try to write and live toward what I don’t yet know about myself. I believe in writing as a process of discovery, and so often discovery not only involves excavating a messier version of the truth, but also clearing away the more familiar (often reductive) story in order to make room for this messier version. With Splinters, I was trying to clear away those familiar stories—I almost think of them as cobwebs, and I’m brushing them away to open up a locked box—to get at messier truths about motherhood, divorce, my parents, falling in love, making art. I wanted to stop speaking in phrases I’d heard myself speak before.
Which is to say: You have to become free of what you already know, in order to know more. I often talk to students about getting past the “cocktail party version” of a story they are telling, in order to get at something harder, sharper, more surprising. And since I’m (also) always harping on my students to “get specific,” I’ll do that here: in an early version of Splinters, I wrote a version of my relationship with my father that was a bit reductive and familiar, falling back into a comfortable groove of narrative about my own life: “For much of my childhood, my dad was somewhere else, and that left me particularly vulnerable to a certain fear of being left that I’ve acrobatically contorted myself around for much of my adult life….” It’s not that there isn’t some important layer of truth here, it’s just not all of the truth. I wanted to let my relationship with my father in these pages grow into something more complicated—and I realized that the truth is more complicated. We’ve done so much to reconcile, and there are so many ways he has been intensely present for me: I wanted to write about his honesty, his generosity, our brutally honest conversations about childhood, all the rainbow-colored kitchenware he sent me when I got divorced.
Last thing! Your impulse to connect the work to Knausgård’s is gratifying: there can be such a gender double standard at play when it comes to recognizing the crafted quality of art that draws from personal experience.
YC: You’re writing crafted, experiential candor. Did you worry about it being gender-reduced and considered “less literary”?
LJ: When women draw from personal experience in their art, the work is often described as “confessional” or “raw” or “brave” or “vulnerable.” You see words like “candid” and phrases like “laying bare.” So much of this language threatens to forget the art of the thing—to think about the work almost exclusively in terms of its “confessional” content. Whereas when men make work that draws from the materials of what they’ve lived, the critical response often makes much more room for the formal and artistic ambitions of that art.
In an essay called “Her Struggle,” Katie Roiphe argues that if Knausgård had written the same books as a female writer—full of writing about domestic labor, parenting, caregiving, and daily life—they wouldn’t have been appreciated as such magisterial texts. Perhaps Splinters is putting her hypothetical to the test! The First Nations writer Terese Marie Mailhot also writes incisively about the ways that the word “raw”—often leveled as a term of praise, although it’s always seemed a bit backhanded to me—has often been used to rob her of her craft, to forget the ways her work is crafted; she argues that writing by women of color is particularly susceptible to this kind of dismissal.
There’s an Bookforum review of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick wherein David Rimanelli describes the book as “not so much written as secreted,” and that’s a useful distillation of the sexism lurking politely (or impolitely) beneath many discussions of autobiographical work created by female artists and writers. Kraus herself writes about this quite astutely! It’s no accident, I think, that so much of this language has to do with the body, or with flesh: “laying bare” or “raw” or “secreted.” It’s a way of drawing a woman back to that primal scene of exposure: Show us the goods. Show us your skin. To make her the model, rather than the artist. When in art that draws from life, you are both.
YC: What continually draws you to the sentimental and formal education of being human?
LJ: All of my books are about thresholds of transformation: the essays in The Empathy Exams are about pain and empathy as sites of transformation; The Recovering is about sobriety as a threshold of transformation; the essays in Make It Scream, Make It Burn are about how we are transformed by our own obsessions, and the daily lives we choose—even my very first book, a novel called The Gin Closet, is about the ways we are transformed by intimacy and the people closest to us. With Splinters, I’ve explored two powerful thresholds of transformation: motherhood and divorce. It’s about a time in my life when I was moving through these two doorways at the same time: the end of a marriage, and new motherhood.
So, I think that my interest in the “sentimental and formal education of being human” (a phrase I like a lot!) comes back to experiences of transformation: What are we changed by? And in these crucibles of change—suffering, sobriety, parenting, divorce—what parts of the self get left behind, and which parts endure? How do we learn, to connect to an earlier question, some of what we didn’t know about ourselves before? And how are we, in some other senses, remade—i.e., there are parts of us that exist after certain crises that simply didn’t exist before, weren’t there to be known.
YC: Teaching came up a lot in the book. Did your compressed vulnerability, intensified by your divorce, and the students challenged by their own lives and by the pandemic, lead to a reeducation of what it means to be a teacher? A student?
LJ: Thank you for seeing that Splinters is also very much a book about teaching! About being a teacher, and feeling grateful for the rhythms of showing up for my students, and about learning from them. (My students are graduate writing students at Columbia, where I’ve taught for almost a decade.) I describe writing a feedback letter to a writing student during the early days of my separation, when my daughter was just a toddler: “My daughter is my teacher. Sometimes she feels like a river—and I’m the rock she’s flowing around, shaping.”
I immediately cut away to make a joke: why was I writing about my daughter in this feedback letter to my student? I say, “Boundaries were not my strong point during the early days of my divorce.” This joke is part of the point—during that period, my boundaries were quite porous and malleable—but I mean that in a deeper sense than just the knee-jerk pop-psychology sense of “having bad boundaries.” I mean that I was radically available to be transformed. Feeling my boundaries get more porous, more permeable, more molten—this was part of the process of transformation. Hard to change shape when all your edges are rigid. This was a time when I’d let go of the plotline of my own life, and I was trying to figure out who I was, what I wanted; and in that sense I was more fully a student—of life, of chance, of suffering, of other people—than in those times when I felt more consolidated, or sturdy. On the path, as it were.
So I think in Splinters, I was trying to write about a time when I felt like I once again became a student—not literally, but somehow spiritually; someone humbled by life. I felt like I’d failed at certain things (marriage, for example), even though another part of my mind would always swoop in to say, Failure isn’t the right word. But I felt like I’d failed at one way of living, and needed to figure out another one. I also needed to figure out how to be a mother.
YC: Is education influenced not just by challenges but also by constraints not easily identified?
LJ: There are certain experiences of education we seek out, and other ones that we react to—this latter category is something more like involuntary education. And I’m interested in that process of involuntary education, too. Just like I’m interested in voluntary and involuntary expression: what we think we are saying, and everything that’s getting communicated around the edges of that utterance. All this makes me think of Raymond Carver’s wise and ferocious essay, “Fires”—he’s responding to a question about his most important “influences,” where the question is clearly asking him to put himself in a creative lineage, but he says explicitly that he wants to talk about another kind of influence: his children. He calls their influence “heavy and often baleful.” Raising them, he felt “unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.” He writes about afternoons at the laundromat, taking them to birthday parties; the endless revolving door of needs that every parent knows—and this, he says, this is the kind of influence he wants to talk about. In Splinters, that’s the kind of education that I want to write about: the kind happening every day, on the sidewalks, on the subways, when I’m nursing in the middle of the night.
YC: What work are the italicized prologues doing in the three sections titled MILK, SMOKE, and FEVER? Are they even prologues? Or, do they adhere to the collage-inherent qualities of the book’s cover and its structure? An artistic composition holding many materials with the ability to assemble and resemble a truer version of, if not the life you were living, then its tonality?
LJ: On a concrete level, these italicized opening prologues were collages of Google searches: What is the name of a thousand-dollar crib that does everything a mother does? What makes the queen ant want to start a new colony? Putting these searches (my own) together into these textual collages was a formal experiment, a contemporary version of the “synoptic chapter headings” you find in Westerns (or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian), which offer a staccato summary, in brief evocative bursts, of what’s about to happen.
These search-collages also helped me establish the tonality, as you say—the mood and feeling landscape of each section, through the questions emerging from it. They were a way of dramatizing the ways we turn to Google as a kind of confessional booth, or a guru: a force that can answer our deepest questions about the world, ourselves—even when we’d never confess that this is what we are doing, what we want from it.
Splinters is very much a book about wanting, and about wondering: What is my destiny? Do I even have one? Is the notion of having a destiny just a story I’m telling myself in order to survive my own life? And I think that opening the three sections with these Google searches was a way to set up that relationship with the universe, through my relationship to Google as if it were the Oracle of Delphi, which is how we treat it: Tell me what’s next! Tell me what this means! Tell me what to do!
YC: I was excited seeing how the narration evolved and reshaped itself within these three sections. The “splintering” if you will: MILK was foundational, SMOKE fueled fragmentation, and FEVER ushered in a review of quarantine that made me consider how a challenging relationship (motherhood and marriage) can be “quarantining” and isolating, but then by its nature “quarantine” crafts time, a holding pattern, time that allows one to view things as they are, not as what we’d like them to be. The sections smartly avoid a “splintering of time” simplified solely as “past,” “present,” and “future,” emphasizing instead literature/words to do the unexpected. It made me view this book as art! I am not sure how you masterminded it, but you found a way for a book to move a boundary that I believe was advanced by all those moments in which you went to museums and became an “art shark.”
How important was it for you to not only write a book, but to have it be a work of art? Life that becomes the studied painting—that hangs and allows the viewer to see a reflection and splintering of their own lives.
LJ: I love this reading of the three sections, not only in terms of time—past, present, and future—but in terms of form: foundation, splintering, and containing. This question of art, and how one turns art into life, connects back to our earlier discussion of how easily craft can get forgotten or ignored when the subject matter is personal, especially when the author is a woman. For me, the craft of Splinters is so deeply and inescapably connected to its form: these whittled shards of narrative, a paragraph to a page or two, in which so much has been stripped away and you just get a searing, singular moment of experience. These “splinters” of narrative forced me to focus on the moments of narrative heat in my own life, and they allowed me to tell the parts of the story that felt crucial to me and leave out the rest. Discovering this unit size—this approach to the craft of the book—helped me free the sculpture from the block of stone.
YVONNE CONZA is a writer in Miami. She has words in Longreads, The Believer, Michigan Quarterly Review, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Pleiades Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, and other outlets. She is the assistant nonfiction editor for Pithead Chapel and coauthor of the user-friendly dog training guide Training for Both Ends of the Leash (Penguin). Find her on Instagram @yvonneconza.
LESLIE JAMISON is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Recovering and The Empathy Exams; the collection of essays Make It Scream, Make It Burn, a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award; and the novelThe Gin Closet, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She writes for numerous publications including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Harper’s, and The New York Review of Books. She teaches at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn. Find her on Twitter @lsjamison.