Leslie Jamison is the author of the non-fiction books The Recovering, The Empathy Exams and Make It Scream, Make It Burn, as well as a novel, The Gin Closet. She is a professor in the graduate non-fiction programme at Columbia University.
The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Margo Jefferson is the author of the non-fiction book On Michael Jackson and the memoir Negroland. Her new memoir, Constructing a Nervous System, was published by Granta Books in May 2022. She is a professor of writing at Columbia University.
The authors discuss the multiplicity of the self, the idea of necessity, and how to work with what you lack.
Margo, I love teaching alongside you, I love reading you, and – as I was reading your recent book, Constructing a Nervous System – I loved encountering so many versions of you at once. Which is part of what you’re getting at, I think: that it’s always a delusion to feel we are ever encountering anything but this multiplicity when we’re encountering another person – reading her, talking to her, arguing with her, riding the subway with her – whether she’s a friend, an idol, or a stranger. Early in the book, you quote Katherine Mansfield: ‘True to oneself! Which self? Which of many . . .’ She writes about feeling like the ‘small clerk of small hotel without a proprietor’, handing out keys to the guests of all these selves. It’s a marvelous image. It made me think of Rumi’s guesthouse (‘This being human is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival’). If your book is a guesthouse, or a small hotel, can you tell us about some of the selves who occupy it? The selves that are versions of you, and the selves that are other people?
Rumi’s guesthouse – so easeful and spacious in tone – and Mansfield’s small hotel – every corner edged in wit and wariness! The contrast tickles me as much as the congruence!
You write, ‘it’s always a delusion to feel we encounter anything but this multiplicity when we’re encountering another person.’ I wish every reader of non-fiction (myself included) could have that tattooed on their forearm. We’d stop holding narrators to account as if they were sitting in the dock, being cross-examined about their Truly True selves and too often, by that dubious standard, having their words used to exonerate or to condemn them. We non-fiction writers don’t just walk THE line, (thank you Johnny Cash) we walk crisscrossing, cats-cradle lines. Our stories and our identities are made from fact, imagination, speculation, impersonation and interpretation.
You ask about my hotel and guesthouse selves. Which are versions of me? Which are visitors whose rooms I inspect and whose manners I study and mimic? I could start via literary genre. The autobiographical me hails from realism: those are the scenes and stories of my life with my parents and my sister; with friends, lovers and students. My everyday actions, thoughts and opinions; the contextual details particulars of my world. Then there are the grand figures with styles I analyze and personae I dramatize. Artists, scholars, cultural legends. I’m Ella Fitzgerald and Bud Powell. I’m George Eliot and W.E.B. DuBois. I’m Marianne Moore. I’m Topsy as seen by Harriet Jacobs and Kara Walker. They each embody certain temperamental longings and impulses. They’re my temperamental dreamscapes.
Was it Baldwin (it was) who said that ancient maps of the world – when the world was flat – ‘inform us, concerning the void that was America waiting to be discovered, HERE BE DRAGONS.’ Symbols of terror and destruction. But Marianne Moore writes that if she could have her wish, she’d be a dragon, ‘a symbol of the power of Heaven – of silkworm/size and immense; at times invisible . . .’
I want to be them both. Both writers, both dragons.
On the matter of literary genre and literary license, Leslie, you began as a novelist. When you turned to non-fiction, how did you find this ‘multiplicity when we’re encountering another person’? How did it change? You weren’t creating characters and plots in the fiction-world-building way. What felt confining (if anything did)? What paths for exploration felt exhilarating? What conundrums did nonfiction present that fiction hadn’t? You love thinking, and images spur you wonderfully into thought: you take your readers through all sorts of circumstances and test possibilities with them. Like the Nudes that structure and illuminate each aspect of ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’. Or ‘Layover Story’ where being stuck between flights spurs you to take off in new emotional directions. Even certainties are shadowed by ambiguities. And your titles also lure us toward contradictions and process. Emotional pedagogy: The Empathy Exams. Wild yet severe exhortation: Make It Scream, Make It Burn . . .
Certainties shadowed by ambiguities! Yes, that rings true. For me that phrase summons the idea of an ancient map with dragons in the sweeping margins – the certain contours of the known world circled, wave-swept, transformed by the forces of mystery at the edges. Agents of terror and creatures of silk! I love exploring the ways in which the same image – a dragon, an ‘empty space’ on a map, a guesthouse – can be constructed with utterly different tonal materials: the gracious inn of the self vs. the harried waystation vs. the hourly motel. I used to be an innkeeper, once upon a time, a subject for another conversation! That was back when I wrote fiction, actually – I found it stirring to see these guests as needy, loquacious diplomats visiting from the inner reaches of their own lives.
It’s funny, pivoting from fiction to non-fiction actually felt liberating to me, rather than confining – which is of course counterintuitive in certain ways, because on the surface I was shackling myself to actuality, leaving behind the license of invention. But it was always the form of essays that I loved – and the ways that their hybridity invited multiple selves onto the page at once: I could be a personal narrator and a character in my own stories, sure, but also a critic, an investigator of history, a professional bowerbird, an asker of questions (i.e. an amateur reporter).
For example, in a recent essay about daydreaming, I’m stalking the phenomenon from all angles: inspecting my own embarrassing daydreams, my own embarrassment about these daydreams; asking everyone and their mother (and literally, actually, my own mother) about their daydreams, reading as much scientific literature as I can about daydreaming (did you know there is an international consortium for the study of maladaptive daydreaming?). These multiple angles of approach bring multiple versions of myself onto the page: restless spouse, self-scolding daughter, envious friend, curious critic. Of course the subject of daydreaming itself is already fascinated with the self as guesthouse: How do our imagined lives dwell like stowaways inside the lives we actually live?
I love the language of exhilaration and claiming you bring to the figures you write about (‘They’re my temperamental dreamscapes’) and how your voice – to me, anyway – fuses humility and freedom in a tremendously exciting way. You take nothing for granted, and also don’t apologize for much. From the jump, the title of the book invites a bustling hive of questions: What does it mean, to you, to construct a nervous system? How are memoir and criticism both part of this construction project?
I call it an assemblage of parts that ‘fuse, burst, fracture, cluster, hurtle and drift’, a structure of ‘recombinant thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations, and words.’ What do I mean by that? Think of a visual artist who carries all the lines and planes and colors of her art literally inside herself. It’s always visible seen in her mind’s eye. She can feel it adapting to her body’s actions and needs. And to her moods. A touch of the airy today; a sense of the epic tomorrow. That would be my dream of construction. One that’s always susceptible to a fresh impulse or choice. Memoir and criticism are my instruments for construction. Both have long-standing techniques and traditions. Time-honored, yes; also, timeworn. What would happen, I asked myself, if I had them trade techniques and tactic? Borrow from, imitate, translate each other. How would their intentions and effects change? This is where that word ‘recombinant’ takes over. Memoir seeks ways to express (I could also say expose and explore) a self and the world it inhabits. Therein lies its authority: (My Life, My Feelings, My singular Point of View). But that authority is inseparable from acute vulnerability. Confession, revelation, self-exposure, all of which the reader can freely and ruthlessly judge. The narrator’s authority depends on the power and range of her vulnerability. Vulnerability as risk, as aggression, as mystery and seduction. The self is the work of art. Criticism puts that self in the service of other art. (Other ideas, arguments, fashions too). A critic is a performer who uses her technique and her individuality to interpret a composition or role for an audience. She makes meticulous decisions and judgments about how to do this: she also immerses herself in the work, gives herself over to it. Her choices are analytic and sensuous. Grounded in history and contemporaneity. Her individuality is expressed through these choices.
I wanted to bring the confessional high-stakes intimacy of memoir to the art and artists I lived with and wrote of, wrote through. And I wanted to bring criticism’s analytic scruples and interpretive daring to the specifics (historical, sociological, psychological) of memoir.
The thrill of your project is so palpable in the ways you describe it! That susceptibility to fresh impulses; pivoting from the airy to the epic. In the spirit of the painter who carries all these colors inside, it also feels like constructing a nervous system – for you, in these pages – involves a constellation of tones, as you are delighted, curious, indignant, angry, worshipful, betrayed, rebuffed, reclaiming; as you imagine minds that are not willing to imagine yours, as you wrestle with art you’ve loved and been erased by, as you assemble a repertory of styles and modes: diva and counter-diva, Rumpelstiltskin disappearing into the earth!
And of course, constructing a nervous system involves wrestling (the word itself shows up a few times) with influences beloved and fraught – from Ella Fitzgerald and her sweat, to Ike Turner and his ‘foul radiance’, or Bing Crosby, who is part of your project of ‘white minstrels mergers and acquisitions’, from Willa Cather to Josephine Baker to your sister, your grandmother (‘the Life and Legend’). When I teach, I’m always interested in necessity, and I wonder: What can you say about yourself by reckoning with these influences that you could not say any other way?
I like that you use the words ‘necessity’ and ‘reckoning’. They both impose obligations and urgencies; challenges I’ve got to live with, live through and life up to.
Certain styles, scenes, gestures, characters, whole traditions and legacies enter your life. Sometimes by design, sometimes against all reason and will. They become my personal culture, my private space of thought, feeling, sensibility. They speak and signal to me. They speak and signal to each other. They didn’t expect to cohabit here inside me, to be connected in such unexpected ways your sensibility demands. So, their boundaries and proportions change. So do their vocabularies. They evade my censorship. Safely inside me, they can test, even violate, standard hierarchies of ‘taste’ and ‘artistic value’.
They’re my archive of heterodoxies, of pleasures, obsessions, curiosities, temptations. Which brings me to necessity, and to reckoning. Zora Neale Hurston wrote: ‘There’s no agony like bearing an untold story inside you. You have all heard of the Spartan youth with the fox under his cloak.’ I desperately needed these materials inside me, inside my archive, to become stories – dramas comedies, dialogues and soliloquies with lots of scenery changes and lots of characters. I wanted each to be a strong objective correlative for my emotional journey through history and culture. My intellectual journey too. Memoir and criticism taught me that I could turn this archive of personal culture into my American Cultural Experient and Spectacle. (What a grandiose nineteenth-century title!) Each experience, each figure, each legend, became a piece of theater, a performance I could adapt, revise and stage. I designed the settings, I wrote the script, I adapted, close-read and re-situated their words, I plotted ways to have them meet unexpectedly, fantastically, in settings that were historically accurate. I became a version of each, and each took on an aspect of me I wanted critical invention to meet speculative memoir.
Leslie, say more about what necessity means to you. And how is it bound up with your tasks and choices as a journalist, critic and memoirist. On a certain level, facts are implacable. How do you take them up and on? What is their relation – no, make that plural, what are their relations – to imagination? And to the irrational, the obsessive states of mind and feeling you constantly examine?
For starters, the idea of necessity is a huge part of my revision process. I’m a wildly permissive, associative, big-stew-made-of-all-the-stuff-in-my-kitchen kind of drafter – I let myself follow hunches, cast wide nets, veer in unexpected directions (just ask my editors, my first drafts are always well over projected word counts). But that permissive drafting is always followed by rigorous editing, by many drafts of asking myself: Does this scene/artifact/strand of criticism absolutely need to be here? And why? What idea is it illuminating that doesn’t get illuminated anywhere else? What tonal note is it striking that doesn’t get struck anywhere else? I ask that question of every moment, every section – but it’s not just a means of whittling, it’s also a way of doubling down on commitments, and drawing out the necessity of everything that stays.
I think of facts as companions in this editorial process, asking me to bear down more acutely and precisely on my own ideas and arguments. I think of fact-checkers as collaborators in rigor. Every relationship with a fact-checker is an opportunity to stay nimble, every correction is a chance to think harder. (That’s me on a good day! Which is not every day. Like your artist holding all the planes and lines inside of her: Expansive one day, crabby the next!) If I make a sloppy argument, for example, about the relationship between coal mining and incarceration as West Virginia industries, then a sharper version of the stats also asks me to sharpen my argument about the way old wounds beget new ways of self-wounding. In this way, facts are a summons more than a straitjacket.
You write that imagination and experience are both forms of knowledge. It makes me wonder – how are both imagination and experience involved in constructing a nervous system? At one point, you write, ‘one does not construct a self in order to be bored by it’, (though I have to say, I often feel I am learning something in those moments I feel most bored by myself) and I wonder how this book endeavors to construct a self that you will not be bored by?
I agree that feeling thoroughly bored with yourself can be revelatory! It’s a catalyst for turning what’s become or could easily become a straitjacket into a summons. What a perfect distinction, Leslie! I was thinking about those times when I felt (or feel) up against habits – ways of living, thinking, feeling all but hard-wired through the years. They might be fears or blocks, they might even be longtime sources of satisfaction and pleasure. But I find I can’t change them, even when I want to, even when circumstance invites me to. I’m stuck. And a lot of work has gone into getting stuck and receiving some rewards too: achievements I’m proud of; admiration I’ve won. At the craft level, every writer knows what this feels like. ‘Am I really trotting out this expression, this tone, this structural approach again. I know it works. I know what it’s good at. But can’t I do more?’ I ask as I reread my all-too-familiar words.
One has only a certain amount of experience to draw from. How can I arrange, transcribe it differently? How do I make it scream, make it burn, if I’ve had it murmuring softly and keeping a low temperature? How do I take experiences apart, scramble and reassemble them in ways that surprises me?
I kickstart my imagination and turn it onto the experience I think I know so well. I let myself, incite myself to bring associations, unexpected images and seemingly random ideas to this familiar experience. I play with techniques, styles, forms. With timing, pacing, context, mood, voice. They start to do their transformative work with your experience. If experience is the body, imagination is the choreographer, asking, teaching, challenging that body to move through space and time inventively using all its resources.
I love how you confess that your memory ‘is not stocked with sumptuous sensory data’, and how you insist that ‘a writer works with what she lacks as well as what she has.’ How do you work with what you lack? In this book and elsewhere? How do you ‘assess your lacks to see what use they might be put to’? How do you – as you put it – develop ‘other sources of plenty’?
As a writer and a teacher, I find myself obsessively harping on the virtues of specificity – in fact, my exhortations toward specificity might very well be one of these grooves of habit whose trustworthy, tired tracks you describe! – and I found it thrilling to read your confession that this kind of specificity isn’t always where you find your primary sustenance.
I’d love to hear you talk about your own experiences working with lack, and ‘developing other sources of plenty’, in terms of craft and imagination; in terms of living; in terms of pleasure.
Let me start with some writing specifics. What, for instance, can bring a landscape, or a striking face and form, to life, short of ‘sumptuous sensory data’? I found that I could use my sense of mood and subtext (landscapes have subtexts too), of sensory and kinetic tension. I also worked to record meticulously and without struggling for imagery, what I saw, heard, tasted; felt. I’d ask myself how the look of something – a piece of furniture, the cut and fabric of a gown – might change if I could touch it. Or how it might strike me if it were in another setting. If you listen to an orchestral arrangement of a piece written originally for piano, I’ll learn as much about the piano version as I’m learning about the orchestral one.
I’m not good at traditional arc-driven plotting, which history needs and which some reviews, especially short ones, need. So, I look for more eccentric ways to structure and still create momentum. I use my own ambivalence to generate dramatic tensions and narrative possibilities. I use tone and rhythm shifts to the same end. As a narrator I sometimes find myself acting, sounding more reasonable and open-minded than I feel, as if as if I were a hostess whose guests needed to be gracefully put at their ease. I work to counter this with self-scrutiny: I question my words on the page and reframe them. I inquire into my own motives, shift between tenses and pronouns to test my intentions.
I crave tonal and rhythmic variety in life too. In the people I love, in the friends I choose, their histories, their styles of loving, quarreling, debating, adventuring. How they call my attention to things I was taking for granted; significant, trivial? It doesn’t matter. They keep you in a state of readiness. This push-pull of familiarity and disparity excites me.
What’s plenitude, what’s lack? I’ve chosen to stay single, and not have children, as have some of my dearest friends. Others, just as dear, have been married, for decades, have had children and grandchildren. How can plenty exist without an acceptance of lack? That’s what choice means, in art and in life.
Author photographs © Michael Lionstar and Beowulf Sheehan