Writer Leslie Jamison on telling other people’s stories

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How does one maintain a balance between journalistic truth and literary aestheticism when writing about other peoples’ lives? In what ways might a writer feel a sense of obligation towards his or her subjects? How much of the reporter inevitably ends up in the reportage?

Novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison visited the Hilltop on Oct. 25 to share her struggles with these difficult questions.

Jamison has been interested in the art of language and storytelling for some time now, as she spent her college years at Harvard and Yale studying English and working with creative writing. Her writing style ranges from fiction (The Gin Closet) to formal essay (The Empathy Exams) and, most recently, to memoir (The Recovering).

The subjects of Jamison’s writing, like her style, come in all shapes in forms. She has written about a skin disease that no one else believes exists, a mysterious blue whale that is detected only by the uniquely high-pitched song it sings, and writers’ struggles with alcohol and addiction– just to name a few. The topics she covers are vast and intriguing, but it is the people behind these stories that act as the backbone for her writing from both an artistic and journalistic standpoint.

Through countless interviews, Jamison directly connects with the people who are most affected by the compelling topics she writes about. Though she finds purpose in acting as the open-minded listener, she finds herself often struggling to balance journalistic integrity with her desire to depict her interviewees in a way they feel accurately represents themselves and their story.

Jamison grapples with these issues by thinking of them in terms of the writer’s obligation. As a writer working with a journalistic style, she must strive for an honest and transparent depiction of whatever she writes about. This does not mean she has to sacrifice the wishes of her subject entirely, though. Instead of morphing their stories into some grand metaphor or allegory on the human experience, she allows them to speak for themselves and illustrate the complexities in their experiences and emotions.

“I don’t owe my subjects everything. I don’t owe them the story that they would have told about themselves, I don’t owe them perfection on the page, but I owe them clarity around the terms of our relationship and the terms of my telling,” Jamison said. “I owe them most importantly the dignity of complexity on the page. I owe them the chance to contradict themselves, the chance to be more than evidence supporting a thesis statement I devised for them to serve.”

“I owe them most importantly the dignity of complexity on the page. I owe them the chance to contradict themselves, the chance to be more than evidence supporting a thesis statement I devised for them to serve.”

In addition to the people she interviews and spends a lot of time with, Jamison also acknowledges herself as being a character in her stories as well, however latent her presence may be. Even when she is writing from a journalistic perspective, she still acknowledges she is acting as an independent medium through which these stories are being told. She speaks with her subjects. She listens to their stories. Then, she interprets what she has heard onto the page. Many times Jamison will make her role in the stories more evident and her voice especially shines through.

SMU Assistant Professor of English Tim Cassedy recognized this element in Jamison’s writing after discovering her work in 2014. Cassedy admired Jamison’s skill and has even included “The Empathy Exams” in his literature classes.

“I think it is such a great model of essay writing, and though it is not exactly what I am asking my students to do, I wouldn’t mind if students took a little something from this,” Cassedy said. “An essay you write about King Lear can also be about yourself.”

Jacob Rubin, also an assistant professor of English at SMU, primarily teaches classes in creative writing. Rubin has known Jamison since their college years and has been able to watch as she continues to polish her literary skills. Though Jamison is not the only writer to adopt this particular style, she has found ways of making each work deeply personal and enlightening.

“Leslie does it as well as anyone, that combination of revealing really evocative and pungent personal narrative with really serious analytical investigation. I think in many writers the one will preclude the other, so the subjectivity of the personal narrative would prevent one from having the analytical clarity of the scholar and vice versa,” Rubin said. “That kind of erudition and analysis would prevent the inclusion of a compelling personal narrative, but Leslie is able to include both and shift from one to the other, like from paragraph to paragraph and from sentence to sentence. I think that’s one of the things that makes her writing so special.”

“That kind of erudition and analysis would prevent the inclusion of a compelling personal narrative, but Leslie is able to include both and shift from one to the other, like from paragraph to paragraph and from sentence to sentence.”

As she concluded her lecture, Jamison recognized the inescapable shortcomings journalists– or really anyone telling someone else’s story– must grapple with due to their own limited understanding.

“I have to reckon with an inevitable and ultimately productive distance, just as I have to reckon each time with the necessary limits of my own understanding, with everything that would remain mysterious,” Jamison said.

“I have to reckon with an inevitable and ultimately productive distance, just as I have to reckon each time with the necessary limits of my own understanding, with everything that would remain mysterious.”

Writers cannot ever surrender themselves entirely to their subjects, no matter how badly they may want to. They can, however, act as the listener who offers not only their ear but likely something much greater: compassion.

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