The Rumpus Book Club Chat with Leslie Jamison


The Rumpus Book Club chats with Leslie Jamison about The Empathy Exams, vulnerability, creating hybrid nonfiction, and the benefits of working with an indie press like Graywolf. 

This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.

This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.


Angela: Which piece was the easiest to write?

Leslie: Ah, it’s easier to answer which was the HARDEST, so that’s a great question. Some of the “pain tours” came out in long rushes, with that sense of urgently trying to process what had just happened, so in that sense, a kind of ease. The ease of purgation.

Lynda: Haha you’ll have to answer the hardest next then!!

Leslie: I totally set you up for that, Lynda! Fair enough. The hardest was probably the final essay. First and last, for different reasons. But GUTFP (what my editor at VQR helpfully shortened it to, the last essay) just held my brain entirely hostage for a few months. My mind literally HURT with it.

Michelle: Did you choose the order?

Angela: The pain tours were just great. Anyone who tackles Frida automatically gets bonus points.

Leslie: I did choose the order. With help and guidance. There was a formative session where my agent and I sat at a sushi restaurant with print-out copies and moved them all around the table to try out different orders.

Michelle: The way they were laid out definitely had [a] line that ran through them!

Leslie: The first and last were no-brainers. That felt necessary and cosmically ordained. But I thought for a while about things like “La Frontera” and “Morphology of the Hit”—did I want to talk about Latin American violence as a spectator or a victim first?

I’m curious if there were particular sequences or through-lines between essays that stood out?

Michelle: I saw the line of debating “is melodrama acceptable and how does it relate to empathy,” to the final piece where they necessitate each other, as the big linear revelation that stood out to me. I once had to take a whole semester class in empathy. This was much more enjoyable!

Amanda: Hi there. Loved the book. Thank you for really making yourself so vulnerable to the reader and sharing so many aspects of your personal history. I really related to a lot of what you wrote. I’m curious about the story you referenced in the last essay…the one [where] you wonder if you ex-boyfriend ever read. What is it called and where can I find it? : )

Leslie: That story is called “Quiet Men” and you can find it here.

Michelle: You put so much of yourself in your writing. Which essay, when people comment on, makes you feel most vulnerable?

Leslie: And thanks for that Frida shout-out, Angela. I think I have more to say about her, someday. About her paintings.

Thanks for those words, Amanda. Confessional writing is hard for lots of reasons, so it’s nice to know when it hits, [it] does its work.

Guest: Leslie, speaking of timing—could you comment on when you first realized you were writing a collection of essays centered on empathy, and how long it took to finally see them through to printed form?

Leslie: It was really the process of writing the title essay—which came about halfway through the essays—that made me start thinking about gathering pieces into a collection. “Empathy” emerged for me as the piece of thread that I wanted all the rock crystals to cling to—that maybe they were already clinging to, without my realizing it.

dc: It reads, to me, very differently than other books of essays. It carries itself as one piece or as separate pieces. So I think, to answer your question—the whole book stands out as a whole. Did you know, going into “In Defense of Saccharin(e),” that you would sorta bookend it with the Madame Bovary quote? Because man was that great.

Leslie: I love that comment about the symbiosis between melodrama and empathy emerging as a narrative across pieces, or the culmination of a tension. That feels right-on to me.

It’s funny, the Bovary thread in “Saccharin(e)” was a nice piece of synchronicity—I was reading that novel as I started thinking about artificial sweeteners and getting defensive about my own feeling of using them, and these weird cross-currents started emerging.

(I don’t use as many artificial sweeteners as I did in 2006, by the way, when I wrote that essay.)

Brian S: How long did it take you to stop itching after writing the Morgellons piece?

Leslie: Ha! Great question. Have I stopped?

Angela: Seriously.

Leslie: Have you stopped?

dc: I haven’t stopped!

Lynda: I was just about to write that—I think I”m still itching from it.

Leslie: Well, that makes a little crowd. Because my dad hasn’t stopped either.

Brian S: I’ve always been itchy, I’ve had to fight the impulse to look for wires in my skin.

Leslie: To answer an earlier question about timing—I wrote the “Saccharin(e)” piece earliest, in 2006, which means 8 years total from first piece to final printing.

Seriously, Brian? Why wires? Is this where I say: try having a f-ing maggot?

Lynda: That was a real eye opener to me—I had no idea. What was it like living amongst the Morgellons people for the duration? Were you compelled to keep in touch with any of them or follow their stories after you bailed on the conference? I would have left for the pool at some point too!

Brian S: I saw that episode of Bones with the blowfly. NOPENOPENOPENOPENOPE!!!

dc: Bones is awesome.

Leslie: To answer your question about Morgellons, Lynda, I have kept in touch with a few folks—mainly Cindy, who organizes the conference and yes, I do wonder how they are doing.

Rebecca: Hi everyone! Hi Leslie! So excited to chat about this collection of essays that I loved so much.

Leslie: Thanks, Rebecca! This conversation is basically my dream come true as a writer. I love thinking of these pieces as catalysts—this is the perfect manifestation of that.

Amanda: Also loved the two essays about running—well, the one about running and the one about the runner. Were those published before in a running magazine or something? I’m a runner and feel like I’d read them before.

dc: Well, the conversation is going strong even outside of this chat. I work at big Independent Bookstore, and the staff is IN LOVE.

Leslie: About the running pieces—they were both published before, but not in running magazines (in The Believer and Oxford American) but Charlie Engle’s story has gotten coverage in a lot of places including the NYTimes and Outside, so you might have read about him elsewhere.

For those who are interested—they are making a documentary about the Barkley Marathons that looks superb. And it all started when they read my essay, which makes me blush a little—but the whole story/saga/phenom really lends itself to a cinematic treatment. You can see the bloody briar-sawed legs.

Guest: Hi Leslie, as a chronic disease sufferer and life drama expert, how did you feel with the acting to the parts of your life that were real… BTW, I really want to be a med actor as I have been there and done the strangest things, so I’d love to learn how you fell into it.

Brian S: Did any of these essays start out as jobs, i.e longform journalism?

Leslie: Not really, Brian, because I am terrible at pitching successfully, so most of them I sold to magazines after they’d already been written (i.e. the Barkley piece and the Morgellons piece). The piece on Charlie was a piece of longform writing for Oxford American, which is a pretty kickass magazine and very open to hybrid-style stuff.

Michelle: What happened to Charlie? Did you keep in touch after he left prison?

Leslie: About Charlie—yes, we’ve kept in touch since he got out of prison. We even talked briefly about my working with him on his memoir but both decided that might not be the best idea 🙂

Guest: Did you keep in touch and have any really funny moments you couldn’t include in your essays about the med students?

Lara: I love when you confessed your fears of contagion at the Morgellons conference. I’m sure I would have experienced similar thoughts, likely to the point of distraction—or even obsession? When you wrote about leaving to sit by the pool, I discovered new trust in your voice. You often wrote about the very concerns that entered my own mind when I imagined myself in your position, as well as my anguish over realizing I was reflecting on what my personal reactions might be above what those who suffer from the disease would be experiencing.

Leslie: Hey Lara, thank you for that. I think I write some of those moments because in my own life as I reader I experience real moments of alienation when a writer feels too perfect, or like even the flaws they are admitting are somehow noble, or dysfunctional in an overly edgy, aesthetically pleasing way. If that makes sense. I just wanted to get some of my own lameness out there to communicate the stakes of being there; how I wasn’t entirely rising to the moment.

Dulcie: I’m surprised you didn’t get OCD just going to the conference… itching and thinking still hasn’t left my mind.

dc: I imagine you could write a thousand more pages on the Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain. Do you think you’ll write more about it, or did you write your say?

Leslie: Yes, the truth of Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain is it’s really only the PARTIAL unified theory of female pain. I would like to write a version of that piece that engages more explicitly with major feminist thinkers and the various waves.

Brian S: What’s the name of the bar in New Orleans? I grew up down there. I was sadly a fan of the drive-thru daiquiri store.

Leslie: Brian, I was too drunk to keep the name of that bar in memory.

Brian S: Ha!

Leslie: I also had to change the name of that boyfriend!

Michelle: I really liked how you sorted out discerning biological pain and pathological pain in that piece. That is right in line with my everyday job as a labor and delivery nurse. I think that piece offered some grace to women!

Leslie: That bit about sensitivity being a result of a need to discern between kinds of pain was really a revelation from that scientific study for me, Michelle. Though I imagine your job teaches you about it every day.

Dulcie: Were there any topics you wish you would have included in the book…or anything that you have found empathy for or in recently that you’d like to capture in the future, or is this it for empathy?

Leslie: Dulcie, great question. I was actually joking around with my editor that my next book will just be called MORE Empathy Exams because that’s really all I want to write.

dc: Write it!

Leslie: Right now I want to work on a piece about a rehabilitation center for acid attack victims in Cambodia. because I just can’t get enough.

And that teacher was Jorie Graham, fyi. Probably no surprises there. (She is, at it happens, one of the most intelligent teachers I have ever had. and she actually apologized for that moment.)

Rebecca: Still catching up to the comments (I’m 23 behind now!), but just wanted to say w/r/t the Bones blowfly episode: I was dating an entomologist (long-distance) when I saw that ep and asked him how he felt about incubating a blowfly… and he said he’d do it, too. Um. I don’t know why we didn’t stop dating right after that. I honestly don’t.

Lynda: How did writing the book make you more or less empathetic? Has your attitude on empathy changed over time?

dc: The part about the teacher being all put-off by hearing Sylvia Plath, killed me! Because I get it. I have fallen, embarrassingly, into that camp of separation/backlash.

Dulcie: I have to say as a former patient advocate and educator I find myself falling into the empathy role more than I should, but there is also a lot of humor I find in empathy…what was your favorite funny moment during this series of essays?

Lara: Leslie, that’s exactly how your intentions came across. I was so impressed by your ability to navigate that friction and sense of guilt as you explored devastating topics while also frequently respecting and calling attention to your privilege as an outsider to many of the situations you address. I could pull so many examples of moments where you made it clear you weren’t speaking down to anyone, only asking questions, and inviting us all to contemplate the necessary answers. That sense of asking—that’s what will have me pondering these essays for a long time to come.

Leslie: It’s my great hope that there will be something funny in this book for people because I do think empathy holds that—it’s often awkward, and dark stuff needs its moments of pressure release.

Rebecca: Jorie Graham! Stephen Burt wrote in his collection of essays about poetry (Close Calls with Nonsense) that Jorie Graham’s The End of Beauty was a major turning point for American poetry, so I want to read that AND I have all this secondhand respect for her (is that a thing? secondhand respect?).

Brian S: How’d you like Iowa City—the place, not the program. I’m just down the road in Des Moines and am oddly fond of Iowa.

Leslie: Funny moments for me in this book: a good portion of the words that came out of Laz’s mouth at Barkley; when medical actors forgot I was acting and started really treating me like the person; that self-defense class where girls kept ramping up the violence stakes. Serious church giggles.

Rebecca: I thought this collection was really accessible for people who don’t normally read CNF—in the tradition of essayists like Joan Didion and Phillip Lopate (though less cranky than he is). Did you read much Didion, etc.?

Dulcie: I agree with the release and how some can see that part of empathy as dark but sometimes as part of that world, we need that release and people are thankful for it.

Leslie: Lara—THANK YOU.

Dulcie I’m so grateful to people who are able to create small trap doors inside moments of despair, to streak them with light. It’s total grace.

I am a Burt fan! Just did a panel with him at the last AWP. He is a force of nature.

Rebecca: Yes, I’ve read a lot of Didion. She is one of the godmothers I struggle against—I have awe for her work, and feel her voice has bled into mine in ways I can’t even fully recognize, but I also resist some moments in her and so she shapes me in the ways I resist her as well.

I feel like I am learning SO much with these essays. I created/write for a poetry blog, and his insight is blowing away my own readings.

dc: Ultimately I didn’t have to HAVE empathy for any of the subjects/characters. I admired them. And learned about my own limits/horizons of empathy.

Rebecca: Of course, he teaches at Yale, right?

Leslie: Burt is at Harvard.

Brian S: Eh. 6 of one. *ducks*

Leslie: Harvard: Yale :: IC : Des Moines

Rebecca: Ugh. Yes. That’s it! I was just trying to figure out Harvard v. Yale in the English faculty wars, and I pick Harvard.

Leslie: Re: Iowa. I love it. I totally love it.

Rebecca: I think these essays are more accessible to people who don’t read CNF on a regular basis because they’re personal and empathetic and do the reporter thing while also inserting yourself in there. It’s what Montaigne would’ve done if he had tools to investigate, I think. Your curiosity drives most of the essays—and I think that’s what’s inviting for readers.

Leslie: Yes, and learning the edges or limits or sources of friction in empathy was one of the big issues for me—so it makes sense, dc, that you would feel some of that.

dc: I think empathy is often cloaked in our own actions and reactions and until we really analyze it we may not see it…I know that’s how it is for me….Leslie?

Angela: (I wish there was a *like* button)

Rebecca: The other reason I think the essays are so accessible is that you’re writing about things not everyone has written about. There’s an element of learning there.

Leslie: Empathy is cloaked in our actions—as in, we might be experiencing empathy but not realize it’s empathy? Or the empathy might be tangled up with other motivations we can’t recognize?

Rebecca: (I’m primarily a CNF writer, btw.)

Leslie: Those thoughts resonate, Rebecca. And I’ve been thinking so much about writing as a gift to readers—and how newness of subject (place or topic or person) is one of the biggest gifts at our disposal. I like thinking of the writer as a kind of curator; the collection as curiosity cabinet—in a non-demeaning, non-objectifying sense—but an array, a set of offerings.

Rebecca: Yes! That’s it—doesn’t someone have a collection of essays with curiosity cabinet in a title? Maybe?

Michelle: I think that empathy is only possible after a certain level of self-awareness. You have to be able to put aside figuring yourself out so you don’t project your experience onto others.

Lara: Leslie, answering your question at 6:29, one sentence in particular in “Morphology of the Hit”: “Now we’re out of order and we’ve hardly begun.” In other words, a recognition that rules can be limiting (dangerous, even), and that breaking them can reveal necessary and important ways of seeing. I felt few restrictions while reading this book. I’m guessing you still felt several while writing it, though.

Rebecca: Just out of curiosity, because [this] was a Graywolf Nonfiction Prize winner a couple of years ago, how closely did Graywolf work with you? At what stage were you when you won the prize?

Leslie: Snaps for Michelle. I think self-awareness is key, so you’re not just doing that colonial/invasive/tyrannical thing of projecting.

dc: I read An Unnecessary Woman recently and the narrator talks about CNF/memoirs as “whine, whine, whine, epiphany.” They can be fun, well-written, but not memorable. Yours is memorable. It isn’t a poor me. It’s a poor us, and an amazing us. All at once. Anyway, your book is like reading peanut butter. It’s gonna stick with me.

Leslie: The Lucy Grealy problem! The title that has already been used by an incredible writer for an incredible book.

Dulcie: Love Lucy Grealy!

Leslie: I am going to link my responses to TWO questions at once. Watch this.


Did I feel restrictions while writing? And what role did Graywolf play?

To be honest, I felt very few restrictions while writing this book. Part of that was that I felt A LOT of restrictions in this big historical novel I was trying to write—and the essays were like escape hatches, where I could do whatever I wanted.

BUT it was totally necessary for me to be working with Graywolf rather than a big New York house because they let me make this book what it is: a hybrid with bits of memoir, bits of criticism, and bits of reportage. Where a bigger house probably would have pushed for more standard memoir fare. So a big part of my freedom was working with Graywolf.

Ana: What do you see as the real transformative value in empathy? Or is there any?

Angela: I think the essays work because you do a nice job of leaving me space to explore empathy without telling me how I should feel.

Rebecca: Lucy Grealy! Gah. I keep trying to read her memoir but then I know I’m going to cry and identify and I almost can’t do it. (I don’t finish it, anyway.) I think all of those feelings that she feels about wanting to be disregarded for her face/left alone and then at the same time wanting someone to recognize she’s special is too much for me.

Ana: I ask because I see an acknowledgement of the importance of empathy but also an awareness—like with Agee and your interview at the end—that the project of guilt (which empathy can slip into) can actually threaten to undermine urgency, create a false sense of absolution.

Angela: You don’t sympathize with what you KNOW I am creeping out about, for example.

Leslie: Side note: GRAYWOLF IS AN AMAZING PUBLISHER. Really and truly. They are wonderful people and an incredible force in American letters.

Rebecca: I’ve thought about submitting a manuscript to the prize, but you have to have a first book out—and also, my manuscript is a mess right now.

Leslie: Ana—I like your two questions. They feel related, to me. What’s the value in empathy and what’s the danger in having feelings (guilt, empathy, what have you) that don’t actually change anything, if they give you the sense that something good has happened just because you’ve felt something?

Rebecca: I mostly just wondered if your essays were “done” when you submitted or if you had more ideas but they weren’t finished, etc. And also anything you want to tell, because the prize seems explicit in that they want to guide you. (And with Graywolf, I trust that they’re not overbearing, so I wondered what that meant.)

Dulcie: For those who have a hard time with Grealy, try reading Truth & Beauty by Ann Pachett…great in combo and interesting “truth” and “empathy” throughout both books.

Ana: Yes—I often think about the questions, especially around “awareness” campaigns.

Leslie: I think of empathy as a set of cumulative effects, ideally—that it can be a force shaping your habits, shaping where you put your attention and then—if you’re hard on yourself, in good ways—pushing you to translate that attention into action, on whatever scale.

That’s interesting—like, what good is “awareness” on its own? Is it good on its own?

Rebecca: I want to read Ann Patchett’s memoir, but I thought I’d read Lucy Grealy’s memoir first so it’s not colored by Ann Patchett (and I don’t mean that in a negative way).

Michelle: Being heard always has value to the person speaking. Which is what empathy conveys in the moment.

Dulcie: Try both at once I think it may make you be able to get through Grealy who inspires me so much as I write my own pieces.

Leslie: I submitted about 110 or 120 pages of writing to Graywolf that was pretty polished—those essays were pretty much done, there were just a lot of essays that remained to be written.

And they weren’t overbearing at all, actually. They let me take the collection where I wanted, pretty much—while offering some key thoughts on how various pieces might be stitched together, some notes struck across pieces or deleted where they were getting repetitive.

Rebecca: Oooh. I want that kind of guidance!

Lara: Is the historical novel still in the works? (Sorry I’m so far behind in this thread…!)

Ana: But that goes back to Morgellons.

Lara: What essays remained to be written after your original submission to Graywolf?

dc: Did your heart ever get re-zapped?

Leslie: Many very different questions! No, my heart never got re-zapped. But I’m on meds that work very nicely.

dc: Yay meds!

Ana: That makes me think—do you ever feel over-share with these essays?

Leslie: The historical novel (about the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua) is on pause for an indefinite period of time. I haven’t given up! We just needed to give each other space.

Rebecca: How do you think your background as a fiction writer influenced your creative nonfiction?

Leslie: The essays that I wrote after winning the prize: Morgellons, Grand Unified Theory, gang tours, Fog Count. Those are the big ones.

Ana: I feel like that comes up a lot in the book club chats—by writing personal essays/memoirs to what sense do you consent to putting yourself on display and what is up for judgment (like your question at that reading about letting the boy in).

Michelle: I thought about this too, and wondered which essay felt like it made you the most vulnerable and exposed?

Leslie: I never felt “overshare” in writing the essays—partially because I never set out with the intention of wanting to share a particular experience; it’s more like I’m answering a question and sometimes—but not always—personal experience feels like one necessary way to tackle that question. it would feel somehow incomplete to leave it out. it’s like the essay has a shape or feel and the personal experience is necessary to fill it out.

Dulcie: For those of us who struggle with memoir due to putting it in the right order and theme do you think essays helped you really focus on your stories? Do you think you may have under-shared?

Leslie: But yes, sometimes I do feel exposed. I have this kind of theory about different channels or levels of relaying experience—when I tell someone, one on one, in a personal context, about something that’s happened to me—that has a very different valence, a different charge, than when/if I’ve said it in a public forum.

Ana: Huh, interesting.

Rebecca: I sometimes feel like if someone is reading something about me instead of me telling it, it becomes art and I’m less affected by someone knowing something so personal about me. Do you feel that way?

“Reading about me” meaning “reading what I’ve written” instead of me telling, out loud, a story.

Gah. That was not clear at all.

Dulcie: Interesting, because when I work I feel the more “raw,” the better, so that it doesn’t seem all pretty and like a prescript-ed happy ending.

Leslie: Yes, Rebecca, I think that art/telling divide is part of what I’m getting at with my theory about channels. But I’m honestly just starting to figure this out, as I get to know people who have read about things in my work and then I realize how important it is to me to create a separate conversation where we talk about something—where it comes to light in a personal dynamic between us.

I think it’s a good sign when we are writing stuff that isn’t clear! When the small boxes aren’t enough! It means we are getting into the tangle.

Rebecca: When I’m more raw, I’m more eager to lash out in writing—and not see the other person’s perspective. I come out as more petty. When I give it time, I see the bigger picture (mostly, sometimes).

Dulcie: Are you afraid that not sharing makes you seem distant from your own experiences?

Leslie: And Dulcie, I think your question about under-sharing is fascinating. There are many moments where I feel a tension between how much would be required to make the piece feel full (aesthetic richness) and how much I’m willing to share—especially when it comes to other peoples’ lives, other peoples’ secrets.

Rebecca: Thank you, Leslie. Makes me feel better.

Leslie: I think that I’m also better able to see other perspectives when I’m less hurt, less smarting in the moment.

Rebecca: Don’t you think the amount of sharing you’re doing really comes down to the piece you’re writing, as in some require more sharing than others? I always think about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and how long she waited to write it. 15 years later means she can put it in some perspective.

Ana: But you discuss quantifying pain at the end and position your perspective as central to the essays often (pain tours). You must have some sense of sharing as an act of privilege/political statement.

Rebecca: I guess I’m saying sometimes the rawness works, sometimes it doesn’t. Which seems obvious, I guess?

Leslie: I do—which is part of why I think about it in terms of the particular questions posed by a piece—what sorts of investigation (into self, into culture, etc.) are required. Maybe my body is relevant, maybe it’s not. It’s a potential direction, no more or less intrinsically valuable than others except I happen to know a lot about it.

Ana: Side note: I’m curious, as a PhD student, what field you are most anxious (or maybe not at all) about the reception for the book.

Rebecca: At this point, do you feel called more towards fiction or nonfiction? And, if something interesting happens that you want to write about, how do you make the decision to write it as fiction or nonfiction?

Brian S: (Come to poetry. Come to the dark side.)

Leslie: Ana: I do think sharing is a function of privilege; and clearly my own privilege is a major subject—or at least a background made explicit—in many of these essays. I’m curious about how your sense of political valences connects to your question about oversharing.

Ana: That resonates with me (“I happen to know a lot about”). I feel like at times, writing your truth can feel like a negation of others’, but at the same time it is your starting point.

dc: What is the best book you have read recently?

Leslie: Also curious what your PhD is in (Ana).

Ana: Oh no—I meant you as a PhD candidate.

Leslie: I get anxious about tons of fields receiving these pieces. I would say it varies with each piece. For “La Frontera,” for example, I felt some anxiety about how various Mexican artists would take it—

I guess generally speaking, I’m most anxious about how it feels to whomever is “inside” whatever group I’m writing about as an outsider.

Dulcie: And that’s where empathy needs to play a role versus straight controversy. I would guess.

Leslie: Ah, Ana, I see. I do think a lot of time in the academy makes me think a lot about how my work will get critiqued. And I also want to talk more about this idea of speaking truth as negation of others—what’s the answer, then? Isn’t there a sort of paralysis at the end of that logic? While obviously something valuable in the attempt to address/make room for other perspectives?

Re: fiction vs. nonfiction. I am definitely writing almost entirely nonfiction these days. But I think part of that was because I was putting so much pressure on my fiction—I needed to take some weight off its shoulders, and I’ve done that. So I feel a kind of stomach flutter about it: I might return. I will someday.

Ana: Absolutely there is a sense of paralysis.

Dulcie: I would use the comparison in the pieces in the book of that of being a bird-watcher and actually trying to understand the inner workings of the bird and its life.

Rebecca: Yes! Score one for creative nonfiction! (Brian, THIS is the real dark side.)

Leslie: But I do think being a fiction writer made me aware of lots of things—particularly weird, surprising details—how the details of a life can often be more interesting than the explicit narrative offered at the surface. That sense of picking around the edges of a room to find what matters.

dc: (Brian, maybe I’d better join the Poetry Book Club too—where is the help group for spending all your money on books?)

Brian S: That help group is far, far away and we don’t know where it is anyway. :-p

dc: Ha ha, Brian!

Leslie: I like that comparison, Dulcie. And my step-father, an avid bird-watcher, might as well (though I’m not sure he should).

Michelle: Did you answer what books you are most excited about right now? Did I miss it?

Leslie: Ah! I knew I missed something. Maggie Nelson’s Art of Cruelty, Hilton Als’s White Girls.

Ana: I guess I just spend a lot of time thinking about how having the means to share/a platform to share is a sort of privilege and, sometimes, wonder if sharing my own truth cleaves to a sort of greater narrative I don’t want to reinforce.

Lara: “I’m giving you this” are the words of Charlie in “Fog Count.” They’ve replayed in my mind since I read them, and changed the way I view some of the essays in Empathy Exams. Do you feel a sense of obligation to give back to the lives of those whose stories these essays carry? Perhaps this book is a way of paying them tribute, or paying them forward? You wrote earlier in this thread: “I’ve been thinking so much about writing as a gift to readers.” It’s an exchange, I think. You’ve taught me a lot about the gift of attention.

Angela: Yes, on Nelson

dc: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was so amazing.

Leslie: Charlie D’Ambrosio’s book Loitering, which comes out in November and includes the essays in Orphans—for those of you who know that book. D’Ambrosio’s essays are fucking amazing. Seriously.

Learn more about The Rumpus Book Club here. More from this author →