The Mentor Series: Leslie Jamison and Elizabeth McCracken
For the fifth installment of The Mentor Series, we’re very pleased to bring you this conversation between Leslie Jamison and her mentor Elizabeth McCracken.
Leslie Jamison is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Recovering and The Empathy Exams, as well as the novel The Gin Closet. Her new essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, will be released by Little, Brown & Company tomorrow. A National Magazine Award finalist, she has contributed to publications including the New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, the Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Oxford American. She lives in Brooklyn and directs the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University.
Elizabeth McCracken, twice nominated for the National Book Award, is the author of six books: Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, The Giant’s House, Niagara Falls All Over Again, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, and Bowlaway. She’s received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Liguria Study Center, the American Academy in Berlin, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Thunderstruck & Other Stories won the 2015 Story Prize. She has taught creative writing at Western Michigan University, the University of Oregon, the University of Houston, and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She holds the James A. Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas, Austin, and boy are her arms tired.
Their musings about capital-L longing; the differences, if you will, in writing fiction versus nonfiction; and the punctuation manifesto is instructive and inspiring.
– Monet Patrice Thomas, Interviews Editor
Leslie Jamison: It feels fitting to commune with you this August, because it was fifteen Augusts ago—as if we were living in a fairy tale—that I first walked into your classroom in Iowa. I was twenty-one years old, vibrating with nerves and desire, smoking my cloves on the wooden porch of Dey House, with the absurd, bristling green lushness of Iowa all around, and you seemed made of velvet and magic: sharp with wit and soft with kindness, nicer than a writer had any business being. Which came as a relief! I’d always been embarrassingly nice, and worried it disqualified me from being a Real Writer.
I remember many things from your workshop, but one of them is that you treated all our characters so tenderly. You were so attuned to their various longings. I felt that in your work, too, as I was falling in love with Peggy’s love for James and his impossibly ambitious body, with its untenable tallness; or the lost, tentatively reaching souls in Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry? And then reading Bowlaway this summer, I was struck all over again by your acute, unsentimental attention to longing, especially unsatisfied longing. (Maybe that’s the only kind of longing?) Margaret, for example: she wants to love a girl who doesn’t need her as a mother; she wants to eat all the candy in the world; she wants a little room with a purple chenille blanket and a lumpy glass lamp; she wants things so hard and for so long she becomes afraid of her own longing. I read that line and felt X-rayed! So I thought maybe we could start by talking about longing, because it was one of the great shaping forces for me as I wrote these essays, too.
How does longing help you understand your characters, or express them? How do you think we’re shaped by the things we long for? How does that unfulfilled longing offer a different set of contours than the way we’re defined by what we have, or what we get?
Elizabeth McCracken: Fifteen years ago! That astonishes me. I remember you and your work so clearly and fondly—I even remember which room our workshop was in, and where you sat in the class, and who sat near you. You were very shy (as you say in The Recovering) but astonishingly smart in your critiques.
Longing! It’s the great subject, isn’t it? I’m thinking of the wonderful first section of the entirely wonderful Make It Scream, Make It Burn called “Longing,” which I find interesting to meditate on since those essays by and large are wishing for things that can’t be attained or even really known with any certainty, never mind embraced. No chance of requitement (which is a word, no matter what my spell check says—funny how mostly we’re left with unrequited love, no verb form, no noun—speaking of longing). Anyhow (sorry, I’m digressive and prone to parentheticals at the best of times): whale, dead theoretical previous owner of your soul, synthetic people. So permalonging.
I love how you write about cynicism and belief and sincerity and skepticism and how they fold over each other. That electrifying ending to “We Tell Ourselves Stories to Live Again”: “We are safe, or else we aren’t. We live, until we don’t. We return, unless we can’t.”
Maybe the spark that results from the friction between belief and disbelief is longing. Longing suggests something darker than hope. A person can decide to give up hope.
It’s possible—though I’m also prone to saying this kind of thing before I know whether I agree with it or not—that essentially longing is plot, or narrative, a thing born in the past and straining toward the future. When I hear the word I think of a character at a tilt, arms out, reaching for the end of the story. That old canard of fiction classes (which I’m not sure I’ve ever said aloud in a class but don’t disagree with): what does the character want? It does feel to me that the surest way to really know a person you’re writing about (fictional or non-) is to know what they long for: longing exists that that intersection of the private and the personal.
Jamison: I love your image of a character with her arms out, reaching for the end of the story. I remember a Wiccan man in prison in Ohio (another story) once telling me that if someone ever learns your true, secret name, and pronounces that name, then he can drain all of your psychic energy—maybe our deepest longings must remain unnamed by that same logic. Thinking about that character with outstretched arms, I’m struck by how many of your characters are outsiders or oddballs. In a sense, of course, who else would we possibly want to read about? We only want to read about the popular girl laughing with her friends on the bleachers once we realize she’s desperately unhappy, too. But your work feels simultaneously invested in outsiders and in the spaces where they find some provisional, fleeting, surprising community. I’m thinking of the bowling alley in Bowlaway and all the folks who might have some temporary or partial home there. I’m wondering how you think about outcasts and community—how these things come together for you? How the work flicks back and forth between them?
And returning to that character lurching through the story, with her arms grasping toward some kind of ending—do you think consciously about giving your characters the things they yearn for? Or not giving them the things they yearn for? Or giving them things they didn’t know they were yearning for? What do you place in their outstretched arms?
McCracken: Now that you’ve told me about the Wiccan Man, I’m obsessed with this thought: sure, if you say the name “Bloody Mary” three times in a mirror, you’ll conjure her up, but how does Bloody Mary feel about that? She probably doesn’t want to be conjured up. At the very least, she wants to be invited places that aren’t slumber parties.
I do write about oddballs a lot, though this is my culture: I am an Oddball American, from generations of them. I kind of don’t mean that as a joke. When I was in the workshop I still had quite a few relatives in Des Moines (my mother was a native Iowan) and one school break my friend Karen, who was driving west from Iowa City, dropped me off and met a few of them and then said to our friends, “You might think Elizabeth doesn’t write realistic fiction. I’ve met her family, and she writes extremely realistic fiction.” My short story characters tend to be mostly less eccentric; not sure why that is—though perhaps it’s because they’re also less historical. The past is peculiar. The present is peculiar too, of course, we’re just inured to its peculiarities. What outfits do we not even notice that will be in forty years the equivalent of the chevron-patterned crocheted jumpsuits that have entire websites devoted to them?
Or to put it another way: I like Dickens, and I think he’s more true-to-life than people give him credit for.
You’re right, I’m always interested in community and public spaces, no doubt because of my years in public libraries. The private self sharpened against the outside world compels me—I feel as though that’s one of your topics, too: the urge to share a child’s possible past life, or your simulated Second Life; Annie’s photographs of María’s family and then your description of Annie as she takes them; all the exhibitions in the Museum of Broken Hearts. Even in “The Quickening,” when it’s your own private life. You write so beautifully about that sort of concentrated light flashing into a darkened room when the door just starts to open, and then what happens ever after.
A lot of your essays are—this is one of my very, very favorite genres of nonfiction—about things that, if you wrote about them in fiction, people would moan about excessive symbolism, or say the notion was too far-fetched. (“I just didn’t buy it,” I can hear an irksome person say in workshop.) A whale known only by his voice! A museum of broken hearts! An entirely synthesized life that is deeply emotionally compelling! Real life is highly symbolic, and I love how you write about that, how it deepens in the essay to be about both the symbols and our need for them to fit together into narrative.
I have all sorts of questions for you about how your essays come to be and how that’s different from your fiction, but let me try to sum it up: do you separate out your reporting from your writing, or, once you know what you’re writing about, do you think about the final project as you research? In other words, when does the narrative kick in for you?
Jamison: Sometimes I feel like a bit of a Bloody Mary figure when it comes to haunting certain subjects in my writing, always showing up once more in the mirror, Oh no! Not her again! It’s like I can get as far afield as I please in terms of the surfaces of my subjects—digital paradise, Civil War photography, evil stepmothers in fairy tales—but the core subjects will always remain the same: empathy and its limits, intimacy and its limits, representation and its limits. I’m always showing up to the same parties with my sleeping bag and my notebook full of questions.
I love how you framed the question: When does the narrative kick in for you? Whether I’m reporting or writing personally, it’s always been important for me not to let narrative kick in too soon. Or rather, to be suspicious of narrative when it rings the doorbell an hour early and tries to convince me to let it in. Because I know it’s my nature to try to construct the story prematurely—”Second Life is a digital DIY refuge for outcasts!” “My frequent-flier father gave birth to my longing for absent men!”—and I want to remain curious and open, attuned to the more complicated stories that live underneath the plot lines that occur to me first, what I sometimes—at least when I’m dealing with personal material—refer to as the “cocktail party versions,” the succinct, overly neat, overly snappy elevator pitch of the psychology at play.
When it comes to reportage, this is part of why I’m terrible at pitches. How could I possibly tell an editor what the story is going to be before I’ve reported the piece? Sometimes I don’t even know what the guiding questions are going to be before I’ve reported the piece—I have to go in there with the questions I think are driving me, but I ultimately end up taking the weird, shadowy little path forking away from the main path, and that’s where I find the story I most want to tell.
It’s important for me to surprise myself as I write. I’m always surprised when I’m reporting—unless I’m really doing my job wrong, or being terribly obtuse, or asking all the wrong questions. But I also surprise myself when I dig back into memory, when I interrogate the stories I’ve always told myself about my own life, and when I revise a piece to zero in on the places where it’s overly simple or pat. That quality of surprise is part of why I think of revision as a fundamentally creative and exciting act.
For this recent collection, I revised several essays I’d written four and five years earlier—not just tweaked, but earnestly revised—and in those revisions, unearthed more complicated ideas lurking beneath what I’d already written: I discovered connections between reincarnation and 12-step recovery I hadn’t known were there; I discovered that my obsession with absent men wasn’t about wanting them to be present so much as it was about finding a certain amount of comfort in their distance.
I love revision as a constant turning of the screw. That sense of excitement is a really important part of my pedagogy, too—it’s why I think something vital and primal and dynamic and alive is happening in workshop, as we help people think harder about the phantom unwritten essays lying buried beneath the essays they’ve already written. And I bring the energy of discovery that happens in workshop back to my own revisions.
All of this makes me wonder about the feedback loop between your teaching and your writing. I see so many lines of resonance between them, particularly in your deeply human attention to characters—whether you’ve created them, or someone else has—but I wonder what the lines of resonance are for you. How do your teaching and writing feed each other? Do they feed each other?
McCracken: I love what you say about revision. Me, too. The trick for all writing but especially books, I think, is making sure the material doesn’t seize up on you, so that revising is as pleasurable and full of possibility as creation. The older I get the less I recognize the difference between composition and revision: they seem the same thing.
If you’d asked me seven years or so ago whether there was a connection between my writing and teaching, I would have said no. (I would have been wrong.) For many years, my calendar was divided. For one semester a year, I taught—usually at Iowa, but not always—and I put all my time into it. Then I went off to write somewhere else. This worked well until it didn’t. Even after Edward and I had kids, we shifted around a bit, but finally I took a permanent, full-time job in 2010, when I was forty-four.
Then I realized how much I’d been fooling myself. For me, teaching and writing are entirely, happily conjoined. They share a liver and a circulatory system, even though I think they have separate hearts. When I teach I tell students that whenever somebody is talking about your work, they’re really talking to themselves about their own work. God willing what they say is something you need to hear; certainly it’s something they need to hear. Me, too, goddammit. Anything I say about student work is something I need to hear, and I can only hope it’s useful for the writer whose work I’m marking up.
These days I tell my graduate students that one of the major reasons they’re in graduate school is to develop their own manifestoes about writing. What writing should do, what they believe are its essential qualities, what they most dream about its possibilities. Persnickety stuff, too, like deep analysis of their feelings about punctuation. There’s very little I can teach any student directly. I can only try to help them think the most interesting thoughts they can.
Recently I’ve become more aware that as I teach I am developing my own theories of what fiction can do—what a short story can do that a novel can’t, and vice-versa; the liberties of autobiographical fiction versus the liberties of memoir; etc.—and so I’m thinking grander thoughts and that worms its way into my own work. I absolutely think that I write better, more interesting short stories than I did when I was younger because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to write better stories of all kinds, not just how to improve the sorts of stories I thought I was interested in.
Also: I grow old, I grow old, and I am so grateful to have the chance to talk to younger writers. I have a horror of becoming a period piece, to think that what seemed important in both form and content when I was in graduate school is how art should therefore be forever.
So here is my last question to you, and I will try to make it not too open-ended. You got an MFA in fiction; you’ve published a wonderful novel but your great success came with nonfiction; how do those two things feed each other?
Jamison: A punctuation manifesto! I think I’ve been writing one for years, without realizing I was doing just that. I think of punctuation in the same way I think about fevers: it’s surface evidence of some deep internal struggle; our use of punctuation can give us so much information about our desires and vulnerabilities as writers, our deep compulsions.
How do they feed each other? There are tons of pragmatic ways that I think my life as a fiction writer feeds my nonfiction: my intentions around building characters (seeing real-life figures as “characters” I need to build on the page); my commitment to scene and specificity; my devotion to sensory detail as a force compelling me to be a better reporter in the field…(On that last, it’s as if the future writer who will sit at the computer, with her novelist’s desire to create the texture of the world in all its glorious particularity, is constantly perched on the soldier of the flailing reporter who just wants to pack it up and go home, saying, No! You have to write down EXACTLY WHAT KIND of carnivorous plant this man has growing in his garden, so you can put it in the piece later on… And what color are its deadly pitchers? And what insects does it eat?)
But I think the truth is that fiction and nonfiction come with such different kinds of liberty, and writing in each allows me to experience more fully and viscerally the freedoms of the other—it sharpens them into focus. The freedoms of fiction are more obvious—you can make shit up! You can change the end of the story!—but when I first started writing essays, I felt like nonfiction granted me the freedom to think on the page as directly and explicitly as I wanted to, and it gave me the freedom to respond to things (other art, other lives, my own life) rather than generating it all from the confines of my head; and that felt intensely liberating. I’m not saying these are truths of each genre—you can think on the page in fiction, and it’s absolutely a way of responding to the world as well—but nonfiction allowed me to inhabit different postures of thinking and feeling, and somehow its contrast to fiction—the thrilling vertigo of moving from one to the other—felt energizing, jarring in the best ways.
Ultimately there’s something shared between them—for me, I think—that’s less about resting anywhere, in any mode or any vein of permission, and more about shuttling between realms of possibility, or directions of gaze: moving back and forth between digging deep into the self and launching far away from the self—no matter what I’m writing, or how I’m writing—that call and response always feels close to the core, that boomerang of looking away and returning.
Photograph of Elizabeth McCracken by Edward Carey. Photograph of Leslie Jamison by Beowulf Sheehan.
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