Books In Conversation
with Eric Farwell
(Little, Brown and Company, 2018)
In many ways, I owe my privilege of being able to write to Leslie. Her candidness and ability to structure essays around complicated subjects stuck with me, providing a blueprint for what I wanted my writing to resemble. Even now, when I show my first-year students “The Devil’s Bait” so that they can understand how to use pathos in a somewhat academic fashion, I’m always struck by how that story manages to be so kind to something so seemingly absurd and uncomfortable. When my students react to the piece, animatedly discussing whether or not the condition described (Morgellons disease) is real, I marvel in remembering my own first time reading it. Even though the new me is almost unrecognizable from the old version, Jamison connects me to that past, and it reminds me to be grateful I made it out alive.
When I found out she had finished The Recovering (2018), a book about the complicated relationship she had with alcohol as well as the complicated narrative addiction has in relation to creativity and Americanism, I knew it would be important reading. Leslie and I spoke by phone one snowy morning this March. For an hour, I got to engage her in a conversation that focused on craft, but found a certain grit in our mutual experience with alcohol addiction. After speaking, I felt better about hitting the five-year mark than I had the week before, on the actual anniversary.
Eric Farwell (Rail): I’ve been following your work since The Gin Closet and was really impressed by the ambition of the new work. One thing that was especially interesting is the fact that the book seems to aim to distinguish between the literary romanticism of alcoholism in relation to artistry, and how alcohol can’t provide that romance, only exacerbate problems. How did you land on this as the valuable thing to explore in relation to alcohol addiction?
Leslie Jamison: It’s amazing that you’ve been following my work since The Gin Closet, because I think all three books are really in conversation with each other, and some of those connections are explicitly articulated in this book. All of the intellectual questions driving this book, including this question of what are the various relationships between addiction and creativity, and recovery and creativity, were selfish intellectual inquiries—in a way, because they were all questions I was wrestling with for deeply personal reasons. When I sought out other people’s lives, or sought out various scenes of cultural history, it’s not that everything was only important insofar as it came back to myself, but more that there was an originating curiosity that was personal and also intellectual. Particularly around this one—at what point does the self-destructive impulse that drives addiction stop being a kind of generative fuel, and become something entirely claustrophobic, and stifling, and repetitive, and numbing, that is actually antithetical to everything I understand creativity to be? The corollary to that question was wondering if there was a kind of creative possibility that lay in recovery? At first, I imagined the book was going to be fully a refutation of the myth of the drunken genius, or drunken artist; I thought it was going to be disproving that myth from a couple angles at once. It would be exploring how actually brutal or un-romantic alcoholism was in all of these people’s lives. And it was also going to be finding the possibilities in sober creativity, and thus showing creativity wasn’t dependent on a certain self-destructive way of living. What I ended up finding was more complicated than that. I mean, I write about this in the book as well, but there are certainly links between the kinds of pain and self-destruction that manifest in addiction, and the kinds of pain and self-destruction that can generate great art, or provide the impetus for great art—that connection isn’t entirely a fallacy. There’s something there. But there are also powerful ways in which the experience of getting better can fuel creativity as well.
Rail: I’ve always been interested in that perception, because I was never in a twelve-step program or anything like that, but I was definitely an addict. For me, when I would drink, I was never creating. I’ve always been really interested in that perception that creativity is fueled by addiction or alcoholism.
Jamison: Your experience is probably close to a lot of people’s experiences. Being drunk, or being hung-over, or being drugged out, all of these states aren’t necessarily conducive to creativity. All of them are often deadening, and often quite tedious. Certainly by the end of my drinking, my drinking was the opposite of interesting. When I looked closely at that perception—that there is some kind of meaningful link between addiction and creativity—it was often the belief that drinking was a signifier of a dark, twisted psyche that could also produce great work. You know, like the article Life magazine published about John Berryman, the piece called “Whiskey & Ink.” It was gesturing toward the idea that whiskey wasn’t exactly making him creative, but that it was allowing him to get in contact with these dark, metaphysical truths, that it buffered that contact and give him a sort of relief—that he was connecting with these dark truths, and that relationship was key to the brilliance of his poetry.
Rail: I think that makes a lot of sense. I also think it’s interesting to how that plays out now, because I feel like that perception is a particularly literary thing, in the sense that now, when we think of addiction narrative, or addiction issues, we don’t necessarily associate it with creativity. I think it’s kind of a capital “C” Cultural perception to see addiction in relation to genius.
Jamison: So many of our cultural narratives about addiction have nothing to do with creativity. Part of what I wanted to do with the book is force certain narratives into collision that are often kept pretty far apart, and two of those narratives were the story of the addicted creative genius and the narrative of a villain addict—the kind of addict that’s seen as a betrayer of the social contract. Those narratives are often expected to sort of live in separate parts of our collective cultural psyche, and I wanted to put them in conversation. It’s part of why I was interested in Billie Holiday’s story. Her story was one of the few stories I could find where those narratives were coming into contact but were not really reconciled at all, where she was being simultaneously construed as, you know, a criminal by Harry Anslinger and his federal bureau of Narcotics, but also being venerated by Elizabeth Hardwick as the archetypal dark addict siren.
Rail: To get to those places, to get to Billie Holiday, John Berryman, or even David Foster Wallace, you had to start talking about yourself. I mean, I was really blown away by the book’s ambition, both in its length and dedication to scrutiny of the self. As a person that was also an addict, I’m comfortable with my own story, but was impressed by how furiously you went after your own. Can you talk a bit about how you went about turning over your own life in such a way, about where that strength came from? I mean, that strength is present in The Empathy Exams, and some of your other work, but there’s just something, like, more vicious about the writing—a different sense of urgency with you telling this part of your story.
Jamison: Whenever my own story comes into my writing, it’s usually from a desire to use my story to explore some sort of question, rather than any desire to tell my story for the sake of telling my story. It certainly doesn’t come from any sense that my story is any more worth telling than somebody else’s. There’s a line in the book that speaks to that: “You’re using a nail not because it’s the best nail that was ever made, but because it happened to be in your drawer.” I don’t pretend to have full access to my own consciousness because I think self-relation is inherently vexed and partial and often delusional, but I do have a singular access to my own story that I don’t have to anybody else’s. In this book, my story helps me access certain questions: why do you keep coming back to something that harms you? What does that self-destructiveness have to do with creativity? What does that self-destructive relationship have to do with love and desire?
Sometimes I have issues with the kind of writing that often gets called “confessional,” because it’s revelation happening without interrogation, where the urgency is coming from that electric charge of, “I can’t believe someone would say that, or reveal that, or show that.” Whereas for me, I’m interested in at least trying to get underneath the versions of my own story that come up most readily, and really say, well, what was actually going on there? What’s the more complicated truth underneath? So, that phrase of turning it over is really resonant to me because a first draft might start with a version of a personal experience that feels more like a cocktail party anecdote, like, the ready-to-hand narrative of, okay, this is what my relationship with my father’s about, or this is what that breakup was about. The process of revising, drafting over and over again, is actually about, saying, okay, my relationship with my father is actually more complicated than that. It’s saying, that is true, but this other opposite thing is also true, and finding a more nuanced, striated truth in the intersection of those contradictory vectors. I’m really only interested in the writing of personal experience that involves scrutinizing relentlessly to get at those complexities; and I’m more comfortable directing that relentless scrutiny at my own life than anyone else's. And in a really pragmatic sense, with a book this long, I needed a driving story that might grant the whole thing some momentum. Most of the models of contemporary hybrid nonfiction that we have, many of which I love, are slim volumes. Once I knew this book wasn’t going to be a slim volume, I also knew that I wanted there to be an essential spine to the book that had narrative propulsion to it. It felt right for a narrative to be at the center of the book—because it’s about narrative, and narrative as a form of community building, and narrative as a form of self-relation—and I sensed that my own story could be an instrument creating momentum through the pages.
Rail: I think that’s interesting because one of the things you do is set up a bit of a mystery, at least for a while, for what really drove that addiction. In the first, I think, fifty pages, you write that you always suspected love came as a result of saying the right things. At the time you were drinking, do you think you and your writer friends were in search of validation via writing, in search of love via the creativity they think drinking could instill?
Jamison: One of the threads that runs throughout the book is this question of, what do we want stories to do for us? Also, what are some of the ways storytelling can be a selfless act, or a giving act? But how is storytelling also a way to gain love, to earn love, to gain affirmation? These questions show up in pretty different contexts. They show up in the context of a romantic relationship, where I feel like the better I am at saying the right things, or telling stories, the more love I’ll get. It shows up in an institutional context—inside the institution of the writing program, where everyone was always comparing whether their stories would “sell out” when copies were put out on the shelves. What was fascinating to me was that the way this kind of storytelling-as-affirmation could link the institution of the writing program to the institution of the twelve-step recovery, where on the one hand you’re telling stories as an act of offering to the other people in the room, but of course the act of storytelling is also about ego and performance. I think of Charles R. Jackson, who wanted to be seen as an amazing storyteller, or the ways you might want the simple affirmation of being an addict in recovery—like, you’re doing this recovery thing right. I think there’s nothing wrong with that desire. So often with any act that has a self-serving motivation, we can see it as a pollutant or contamination, which is not how I see it at all. I think what might have been underneath my own addictive impulses is the fact that there was a core sense that I needed to earn the right to my own presence, whether it was saying something intelligent at dinner at five, or saying the right thing to my partner when I was twenty-two, or writing something good enough to get published when I was twenty-five, or qualifying in a twelve-step meeting when I was twenty-eight. I think that sense of needing to prove that I had the right to exist ran really deep and felt overwhelming, or a bit debilitating. Booze was something that could shut that off and let me present in my own skin without interrogating why I was allowed to exist with a certain person, or exist in a certain room.
Rail: One thing you also kind of establish is that you don’t know if you want to be with someone or be alone. I think that’s an important thing to talk about in relation to addiction, right? I think that even though every addiction story is different, I think that might be something that runs through certain ones. I know that having to deal with the relationship I’m in as a sober person is very different from how I could have responded to, disconnected from, or abandoned it as an addict.
Jamison: It brings to mind that quote from Jean Rhys, the one from her diaries that goes something like: “I had two longings and one was fighting the other. I wanted to be loved and I wanted to be always alone.” I think that sums up a set of competing desires that have always been alive inside of me. My relationship to alcohol was very much about wanting to avoid uncomfortable in-between feelings, like wanting something to feel either really, really good, or really, really bad. Both of those states are somehow more comfortable to me than something being “kind of hard, but it’s okay.” I think booze was this way to feel less self-conscious, or it was a way to take it to an extreme place. I think my relationships operated by a similar logic, where it was like, once something started to feel not amazing, it started to feel really bad, and it was easier to slash and burn than show up for the uncomfortable feeling of, “Okay, I’m actually struggling in this relationship.” So much of what you’re saying about your relationship regarding showing up for that relationship, reckoning with its struggles and changes rather than immediately indulging the impulse to end it, really rings true. I think so much of sobriety for me has been about showing up for things rather than cutting ties once something becomes uncomfortable.
Rail: You spend several dozen pages explaining the horror-esque narrative America has told itself about addiction. Why do you think there’s such a disconnect between the general narrative and the literary one? Is the literary version a privilege? Is it a privilege that we get to romanticize as people who write in any kind of way who an addict is, or even kind of literary monsters in a way?
Jamison: There’s a lot of privilege attached to the opportunity to narrate your addiction in terms of psychic pain, or psychic complexity, rather than vice, or ethical and social failure. The earliest pieces of the book were pretty exclusively concerned with literary narratives of addiction. But pretty early on, I realized there were whole other narratives being told about addiction that felt so deeply at odds with these literary stories that it started to feel really necessary to bring them into the conversation: addict as villain, rather than addict as genius. But the connection was storytelling. There have been these practices of storytelling around addiction in so many different contexts, even when the stories getting told were very different stories. The stories shaping American policy were so different from the stories getting told in twelve-step recovery, or in the literary community. They were stories about demons and monsters. They were moralizing and completely racialized. Like so many stories in America, they scapegoated a marginalized population as a way to shore up the privilege of the powerful.
Rail: You filter that in some ways, or in large part through the different writers you take on, the different aspects you’re scrutinizing. In telling their stories, you get all of these aspects of disenfranchisement, or racial bias, or disconnects. You do it in such a way though that’s filtered through you. The book contains multitudes, but you’re using yourself to get at all these other things. In conceptualizing, did you intend to use these passages as extensions of your own story, or as possible entry-points into discovering empathy for yourself as an addict?
Jamison: It was less I understood all these other stories as extensions of my own, and more that I was aware of the ways other stories made things about my own story visible: certain kinds of privilege, certain veins of longing, certain accidents of fate. For example, Billie Holiday’s story forced me—narratively and structurally—to admit the ways in which the ability to connect my addiction to my own psychic pain, for example, is very much a function of my race and class. It was less like all of the other stories were like mirrors reflecting my own, and more that they forced me to reflect differently on my own. I very much want to believe in a kind of writing that involves the first-person narrator, but also involves lots of lives beyond that central consciousness, where the weight doesn’t have to ultimately fall on one side or the other. The writing doesn’t ultimately have to be all about what it exposed about that first-person narrator, and it doesn’t have to be that the first-person narrator disappears by the act of looking into otherness. You can genuinely have a nonfiction practice that involves a first-person life in conversation with other lives, where the first-person’s story is the point, and the other lives are the point. My desire to include other stories wasn’t just about what those other stories could show about my own; it was also about wanting to create a book that had multiple narratives in it for their own sake.
Rail: That’s what was interesting. You’re using your story as a way to connect to other explorations of addiction. You do a good job of just opening up those considerations. One thing that was interesting is that in your examination of literary addiction, most of the examples of literary addicts you point to are men, but you also take a lot of care to articulate the experience of Jean Rhys. I know you take the time to explain that female addiction stories are viewed as tragic or lesser-than, culturally speaking, but I’m curious about how you landed on Rhys as the primary female addiction story apart from your own.
Jamison: I have always responded to her work—to the ways in which her novels explore consciousness and female consciousness in particular, and the way her narrators look at pain and self-pity, and performed-pain in particular. There were so many issues at the heart of her art that have also felt close to the heart of what I write about, so I think there was a kind of immediate resonance there. I was also really interested in the arc of her career, and in particular, how Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)—her final and most famous book—emerged from her four autobiographical early novels after a decade’s delay, and how it was a continuation of the themes of those early works—the spurned woman, the exiled woman, the love-lorn woman—but took their scenes in a totally new direction by engaging with this marginalized canonical figure (Jane Eyre’s Mrs. Rochester), and by ending with this massive act of what I read as articulate destruction—burning down Rochester’s estate. I was also interested in Rhys’s story as a kind of anti-recovery story because obviously she was never in twelve-step recovery, and she was never in any kind of sustained sobriety. Her archives attest to this in all sorts of heartbreaking ways. Her life wasn’t a redemption story. Her life was about staying in the thick of addiction until the bitter end. In that way, it felt like an important story to include alongside other stories that resulted in ongoing sobriety, or even stories about attempted recovery. Once I got into her archives, I was really struck by the ways in which it seemed like she was—in her own way—often reaching for some of the psychological mechanisms that are central to twelve-step recovery. In particular, this fragment in her diaries where she’s interrogating herself and literally dramatizing the act of putting herself on trial. I was really moved by the way she seems to seek—maybe not salvation, but a sense of relief, in the processes of self-scrutiny that are central to both writing and recovery.
Rail: I wanted to ask you about the idea of the writer’s voice. I think a popular assumption is that we like writers because their voices are fully formed, unique, and undeniable. However, as a reader, the new book seems to have a hunger and singular goal that your other work didn’t. The hallmarks of your writing are present in The Gin Closet and The Empathy Exams, but The Recovering has a certainty and singularity to it that seems new. The passages about yourself read, for the most part, as breathless and electric. Was that shift something you could recognize or feel when drafting?
Jamison: Absolutely. What felt singular or new to me was structural: the attempt to write a big, cohesive book that was addressing a core, structural conundrum: how to bring my life into conversation with other lives. That structural question was something I picked up in The Empathy Exams, and, in a certain way, The Gin Closet, but it was exploded onto this larger canvas here. Some of the structural choices around, “Okay, how is this story of my life going to ease into the stories of these other lives,” really always raised that question of: why is this piece of my personal narrative absolutely necessary to this book? That question of necessity was probably also connected to the urgency you were noting in the prose. Maybe there’s something about putting my life into this kind of chorus that really put pressure on the material to matter, to draw out as much meaning as I possibly could.
On that question of voice, too, it strikes me that a lot of my interest in the writers in the book is about the evolution of voice across the writer’s life as opposed to the idea of the writer’s voice as something stable or fully formed. What’s interesting to me is the way that a writer’s voice shifts across the course of their career. For so many of the writers in this book, what was moving to me had to do with a certain instability of voice—like Jean Rhys finding a different sort of voice on Wide Sargasso Sea, how it took her ten tortured years to write that book. Or, Raymond Carver finding a different voice in his sober poetry, of the short stories of his early recovery—and having to fight for the presence of that new voice in his editorial disputes with Gordon Lish. A writer’s voice is not a monolithic thing, but something that’s always in flux, and that shift and flow is more interesting to me than the idea of a voice that’s fully found its stride.
Rail: I wanted to shift a bit and ask about your shorter work. In The Recovering, you keep mentioning a desire to be fully consumed by love, even if you struggle to give in to it. Do you feel like your journalistic work, which tends to deal with elusive or obsessive subjects, is related to your own desire for something more/all-consuming, even if that desire has been subdued in sobriety?
Jamison: I love this question so much. In the book, I think through connections between recovery and the journalistic process—the ways in which seeking out the stories of others connects to the energy of meetings, and the sustained energy of listening to others narrate their lives. But it’s also true that the kinds of stories I seek out in my reported work are often stories about obsession: folks obsessed with completing a crazy ultramarathon through the hills of Tennessee, folks obsessed with figuring out the nature of their kids’ prior lives, folks crafting alternate existences for themselves in a digital world where they spend twelve hours a day, folks fascinated by the mysterious blue whale they call the loneliest whale in the world. I think there’s something that draws me to people who want to find salvation or meaning in these obsessive engagements with objects or phenomena they will never fully be able to contact or understand—the whale who has never been seen, the past lives that can never fully be known—as well as something that resonates about the desire to be consumed by something. I also find something consuming about the practice of reporting itself—getting so wrapped up in another person’s existence or story—that I think is probably another, perhaps healthier, manifestation of the desire to lose myself in a substance or another person.
Rail: The three works you’ve put out all fit together, with The Recovering serving as a sort of capstone to that period. At this point, do you have interest in continuing to write about yourself? If so, do you feel that you're finding new methods to remain curious and diligent about your own experience?
Jamison: In everything I write, I feel like each work contains the seed of the next work. Sometimes it’s only visible in hindsight. But The Gin Closet’s characters were trying to push through the claustrophobia of self-obsession, and The Empathy Exams made that quest explicit; the final essay in The Empathy Exams said “Suffering is interesting, but so is getting better,” and The Recovering tries to tell that story of getting better, and obviously returns to some of the paradoxes at the core of The Gin Closet: the thrall of oblivion and its toxicity. The Recovering leaves off at a kind of precipice: what comes next for me, in sobriety, and what are the fruits or consequences of a certain vein of outward attention? And I think my next essay collection speaks to those questions—it’s a mix of reported pieces about, yes, haunting and obsession; it’s also about my own evolving relationship to my family and starting a family of my own. So yes, I think I will keep writing about my own life, but still in conversation with everything beyond my own life—and as my life keeps changing, it keeps demanding new kinds of attention and new kinds of narrative. The experience of giving birth and taking care of my newborn daughter, for example, has been wondrous and has felt kind of anti-narrative: it’s full of daily realities and physicality and animal love. But anything that feels anti-narrative is always just a challenge—how do I find the words for this experience? The shape of its story?