Leslie Jamison's incredible new essay collection,The Empathy Exams, covers topics ranging from random violence to HBO'sGirls to abortion to bad romance to stereotypes, proving she can write about anything. Here, she tells us how she approaches personal nonfiction writing, as well as provides tips.
When people ask what kind of nonfiction I write, I say “all kinds,” but really I mean I don’t write any kind at all: I’m trying to dissolve the borders between memoir and journalism and criticism by weaving them together. I write about deeply personal experiences (getting hit in the face, getting an abortion) but I also write about reality television and Bolivian silver mines and the history of artificial sweeteners. I write in all these modes because I’m fascinated by the ways personal experience connects to larger histories, and because I want my writing to matter to the people who read it—people who are, by definition, not me. Which raises one of the crucial questions of autobiographical writing: How can the confession of personal experience create something that resonates beyond itself?
When I talk about writing essays that resonate beyond the personal, I don’t mean that personal material isn’t sufficient. Of course it is. Or, it can be. If you honor the complexity of your own life—if you grant us entry into moments that hold shame or hurt or heat, and if you’re willing to follow that heat, to feel out where all the small fires burn, then your readers will trust you. They’ll find flashes of themselves. “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles,” Emerson wrote. “Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related.” I believe that personal experience is infinite, but I also believe in different kinds of infinity: as mathematician Georg Cantor proved in the 1800s, there are many different infinities—there’s an infinity between zero and one, and another one that counts everything beyond. Both ranges are endless, but they map different terrains.
I’m interested in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience. I’m wary of seeking this resonance by extracting some easy moral from the grit and complication of personal particularity: love hurts, time heals, always look on the bright side. Instead, I’m drawn to essays that allow the messy threads of grief or incomprehension to remain ragged, to direct our gazes outward.
In “The White Album,” Joan Didion connects her own nervous breakdown to the cultural disorder around her: the arrest of Huey Newton, the unfolding of the Manson Murder trials, what she calls an “authentically senseless chain of correspondences.” She makes links but she refuses to flatten these links into an easy moral; she wants them to remain provocative but “senseless.” In “No Man’s Land,” Eula Biss positions a personal account of her own Chicago neighborhood inside several larger contexts: the history of the American frontier and the troubled racial politics of urban spaces. In “Upon This Rock,” John Jeremiah Sullivan confesses his own religious background partway through an ostensibly journalistic account of a Christian rock concert.
In my own essay, “The Empathy Exams,” I tell several personal stories—an abortion, a failed heart surgery—inside a broader inquiry into the terms of empathy itself: What does it consist of? Can it be taught? I write about my work as a medical actor—following diagnostic scripts—and I write about falling in love and drinking too much wine and crying on the phone, but I also write about a neuroscientist who is using fMRI scans to figure out which parts of our brains light up when we feel for other people. I quote scientific studies and an eighteenth century moral philosopher; I don’t offer them as intellectual accessories so much as I deploy them as tools: how can these other sources of light illuminate my own story better?
This is one of the central imperatives of combining personal material with history or criticism or reportage: each thread must do some work that isn’t being done by another; that can’t be done by another. Scientific studies show the magnetic signature of empathy; my own life shows the perpetual mess of how it plays out. Sometimes I imagine history and science and memory are puppets, and I’m pushing them onto the stage of inquiry and asking them to have a conversation—to share their knowledge, to argue with each other. It’s a lab experiment: what explosions are uniquely possible in combination?
The flipside of this experimental process isn’t just knowing what to include—being capacious, being brave—it’s knowing what to cut: which connections don’t work, or can’t hold. Once I’ve given myself the freedom to let personal experience throw its filaments everywhere, attach to everything, I need to be prepared for the fact that some combinations won’t work. I can’t fake connections; I know readers can smell it—the faint stink of forced correspondence.
This is the hard part of gathering broadly and summoning the whole world to be part of your story: you can bring everything home, but you can’t use it all at once. I have a purgatory file where I keep every shard I can’t bear to throw away; so that I can resurrect them from the dead if opportunity presents itself—if I see how these old shards can do the work I need them to.
I often think of the subject of an essay as something like a courtyard full of questions—questions about grief, or longing, or memory, or empathy. Writing means walking a furious labyrinthine path in order to peer at them from every possible direction. Every mode of inquiry—history, memoir, criticism—is a doorway that opens onto this courtyard from a different angle. Each glance offers some gift: the pages of a medical acting script, or the humming heart of an fMRI scanner; the grainy resolution of old photographs or the tiny time-machines of old text messages. You can gaze down on the past from the obstructed aerial view of retrospection, or you can gaze up from a hospital table, the folds of a paper gown crinkling underneath the goose bumps on your arms. That’s the thrill of pushing the personal essay beyond itself: the electricity created between erudition and flesh is something fierce. You can move from the rigors of scientific inquiry to the pale vulnerability of an IV piercing a vein. You can travel that distance in a sentence—if curiosity demands it, if the sentiment can hold it.
When you’re lying on a hospital gurney, it can feel like there is nothing else in the world—nothing but your fear, or your chill, or the promise of anesthesia, or the shadows of the surgeons who are about to cut you open. It can feel that way—and that feeling is a truth, but what it believes isn’t true at all: because you’re not the only thing in the world—the only person who has ever hurt, the only person who has ever worn a paper gown. In truth, there is a whole world beyond you, in that moment and always—a whole world of other hurting bodies, of surgeons and their training; there’s a whole world of hearts, heart anatomies and heart myths, hearts transplanted and broken. There is so much outside the false cloister of private experience; and when you write, you do the work of connecting that terrible privacy to everything beyond it.
Home » Admissions Committee » Guest Blog: Tips For Writing Your Personal Essay
Guest Blog: Tips For Writing Your Personal Essay
Posted by Ryan Burleson on Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Once upon a time, way back when, I was a college counselor. And although you may not have thought about it, college counselors do a LOT of writing – about college applicants, mostly. Every fall, I was responsible for writing the secondary school report for upwards of 80 seniors. My boss’s advice was “don’t get it right, get it written,” and sometimes that’s good advice for writer’s-blocked students, too.
As an admissions reader, the essay is my favorite part of any application because it’s where I get to know the parts of you that you WANT me to know – your story captures my heart and revs me up to go into battle for you. No, it’s not going to outweigh the academic portrait created by your transcript, scores, and teacher recs; and no, it might not matter as much as the years you’ve spent in marching band or Best Buddies or student government. But humans are story-tellers and story-learners by nature, so stories can help us understand and care about people and events. Your “essay” or “personal statement” gives you an opportunity to tell your story and to make me care – that’s its purpose and its value.
A few thoughts:
- Write about something that matters to you. It will be easier to write, and your interest and excitement will infuse your writing. If a specific question is asked, make sure you answer that question, but tell your own story at the same time.
- Make it your goal to tell us something that we would not otherwise have learned about you – who you are; how you think; what you care deeply about.
- Don’t worry if you feel you are an ordinary high school senior with an ordinary life devoid of excitement, glamour, tragedy, or obvious essay fodder. That’s true of most kids applying to most colleges. It’s not the topic that matters, it’s how you use it as a means to reveal yourself.
- Be personal! We want to get to know you better, and this is your chance. It’s easier to care about personal stories than abstractions. If you want to write about social or political causes, make sure they are ones in which you are personally involved, and tell how.
- Don’t bother reading all those books of college essays – they’ll just get you panicked, and honestly, every one of those books has loads of essays I don’t find very interesting. Every reader is different, and what moves one may leave another cold. There’s no magic template, so just tell us what YOU want to say.
- Give yourself time to draft your essay. Here’s where that “don’t get it right, get it written” thing comes in! – just blitz away to get ideas onto paper. Then put it away and leave it for a while, and then come back to it. Does it sound like you? Does it say what you want me to learn about you? Is it honest? You could ask a few people to read your essay and give you feedback – does it sound like you? Does it flow smoothly? Ask your readers to react, not revise. We want to get to know 17-18-year-olds, not your parents/teachers/outside consultants: Make sure your essay is yours, and sounds it too. Academic honesty leads the list of institutional values for colleges.
- Recognize that I may well be reading your essay when I am dead tired. Take as long as you need to say what you wish to say, but don’t drone! 500 words should be plenty, but no, we’re not counting.
- We do want to see evidence that you can both think and write at the level that we expect at Vanderbilt. Proofread for spelling, grammar, usage, neatness: be sure this essay represents your best writing ability and demonstrates that you care. Whether or not you intend it to, your essay tells us lots about your mind and your values.
- Don’t give yourself fits over your essay. It IS important, but it’s probably not going to make or break your application – that’s your transcript’s job.
- When you’re done, you’re done. Keep a copy, send the original, and stop stewing about it. See? You got it written. That’s right!
By: Mary Comfort Stevens, Admissions Counselor, Davidson and Williamson Counties (Tennessee), Africa
Posted in Admissions Committee and tagged: academic portrait, academic transcript, admissions counselors, guidance counselors, personal essay, student government, Vanderbilt Application