Leslie Jamison Examines the Festering ‘Splinters’ of the Life She Imagined in Her New Memoir

The award-winning writer, a new mom, is newly critical of lyricism. She punctures any instance of poetic beauty with scatology; the more gorgeous, the poopier the disruption.

Leslie Jamison Examines the Festering ‘Splinters’ of the Life She Imagined in Her New Memoir

There may not be a writer alive whose self-consciousness and writerly anxieties prove more generative than Leslie Jamison’s. To read the best-selling essayist (and Columbia University writing teacher) is to experience the electricity of open nerves, to feel the thrill in how confidently she presents her own ambivalence and self-doubts, to see art made out of the turning cogs themselves. In her work—which includes The Recovering, an addiction memoir spliced with an examination of the recovery narrative, and The Empathy Exams, an interrogation of sentimentality and our assumed aversion to it—Jamison has refused pre-determined genres and forms. It’s in that refusal that Jamison’s unrivaled insight takes shape. Her gift is in telling the most complicated version of any story in the simplest, most magnetic rendering.

In Splinters—which is billed as her first memoir—Jamison consistently rejects the story of herself. Written during the early days of motherhood and divorce from a man she calls C, Jamison attempts to write in a new language she is trying to work out in real-time. Where she was once a chronicler of emptiness, here, in the new days of motherhood, Jamison finds overwhelming plentitude: endless days and nights of crying; splattered and refused food; television tedium. Rather than repurposing “crisply curated moments” into memoir form, Jamison seeks the language of “maddening duration”: words that “could hold the wonder and the numbing exhaustion of the day at once.”

Writing in this maternal language, Jamison is newly critical of lyricism. She punctures any instance of poetic beauty with scatology; the more gorgeous, the poopier the disruption. “I turned my back on the beautiful crooning and the desert night…and threw away the shitty diaper sandwiched between my body and hers,” goes one particularly sharp example.

She is critical, too, of others’ preemptive self-awareness and the stories they like to tell about themselves. In the book’s third act, Jamison enters into a blazing romance with a keenly self-mythologizing musician she refers to only as “the Tumbleweed.” He seems to love the pornography of himself; a quasi-homeless, traveling musician who can’t help but break women’s hearts. He texts her that he can’t wait to finger her in a lake; sends her shirtless photos of himself holding a cat; says he can’t commit to monogamy.

Though Splinters is her most inward-looking book, Jamison invokes a range of characters—friends, parents, exes—to both augment and challenge her own experiences. It’s a masterwork of self-interrogation, and of accepting, with clumsy grace, the irresolution of one’s own story. 

Below, Jezebel spoke with Jamison about her greatest work yet. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Splinters implies that something was broken off from a larger piece; do you have a sense of what this large piece is? 

The large piece is my entire life! I mean that literally, but I also mean it in a few different senses. Every time you write personal narrative—by which I mean, every time I write personal narrative—I’m curating pieces of what I’ve lived, details and moments and memories, and sculpting them into a story. But it’s only ever a fraction of what I lived, arranged, reflected, refracted. So in that sense, the written narrative is always made of splinters broken from the whole of that infinite lived experience. 

Splinters announced its form to me early: these sharp, whittled shards of memory poking like needles from the bulky wholeness of what I’d lived. Eating bell peppers on a road trip with a charming musician. Signing divorce papers on a freezing Valentine’s Day. Pumping in a shared office. I wanted to write these shards of memory, the ones that got under my skin. They were splinters broken off the life I’d imagined—the dream of a marriage, a future, a certain kind of family—that wasn’t the life that came to pass.  

Did your relationship to cliché change once you became a mother?

There’s a point in Splinters where I compare motherhood to sobriety, in a few different senses—both involved forms of constraint that I wanted to believe were generative (still do!) and both taught me that nothing about my own experience was unique. I got drunk like other drunks. I loved my child desperately, like other mothers; and I also wanted to flee her, like other mothers. In that sense, becoming a mother only confirmed what I’d already come to believe about cliché: most cliches apply to me more than I’d like to admit. 

But also: There’s a grace in that. You’re not the only person who has wanted to flee your kid. You’re not the only person who has ever been ghosted. In a way, it felt like recovery taught me that most of the cliches applied to me; and motherhood was my final exam—forcing me to own this truth, to really accept it. 

As a teacher, your writing itself feels instructive. To what extent do you apply your own lessons to your text?

In Splinters, which is very much a memoir about teaching, I describe telling my students to “get specific” so many times that I eventually put it on a cake for them. Being a teacher is humbling and inspiring not only because I constantly learn from my students but because I’m always being reminded of how much I need to keep learning my own lessons. “Get specific,” I tell my students and then I catch myself getting vague in my first drafts, around the parts of the narrative that have so much heat and energy I can barely stand to look at them: fights, moments of anger, moments of shame. I have to take my own lessons—write the feeling of my knees against the carpet, when I’m taking another line of coke with a guy who doesn’t even like me that much, in hopes that I can somehow make him like me more. That’s exactly the stuff I want to blur into soft focus, by way of a few convenient abstractions—and then I hear my own voice telling a student not to duck behind the curtain of abstraction and I think, “Goddammit! I’m doing this too!”

You described the Tumbleweed’s hammy self-mythology as “cocktail party shorthand,” the same language you used to describe the kind of writing your students should avoid. Was the Tumbleweed too wrapped up in his own mythology or merely a poor writer of his own story?

We’re all too wrapped up in our own mythology, no? Or at least, I am. The man I call the Tumbleweed is the musician I fall in love with about six months after the end of my marriage. I call him a quilt of red flags stitched together. A roadway covered with danger signs. And yes, I think he had certain easy stories he was used to telling about himself—they looked like self-critique, but had actually become a comfortable pillow-fort of self-deprecation—that almost functioned like alibis: “I always screw up my relationships,” etc. 

But I was just as guilty of taking refuge in mythologized versions of my life. The doomed love affair, for example. The story of hurtling myself at a quilt of red flags. We were two people in love with drama; that’s part of how we fell in love with each other. I have a great deal of affection for him. Still do.  

I went to my first AA meeting recently and I was struck by the precision of storytelling. Everyone who spoke seemed to know their own story so well. I’m curious to know whether you’ve had a similar experience, and whether AA helped clarify your own story to you? 

I love this evocation of storytelling in recovery—that attunement to the rhythms of a story, its crucial moments, the ways that the most shameful moments are often the ones that will bring the circle closest to you. You’ll feel them exhale. You’ll feel them breathing. You’ll feel them settling more fully into their own bodies. The parts of your life that once felt most unbearable to you are precisely those moments that, once narrated, might make others feel like, “There is a place for you in this room. You belong here.” 

For thirteen years I’ve been freshly, recurringly moved and humbled by the ways people narrate their own lives in recovery. (My book The Recovering can give you 450 more pages on this!) Sure, you might not be able to leave your “performer” behind entirely, but there’s a real investment in the ways your story is an instrument that might make recovery more possible for someone else. As they say in recovery, someone three days into recovery can tell you what the second day was like. 

There seems to be a fixation on the “interesting”—whether that’s choosing your anecdotes wisely while dining with your father, telling your student that her postpartum depression was the most interesting part of her story, or the man you dated after the Tumbleweed deeming your conversations now “interesting enough.” How much did this idea of “interesting enough” haunt the writing itself, and how did you react to that paranoia?

Among other things, Splinters is an ode to my mother for being the one person in my life I’ve never needed to be interesting around! It was a different story with my father. 

The skills we develop to survive our own childhoods can often hinder us down the road, but sometimes they hang around like arrows (splinters!) in our quivers—and I think my relationship to being “interesting” is one of these lurking tendencies. A double-edged blade, useful and crippling at once. My obsession with being interesting is certainly one of the engines of my writing life, my conversational life, my relational life—in a way, “interesting-ness” is a way of talking about transportation and immersion: how do I take this truth, or this story, and launch it towards someone in a way that makes them want to receive it? But I’ve always found that ultimately I’m less saved by being interesting and more saved by being interested. 

You mention in the book how you’d sent manuscripts to your father and C. Is this something you do for every person you mention in your texts? And how does this shape your writing approach?

Yes, for the past decade this has been part of my practice, whenever I’m writing personal narrative: I offer to share manuscripts with the people who appear in them, and to listen to their responses. I don’t offer veto power; I just offer to listen. And I make edits based on their feedback. Again, that doesn’t mean I entirely follow their feedback—I don’t cede final authority in that way—but I do invite their voices into the process. 

It might sound paradoxical, but this actually allows me to write more freely. Because I’m not trying to anticipate their responses the whole time; I know there will be dialogue and editing down the line. And people almost always surprise me. They aren’t bothered by what I think they’d be bothered by. It’s always something else. And then they love what I feared they might hate. It’s humbling in a useful and (I think) ethically productive way: I can’t predict what people will say. I just have to let them say it. 

While writing Splinters, how concerned were you by your own likability?

I don’t think about likability too much when I write. Even if I was trying to make myself likable, I’m sure I couldn’t. (It would probably accomplish just the opposite.) But I don’t think the point of art is likability. Wisdom, accompaniment, surprise, these get closer to it. Letting go of likability as a goal is liberating, because I think about likability all the time in life. But I can’t write myself as a character in a compelling way—and this is true for any character, real or imagined—if I’m too concerned with defensive or preemptive writing. I have to let myself be flawed and complicated, just like everyone else. 

My issue has actually been something closer to the opposite. In the early days of writing myself, I made myself pretty unlikable because I was convinced that the most authentic version of myself on the page was the most self-condemning, the least self-congratulatory. It turned out that flattened me just as much, and was just another way of trying to take control. Like: Let me hate myself before you can hate me. 

After the Tumbleweed tells you, “You have a child; I am a child,” you write, with total lucidity, what I think is one of the main anxieties of the text: “I realized how little control I had over the stories people were writing about their own lives”—is this something you try to reconcile by teaching?

Fascinating! I don’t think of teaching in terms of control; it’s more about helping people complicate their own stories, helping them find more layers underneath and alongside the layers they were aware of. But there is a kind of ambush I’m always trying to coax when I teach, that I’m always also chasing in my relationships, and in my life: I want people to surprise themselves. I want people to say things to me—and to each other, in my classes; and on the page, in our workshops—that they’ve never said before. I love moments of surprise. I think we learn so much in them. 

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