Honest self-reflection is a virtue for Leslie Jamison, Josh Radnor, and Luciana Souza.
- Stage & Screen
Coming up on Articulate. Does great art really come from great misery? The writer Leslie Jamison has built her career interrogating this idea.
Leslie Jamison: I wanted very deeply to believe that my own sobriety and my own experience of recovery could yield creative work that might not look exactly like the stuff I had been writing when I was drinking, but that could open up some new vista of possibility.
Though it’s difficult to make people believe it, fame and fortune will not make you happy. Josh Radnor learned this first hand, and quickly began seeking new truths.
Josh Radnor: The very things that society had kind of promised me, you know, like, oh, you’ll get some fame, you’ll get some money, you’ll get some attention, you’ll get steady employment. You’ll get all these actors’ cash and prizes, and then you’ll be happy, then you’ll be fulfilled, then you’ll be satisfied. And I found it was like the reverse.
Sometimes the greatest truths can be expressed silently. Brazilian-born jazz singer Luciana Souza is a highly celebrated vocalist who also communicates beautifully without words.
Luciana Souza: Music to Brazilians has to be something, I think, physical, you know, so the dancing, but also the touching, the connecting. Music has to be central, has to be something that I could whisper in your ear, or shout it. It has to come close to you.
That’s all ahead, on Articulate.
There was a time in Leslie Jamison’s life when alcohol was the primary seduction. It wasn’t just that this prize-winning, best-selling writer of essays and fiction loved to drink—that end of day relief, that appealing buzz, that stool among friends at the bar. It was what drink seemed to say about who Jamison existentially was.
Leslie Jamison: At least in the early stages, the appeal of drinking as a kind of barometer of psychic depth, or this kind of rich, generative darkness where if you hurt so much that you had to drink in this addictive way, it also meant you had this kind of deep pain that you could write from. And so, I really romanticized that link but at a certain point, the drinking kind of did away with that process of romanticizing because my drinking ultimately was something that wasn’t romantic at all. It was quite lonely, it was quite repetitive, it was quite claustrophobic. It wasn’t about having grand, reckless adventures. It was just about getting drunk every night.
There were hours of rage and hours of remorse, hours of lost time and ache. There were semesters, too, of tremendous academic success, first at Harvard, then at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, then at Yale. With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Jamison finally got herself clean. She relapsed, as many do. She struggled for sobriety once again. Alcohol was an enchantress. It was hard to step away.
Jamison: I had lots of reservations and lots of difficulty about walking away from it. And I think that’s one of the central paradoxes of addiction, not only from the outside, observing somebody doing something so self-destructive and thinking, “Why can’t you just stop?” but even from the inside, thinking, “God, this is, like, really self-destructive. Why can’t I just stop?”
AJC: And I’m imagining that, in terms of a creative output, you might’ve thought, “Well, I did very well. I was able to write while I was drunk. How am I gonna fill my time? Will it destroy my work as well?”
Jamison: And that was certainly a question for me, especially because my drinking was also linked to depression. And so, when you take the drinking away and the depression’s left behind, having many hours in the day just feels like endless tedium that you have to get through. And I was working in a bakery at the time, and I felt really grateful to have this other kind of work to show up for that was just about rolling out sugar cookies, putting them in the oven, pulling espresso shots…
AJC: …was all I was.
Jamison: Yeah, leaving the drinking behind was going to leave behind this sort of more volatile self that was linked to where my creativity came from. But my work became very different in certain ways. One of them was that it became much more interested in lives and experiences beyond my own, so my work started to involve more criticism, more archival research, more reporting, more interviewing, so that outwardness felt like one of the turns that my creative life took in sobriety. But I also think I kind of grew into a different version of myself.
As part of her Ph.D. dissertation at Yale, Jamison began to examine other writers and artists—Raymond Carver, Billie Holiday, David Foster Wallace—who spoke of and threw the bottle, and who stumbled as they sought to break free. Through them, she further explored the relationship not just between alcohol and creativity, but between sobriety and possibility.
Jamison: When I myself first got sober and I was very hungry to find stories of writers for whom sobriety hadn’t been the end of their creative lives, where they had found some way of writing from sobriety, from recovery that was maybe different from how they had written from this addicted darkness but was just as powerful, and maybe differently powerful. I was looking for the work that they had written from sobriety that was evidence of this new kind of creativity, because I wanted very deeply to believe that my own sobriety and my own experience of recovery could yield creative work that might not look exactly like the stuff I had been writing when I was drinking, but that could open up some new vista of possibility. And, you know, I found it sometimes, and I didn’t find it other times.
But you can tell an honest story about drinking and recovery, Jamison suggests, if the only story that impels you is your own.
Jamison: I really had a vision for a book that would… It was a sort of structural vision for a book that would bring my own story, the story of my drinking and recovery, kind of into conversation with the stories of others, so both writers and artists who were inside of addiction and then tried to get sober or did get sober, and then the stories of other people that I encountered more as a journalist. I wanted to create a book that worked, in a certain way, like a recovery meeting, where you’re hearing all of these stories and that, as the kind of puppeteer behind the scenes, that I could create resonances between all those stories through the ways that I juxtaposed them and spliced them together. But there were certainly driving questions that were motivating, “Okay, why am I bringing all of these stories into chorus?” And some of those questions were, “What does the experience of addiction feel like? What is that paradox of continuing to come back to the thing that’s harming you? What does that paradox feel like from the inside?”
Books like Leslie Jamison’s are not written, she suggests, out of a desire for readerly redemption, but from a desire to explore and interrogate the things that torment us all.
Jamison: I very much believe in a kind of writing that is willing to show the imperfect writer, the imperfect person who lived the experiences, but isn’t necessarily looking for something back from the reader, isn’t necessarily looking for sympathy, or looking for absolution, or all of those things.
Married to the writer Charles Bock, a stepmother to Lily, and now the mother of a baby girl, Jamison will always, she says, look to stories as common ground, as a way for strangers to speak to one another from the depths of private pain. About her own work, she remains necessarily humble. About her life, she remains on guard.
AJC: You feel confident about recovery now?
Jamison: I mean, I guess I feel in a pretty solid place, partially because I’ve just gotten really used to living without drinking. But I really do try to stay humble and uncertain about it, not because I think I’m going to wake up tomorrow and drink, but just because I never understand that that possibility is off the table. I think there’s something… Or I want to stay sort of vigilant against the parts of me that I think are still in there, that will always crave some version of that relief. I mean, I craved it for a reason, and there’s still a self in there that could crave it again.
Over the years, he’s worked as an actor, a writer, director, and musician. But at heart, Josh Radnor says he just feels like a storyteller.
Josh Radnor: It’s the only thing that really lights me up, you know? And I can do it in eight different ways, but I want to stay creative my whole life.
For 208 episodes, he was Ted Mosby, protagonist of CBS’s international smash-hit sitcom, How I Met Your Mother. The show ended in 2014.
Radnor: I mean, the writing was really sharp on that show, and some of the funniest lines, I think on television that I’ve heard were on that show.
(clip from How I Met Your Mother):
Ted Mosby: Good morrow, fair gentles! Look what I won at the Renaissance Fair.
Radnor: But there is a feeling of, kind of, imprisonment. You got a keyboard of human experience and expression, and the sitcom asks you to play one octave.
AJC: Or half an octave, and only the black keys.
Radnor: Right, and then I think that I was like, “Oh, wait, I got all these other keys. I got all these other keys.”
AJC: And I can do harmonies.
Radnor: Yeah, I can do all this stuff. I can do… yeah. So part of the excitement of the three years of not being on the show was I did a play on Broadway, I did a Richard Greenberg play at Lincoln Center, I did a PBS series called Mercy Street about the Civil War for two seasons, started a band with Ben Lee, I sold a book that I’m writing. You know, it’s been a constant exploration of the other keys.
AJC: But you were an actor. You, in your own head, were a very ambitious actor.
AJC: Were you worried about the fact that you’d achieved success, however you were going to define it, in terms of being a jobbing actor, and now you were feeling this emptiness? That must’ve been quite a shock.
Radnor: Yeah, it was. It demanded a wholesale reevaluation of a lot of things in my life, because I found that the very things that society had kind of promised me, like, “Oh, you’ll get some fame. You’ll get some money. You’ll get some attention. You’ll get steady employment. You’ll get all of these ‘actor’ cash and prizes and then, you’ll be happy. Then, you’ll be fulfilled. Then, you’ll be satisfied.” And I found it was like the reverse. Like, I got a little depressed. I was hungering. My spiritual hunger got deeper because I felt like it was proven to me that the things of this world are not the things that will make me happy.
AJC: But did you have the first reaction that most people have in that situation which is, “Get over yourself, you’re not being grateful enough”? How did you react to it internally, initially?
Radnor: I think that I can hold two opposing ideas at the same time, you know, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said. I get that this is a great gift, and it’s not enough for me to make me feel creatively expressed. And I think the other thing is, I had done a lot of theatre, I had done some TV, I had done little film stuff, but the show started getting so popular and on a show like that, people think that’s who you are. If they don’t know you from other things, they’ll say, that’s who you are. You’re that guy. And I felt—
AJC: Both inside television and on the street, right?
Radnor: Yeah, but I felt boxed in. I felt like, “Wait, wait, wait. There’s way more to me than this guy.” And so, there became an urgency, like a creative urgency to do other things.
And so, five years into sitcom stardom, Radnor took on his first big solo project: writing, directing, and starring in Happythankyoumoreplease, an earnest look at a group of young New Yorkers struggling to define love and themselves.
(clip from Happythankyoumoreplease):
Charlie: You know, I’m not crazy about that shirt.
Charlie: I’m your boyfriend.
Mary: Well, if you find the “My man’s a hot stud” T-shirt, Christmas is right around the corner.
Annie: He looks like he should be making balloon animals at birthday parties.
Happythankyoumoreplease made a big impression, earning critical acclaim and the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award. But getting it made hadn’t been easy.
Radnor: People really liked the script and were fine with me starring in it and didn’t trust me to direct it. And at a certain point, my producer and I had to say, “I think we should direct this,” because we started having conversations where people didn’t understand the tone of it, and I was like, “Oh, this could really get away from me. I think I’m the best person to communicate to other actors what the tone of this thing is.” That’s kind of how I see directing. It’s being like a gatekeeper of the tone. I remember directing Malin Åkerman, who I think gives a beautiful performance in Happythankyoumoreplease, and it was based on a friend of mine. It was a very specific role. I’d never seen her do anything like that, but she read for me, and we had a great vibe, and she was really great at taking notes. And for about a week, I really directed her. Like really strongly. And then there was this one day where I was like, “Oh, she’s dropped in. Like, she’s just completely dropped in.”
AJC: She owns the character.
Radnor: She had it.
(clip from Happythankyoumoreplease):
Sam: Close your eyes.
Sam: I just want you to listen to me. Humor me, please?
Sam: It’s not easy to be adored. You in particular, you have a tougher time with it than most. I get that. But I want you to give it a try. Think of it as an experiment. I promise, I will be very wonderful at adoring you, Annie. It’s an area where I think I’ve got a great deal of talent. You’re worth that adoration, Annie. You’re worth it. And the fact that you don’t believe it has nothing to do with whether it’s true or not. It is true for me. And that is all that matters.
AJC: And where’s that coming from with you? You just see what it’s going to look like in your head?
Radnor: I’m not a dictator and I’m not a puppeteer. So I want actors who will bring in stuff and surprise me. But at the same time, there are things that I like honored, you know?
AJC: Such as?
Radnor: I labor over the words. I don’t have highly improvisational sets.
AJC: Right, I get that, yeah.
Radnor: You know, when I say, “you know,” I mean, “you know.” When I write, “dot, dot, dot,” I mean, “dot, dot, dot,” you know? There’s a particular way I hear speech that feels certain words are italicized. And I think that when the actor honors them, it frees them up.
In 2012, Radnor wrote, directed, and starred in another celebrated indie flick, Liberal Arts. But before long, he would again find himself hungry for a new challenge. This led him, in early 2017, to learn the guitar. Only months later, he had formed a folk duo with his friend, the Australian musician and actor, Ben Lee.
(Radnor & Lee singing):
So let us move
To distant places
Thoughts of home
Need not detain us
Radnor: It’s humbling to stumble at something. You know, where you’re like, “I’m a beginner.” And I think, in a weird way, being in a band that’s getting some attention and playing live and playing with Ben so intimately, it’s given me this impetus to get up to speed so we’d become a two-guitar band kind of quickly. You know, I actually have a vision of what that will look like. So I’m not just playing, you know, into a void. I’m actually saying, “No, this is for a reason.” I’m going to play. Whether I’m playing alone or with Ben, I have a vision of actually making this a part of my creative life for the rest of my life.
(Radnor & Lee singing):
Of serving two masters
Radnor’s next big challenge returns him to the world of film, for an upcoming, as yet untitled movie being filmed in Poland. But he won’t be on screen.
Radnor: I’m just curious for the experience of, “What will it be like to be behind the camera, properly being the director the entire time? Without a split focus.”
It’s this curiosity that has propelled Josh Radnor through a wealth of artistic explorations over the past two decades. The next 20 years may yield even greater riches.
Luciana Souza has reinterpreted Chet Baker, set James Taylor and Brian Wilson to bossa nova rhythms, made music from the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Pablo Neruda, and sung tributes to Joni Mitchell. But the condition this Grammy-winning jazz vocalist seeks above all involves not a single note.
Luciana Souza: For me, I have to think forward and I have to stay in the moment. And it’s very hard to empty yourself so I try to be as quiet as I can. Silence is supreme to me. I like not to be listening.
It’s within this deep repose that Souza thinks back on the Brazilian childhood that shaped her, on her life today with music producer Larry Klein and their son, and ahead toward the new. A few years ago, Souza’s reflections on the connective power of sound led her towards the creation of Speaking in Tongues, an album in which all five musicians hail from different countries and traditions, and yet speak a single, evocative language: music. Souza adopts scat syllables, wordless vocalizations, for much of the album. Still, her intentions, her emotions, ring clear. The daughter of a musician father and poet mother, Souza’s Brazilian roots taught her, she says, just how physical music can be.
Souza: Music, to Brazilians, has to be something, I think, physical, you know? So the dancing, but also the touching, the connecting, music has to be central. It has to be something that I could whisper in your ear, or shout it. It has to come close to you. And I think that’s why we dance so close to each other. And that’s why we’re so okay with our bodies and the way, at least I think, we still are.
Souza says that in her, at least, this comfort with closeness, established from a young age, is an unchangeable part of who she is.
Souza: I had a long marriage before this current marriage, and I would go home for the holidays and I would sleep in my mother’s bed with her. You know, I’m in my thirties and people are like, “Are you crazy?” But I love her pillow, I love the way it smelled, and I love her, and I, you know. We still had this deep physical connection. With my dad, I would lay down next to him and watch a movie and just be completely enmeshed with him, you know, as an adult. You don’t see that.
Musicians, Souza says, must make themselves vulnerable. It’s a standard she seeks for her own work, a standard that she admits is hard to attain.
Souza: But I’m not interested in impressing. I mean, I want to make an impression on you. When I put my, you know, if I make an impression on my skin, that it marks, right? You feel something. I want that from you, as an audience member, but primarily from myself. I want to impress myself when I sing. But not impress myself as, “Oh, she can sing circles around whatever, that note, or roll it, or hold it for…” But to really make an impression, like, “You will feel something.” That’s what I want, and that’s what I think these composers can do with their music, which is really, really incredible.
Luciana Souza’s 2017 collaboration, a song-cycle called The Blue Hour, was commissioned by the Grammy-nominated chamber orchestra, A Far Cry. The lyrics are fashioned from the Carolyn Forché poem, “On Earth.” The performance requires Souza to create a whole out of fragments. It puts her where she likes to be: right on the very edge of uncertainty and silence.
(Souza singing from The Blue Hour):
Between here and here
Between hidden points in the soul
Between saying and said
Souza: It’s a long work of lifting this massive poem from the page. And it’s about a life that’s come to an end, and you’re sort of going through these images. And they’re random. There’s no narration, there’s no narrative, there’s no real passage of time, but there are things that have happened in this life, so it’s as if you’re looking through a box of photographs and recalling things. But it’s brilliant, and I’m just puzzled every time I sing it, and I’ve only done it a few times. It just keeps coming, revealing itself and showing things, you know, illuminating things to me. And then it hides other things, and I go looking for it, and then it’s gone because with music it’s all gone, right? You can’t hold on to it.
(Souza singing from The Blue Hour):
Biting are the fears
Black storms of dreams
But rose in love
Blossoms yet again inside us
Both windows open
To whatever may happen
The art of lifting poetry from the page is familiar territory for Souza, who has discovered in her favorite poets, e e cummings, Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Browning, Elizabeth Bishop, and Leonard Cohen, essential common ground. Each poet, for Souza, holds unique attractions.
Souza: I think they all speak about love, and I can’t sing of anything except love, whether it’s love for people, romantic love, or love for nature, love for love, and the idea that love is healing, or it’s the only thing that we should care about, really, as we go through this planet, as we walk around as lost souls. I think it’s really… That’s what we crave. That’s what we need. That’s what’s going to carry through your life, is how you loved, how well you loved, and make that a verb, right? It is to love someone, and how you do that to everyone that you meet, everyone you encounter, everyone you can connect with. Whether you’re in a hotel and you see the maid or the doorman, the taxi driver, the Uber guy, everyone. Everyone. You can change the world by just being kind and loving.
Souza will, she says, continue to experiment, and at times, she will fail.
Souza: I mean, I’ve hurt people. I’ve made bad things and bad choices. I’ve done that, of course, yeah. But I’ve given myself second chances and I’ve thought, I mean, just like in music, I mean, I sing, and it ain’t perfect. It’s not gonna be… you know, that note that I imagined was gonna come out with this much here, and I could hold this long, and oh, the violin player stopped playing, I’m “Ah!” you know. It’s all going through my head as I’m going. But I forgive myself and the next day, I learn. I’m studying, and I’m still continuing. That’s what I’m hoping.
But music, like life, is an amazing, forgiving thing, says Souza. Songs can be sung again, arguments can turn, harmony can finally settle in.
Hello my love, and my love, goodbye
Here it is
Here it is