Leslie Jamison: The Recovering
For writer Leslie Jamison, sobriety was the first step into a new kind of creativity.
Leslie Jamison is a renowned novelist and essay writer.
She was born in Washington, DC, in 1983 and raised in Los Angeles. She majored in English at Harvard College, earned an MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD in English literature at Yale University. Jamison’s struggles with alcoholism inform much of her work, including her debut novel The Gin Closet (2010), her memoir The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath (2018), and her dissertation “The Recovered: Addiction and Sincerity in 20th Century American Literature” (2016).
Her acclaimed collection of essays The Empathy Exams (2014) launches off her experience as a standardized patient to explore the ways we relate to other people’s pain in different facets of life. Her fourth book, Make It Scream, Make It Burn (2019) collects fourteen essays on obsession and longing.
Jamison is an assistant professor and director of the nonfiction concentration in writing at Columbia University.
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.