Motherhood Brings Leslie Jamison Closer To Art

The prolific writer shares her thoughts on motherhood, social media and writer's festivals.
Leslie Jamison Australia.Supplied.

Leslie Jamison writes about the stuff people are scared to talk about—addiction, female rage, pain, illness, and most recently, divorce and motherhood. 

The influential American writer is perhaps best known for her essay collection, The Empathy Exams and her memoir The Recovering, but has also found dedicated readers through her regular essays for the New Yorker, her novel The Gin Closet, critical memoir Scream, Make It Burn and of course, in the writing classes she teaches at Columbia University. 

While Leslie is already a prolific contemporary voice in the states, she also has a growing fan base in Australia—some of whom she will get to meet on her first trip to Australia for Melbourne Writers Festival.

“I think that writing festivals can be wonderful occasions to kind of take what can sometimes be a solitary pursuit and actually just turn it into moments for conversation,’ Leslie tells marie claire Australia. 

‘There’s a gift to the writers in that but there’s also hopefully a gift to readers as well. You know, to people who already maybe have a relationship with a certain text and or with certain voices on the page. 

“The critic Susan Stewart describes the act of reading, as a writer, speaking to a reader who they can’t see or touch, and a reader listening to a writer who they can’t see or touch; it’s both. There’s a kind of communion that happens but also a kind of distance or a gap that’s there. 

“I think of live events as a kind of moment when that gap is breached a little bit and the writer and reader, who can’t see or touch each other, actually can be in this embodied way in the same room.” 

Leslie Jamison.

Fans of Leslie’s are generally drawn to her sharp prose and ability to write honestly about deeply complex and often personal topics. 

“I believe quite deeply in the ways in which a writer can translate lived experience into art and into literature,” Leslie explains. 

“I think there is an incredible amount of meaning and insight to be gathered from like anybody’s life not just the most extraordinary lives—whether that’s extraordinary in the sense of accomplishment in terms of levels of trauma or suffering—but I truly believe there are like incredibly meaningful stories to be told about literally any life as long as you’re asking the right questions of it.” 

Every memoirist has to strike the balance between an ‘everything is copy’ notion and the deep vulnerability of self-exposure. In a way, this balance seems all the more delicate for female artists, who have historically, been expected to reveal their darkest traumas as a way of proving themselves as an artist.

For Leslie, finding the right balance comes down to form.

“I believe quite deeply in the project of making literature from what one has lived but I also believe in a version of that process that involves time and introspection and reflection,” Leslie says, explaining that she’s wary of the rapid-fire approach to telling personal stories. 

“I think there can be a culture of producing personal confessional narratives that are more rapid fire—whether that’s people sort of broadcasting their lives on social media, which can be a process with a really quick turnaround time, or the internet personal essay boom of the late 2010s, where there was a kind of like, a little bit of a cottage industry formed around a certain kind of female personal narrative.

“To make art from what you’ve lived is no less literary than writing a novel—so you can approach it with the same process. Maybe you work on it for years or really think about form, structure and voice, and all these dimensions of how you’re telling this story, rather than just thinking about a kind of assembly design version of, you live something and then you immediately broadcast it to the world.” 

Based on these responses it will likely come as no surprise then that Leslie isn’t a huge social media user, steering clear of Instagram and using X (formerly known as Twitter) mainly as a creative tool. 

“One of my current book projects is a book about daydreams and daydreaming as the perfect life,” Leslie explains.

“I really wanted to ask strangers about their daydreams, it just feels so private—almost like one of the last frontiers of privacy. So, I created this survey and then used X to basically get about 150 people telling me their most private, recurring daydreams

“So, I feel both like there are some corrosive elements of social media that I’m definitely not immune to—I can definitely like, chase likes, and that feeling can remind me of like, you know, there was never such a thing as too much booze for me 15 years ago— but there are also ways that it can be a kind of incredible technology to instantaneously connect with like, 25,000 people.” 

Splinters, Leslie Jamison

In Leslie’s latest work, a memoir about the end of her marriage and the beginning of motherhood, she explores what it means to be both a mother and an artist. 

Unlike the widespread cultural narrative, that sees motherhood as an experience that pulls women away from their own passions and desires, Leslie writes of motherhood bringing her even closer to art.

“What has felt unique to me about the experience of parenting is getting this kind of front row seat to watch the development of another consciousness,” Leslie says.

“You know, like getting to watch my daughter, learn how to use language, getting to watch her imagination kind of take flight like, it just has felt like this really unique opportunity to watch the formation of another person’s interior life.” 

“One of the things that I have always been most interested in exploring as a writer is what does intimacy feel like? What does love feel like? What does it feel like to love people and want to take care of them? How much can we ever really imagine or understand the inner life of another person? I think that, for me, parenting has been among other things, like a profound immersion into all these questions.” 

“I don’t mean to be romantic about it,” Leslie says, “like it’s also exhausting and consuming and sometimes it’s just a big hassle and sometimes I’m about to lose my shit and you know, like all of those things are also true and all of that kind of emotional messiness is part of what I’m also invested in—but the opportunity to witness a consciousness has really kind of given me a new kind of access to some of the questions that have always felt really important to the art I was trying to make.” 

You can see Leslie Jamison at Melbourne Writers Festival between the 6th and 12th May. Book your tickets here.

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