Leslie Jamison describes her sense of the personal essay and its connections to journalism and critical writing. Her recent collection of essays entitled “The Empathy Exams” combine the personal with the the cultural. “I’m interested,” she writes, “in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience.” In this approach, personal experience is not the end of the essay but rather the beginning of making connections to the larger world. In many ways, empathy is at the heart of what an essay can achieve between the writer’s personal experiences and our own.
“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?
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.”
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