Conversation and Empathy
“For Paul, it started with a fishing trip. For Lenny, it was an addict whose knuckles were covered in sores. Dawn found pimples clustered around her swimming goggles. Kendra noticed ingrown hairs. Patricia was attacked by sand flies on a Gulf Coast beach…” —Leslie Jamison, “The Devil’s Bait”
I’ve assigned Jamison’s 2013 essay on Morgellons disease for several semesters in an introductory creative nonfiction workshop at the university where I teach. “The Devil’s Bait” has much to teach any writer about language, structure, and voice, but it also quietly highlights the importance of interviewing as a facet of essaying and writing long-form narrative nonfiction.
As the introductory paragraph quoted above demonstrates, Jamison’s reportage on the phenomena of Morgellons disease included not just research of documents (although that was part of it), but many conversations with people who attended a Morgellons conference Jamison uses as the spine of the essay’s narrative. What Jamison pulls off in this essay is much trickier than, say, a straight journalistic report or purely immersive essay on a Morgellons conference. As she writes toward the essay’s midpoint, the essay isn’t about whether or not the disease itself is real but, rather, “about what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion” and whether or not it’s “wrong to call it empathy when you trust the fact of the suffering but not the source.”
The “characters” or people with whom Jamison introduces her piece are not just people she interviewed to gather quotes, nor are they people she interviewed in search of anecdotal stories. Her responses to their stories and what they have to say are no more important than the information the reader learns about Morgellons in the essay. Jamison’s collection on empathy requires other people in the equation—what is empathy without interaction? Although empathy is the unifying and intellectual subject of Jamison’s work, I would argue it’s also the unifying element of the interview practice itself. We learn about the world from our interactions with other people, from trying to listen and understand their lives.
Internal and External Resistance
I began teaching after more than 15 years as a journalist and newspaper editor. My students’ resistance to nonfiction seems rooted in antipathy born from the five-paragraph essay (understandable) along with aversion to the outside world (problematic). Delineations between art and fact repeatedly embedded in taxonomical discussions of the form’s genre and subgenres create false dichotomies regarding the interrogative internal and external maneuvers of the form. I say false because they do not resonate with my own experiences.
As a child, I wanted to be a detective. I blame Harriet the Spy, and possibly Charlie’s Angels, but mostly what appears to be a possibly cellular disposition toward nosiness about other people. To that end, I owned, by the time I was in grade school, a private eye kit, which included a magnifying glass and fingerprinting materials; a lie detector, which required assembling and never seemed to work to my satisfaction (I was nosy but not mechanically inclined); and business cards, courtesy of my father, which read: Julia R Goldberg, Private Eye. In grade school, I compiled dossiers on my classmates, stapling their class pictures to index cards that included information I considered pertinent. In college, I studied philosophy, pondering along with the Ancient Greeks the nature of love, friendship and truth.
While I have written stories for which interviewing was simply as a mechanism of anecdote and information, I have also come to see it as a key factor in creating both discourse (see Plato) and narrative.
Other People’s Lives
“Bill Bradley is what college students nowadays call a superstar, and the thing that distinguishes him from other such paragons is not so much that he has happened into the Ivy League as that he is a superstar at all. For one thing, he has overcome the disadvantage of wealth.” —John McPhee, “A Sense of Where You Are”
I’m not generally that interested in basketball, or road kill, or Atlantic City, but I became interested in all of these topics, and many more, as a result of John McPhee’s essays. Although “A Sense of Where You Are” (The New Yorker, 1965) only quotes Bradley lightly (and mostly on the topic of basketball), the profile itself is filled with the narrative arc of Bradley’s life—a profile of a man McPhee describes as singularly disciplined—built on the information and stories McPhee garnered from his subject. Moreover, it is essayistic in its author’s insistence in understanding not just its subject but its subject’s subject: perseverance. Through his internal exploration, McPhee pushes basketball off the court of nonfiction into more metaphoric realms.
A master journalist and practitioner of creative nonfiction, McPhee noted, in an April 2010 interview with the Paris Review, that he is “interested in people who are expert at something, because they’re going to lead me into some field, teach it to me, and then in turn I’m going to tell others about it.” To a degree, both McPhee and Jamison’s work are a reminder to reconsider the old adage of “write what you know.” Writing what other people know means learning what they know and, thus, knowing it yourself—their stories then become a part of your own storytelling.
Writer Mike Sager has a theory “of reporting like old fashioned dating, where there’s a set of decorum and ways of dealing with people and looking at them and paying attention to them.” Sager says along the years he’s also added “a bit of ministering. I feel like when you listen to them and listen well and listen without judgment in the moment, in a way you’re providing sort of ministerial function.”
Sager’s approach isn’t based on its being the best way of “getting” a story or quote; he says it’s also “as close as I can come to finding something that we’re actually giving back to the people that we take our stories from.” Valuing his subjects is important, Sager says, “because without our subjects we don’t have a story, and I’m deeply cognizant of that at all times.”
Sager also points out that unlike information in document form, people “don’t have the obligation to tell you what’s inside of them. We have to go the extra mile to get it, because ultimately that’s what we want to know.”
Conversation as Container
In the classroom, students interview under false pretenses, as part of a classroom exercise that may or may not lead to actual writing. Just as a received form writing provides a constraint on the page, the interview process creates a container for conversation. I watch them engage, open up, listen to one another. I tell them to interview one another. I have them interview themselves.
In a classroom in Mexico City, I watch from across the room as two students begin to cry toward the end of one such exercise. I walk over and ask them what’s wrong. They tell me they have just learned, after years of friendship, information about one another they never knew. I restrain myself from asking them to repeat what they’ve learned.
Others in the room tell me they fear appearing, for lack of a better word, dumb. They think they should already know the answers to their questions. They don’t want to seem rude or intrusive. I speechify on the power of curiosity. I haul out my favorite stories about annoying the shit out of Margaret Atwood during an interview and sounding like a complete moron during a discussion with Noam Chomsky.
Finally, some students want me to tell them what they should ask one another, what they should ask themselves. The conversation turns quasi-Socratic.
Ask good questions, I tell them.
What is a good question? They want to know.
Wait, wait, I know this one.
A good question is any query for which the writer authentically is interested in the answer. They should be endless.
Adapted from Inside Story: Everyone’s Guide to Reportingand Writing Creative Nonfiction by Julia Goldberg, Leaf Storm Press, March 2017.
Julia Goldberg is a full-time faculty member in the Creative Writing Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. A professional journalist for more than 20 years, she is also a former daily radio talk-show host, as well as nonfiction editor for the literary website The Nervous Breakdown.