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"I Was Wrong about TikTok:" a Conversation with Leslie Jamison
the fate of the personal essay in the age of the overshare
This week I thought I’d something a little bit different. I wanted to give you the opportunity to spend some time with a voice that has so happily influenced mine. Leslie Jamison is one of those friends who is so wonderful that only dumb luck can explain her presence in my life. Since I’ve known her, we’ve been in what feels like an ongoing conversation about anything and everything: art and literature and relationships and politics and this *moment.* I thought I’d let you listen in.
In addition to being my friend Leslie also happens to be one of the greatest writers of our time, the kind of author your 23 year old friends will quote at a dinner party and your 53 year old professor will assign on a syllabus. She has written a novel, The Gin Closet, and some of the most groundbreaking non-fiction work of the last decade: The Empathy Exams, The Recovering, Make it Scream Make it Burn, and a treasure trove of pieces in The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Nobody writes sentences like Leslie. Check out her piece in the New York Times yesterday.
Her honesty and unbelievable intelligence have made her reflections and reporting on everything from addiction and recovery, the body and its pleasures and pain, falling in and out of love, whale loneliness and virtual reality required reading. The least interesting things about her are that she went to Harvard and has a Ph.D. in English from Yale.
Over chips, tater tots and lemonade on a mid-March day that already felt like spring we had a free-wheeling conversation about these subjects and many others. We talked about Covid and TikTok, caregiving and toddlers, being raw and living digitally.
What follows has been lightly edited for clarity and concision. I hope you enjoy reading as much as we did talking.
LJ. Before we begin it feels important to say that there are three colors of chips on the table. And that the guacamole is vegan, whatever that means. What’s it missing?
AH: I think they all taste the same. But duly noted.
Leslie, how do you think Covid ends? Will it be a bang or a whimper? We both agree that we are on the verge of a different chapter. What will that look like?
LJ: Covid has had these distinct eras. It has helped me to feel sane to feel it as different periods rather one long trudge of ongoingness. It’s been helpful to remember the acute early time, when I had a very mild case and was in total lockdown. I’ve been writing a piece about feeling nostalgic for that early phase when there was a plotline with a beginning/middle/ end. There was a definite ending (getting to leave my apartment), and I knew there wasn’t going to be another one for a while. We crave that threshold: summer or the vaccine because everything felt so sudden as it was happening. I remember talking with you when it felt like something was changing every day: even the idea of having a week where everything was different felt like a fantasy during the rest of quarantine.
AH: If Covid was a punctuation mark, would it be a parenthesis or an exclamation point? We were talking about that early pre-Covid moment in the first week of March, when we know and didn’t know, and had everything ahead of us in this kind of awful and unimaginable way. It was such strange tone and time.
LJ: For me, one way to locate that feeling was the last trip I took was to Istanbul for a piece on bathhouses. That trip felt like total beforeness, and something like a premonition of what was to come or the creeping in of what was next. The substance of the trip It involved visiting six hammams in 36 hours, which took on this heightened sense of Before. On the other hand, people were wearing masks in the Istanbul airport and I could see people backing away from each other practicing low key racial profiling. I remember having no idea has to situate myself in relation to that menace. I hadn’t completely internalized how much it would take over our life.
AH: You wrote a really beautiful pandemic journal at the beginning of quarantine, and I was wondering if there were things you know now that you wish you would have known then?
LJ: I feel torn about whether I would have wanted to know then how long this would be. It was a core form of naivete not knowing how long it would be, but I’m not sure I would have wished that, or if that would have made my experience better. I come from a recovery space where one day at a time both feels reductive except when it doesn’t and it feels like the only thing and the deepest wisdom. The gift of total isolation and a mild case was that it gave me a small horizon: I just have to get to April 6, or something like that.
AH: I think that’s right, and one of the things we’ll do, maybe retrospectively, is figure out what the chapters to all of this were, and how to break up this year. March and April feel almost as different from now as what came before felt like relative to the beginning of quarantine.
LJ: I’m so curious to hear the table of contents of your Covid experience. For me, there was the effort to start to reckon with the long-termness of it. I had to let go of something I’ve had to let go of a thousand times in my life, being drawn to all or nothing the tendency to see things in extremes and black and white, and instead muddle through in grey tones.
At the beginning it was appealing to me that there was an extreme version of this experience: total lockdown, ghost down mild case of Covid, home all the time with my toddler, fucking crazy- but then the universe would owe me total restoration as the reward. That was part of the early innocence. The lesson of summer and fall was moving through this strange, weird partial compromised version of this world and you’ll get some things back and some kind of contact and possibility back, but everyone will still be wearing masks and you won’t see a friend eating a taco at your dinner table for a long time.
But there was something useful in giving up that toddler part of me that wanted all or nothing and realizing that I still want some of it even if it’s not everything.
AH: I agree that sometimes something can feel like everything, or definitely enough. You’re one of our great personal essayists. Do you think this period will be rich material for personal essays and writers? Have you been productive during quarantine? Has it been a good time for you as a writer?
LJ: It’s both an exclamation point and parenthesis. It’s an exclamation point from the air, but the daily view is an extreme event experienced as repetitious banality. It feels useful material because so much feels singular about this time, on the level of details and specifics where I love to live. These things that have become part of daily life, like the nail on the wall where you hang your masks or the plastic pods or the feel of the streets. The details feel so charged and of this moment.
AH; I’m really interested in that- for example the menu QR code- the hiccup in the regular, opening your phone. It’s so awkward. The details that become part of the routine, but still feel so strange.
LJ: I’m totally into the weird and shared qualities of certain details in this era. So much of the wrestling match of writing about the personal is the question of whether an experience is singular or different enough. But my whole writing philosophy emerges from the belief that something doesn’t have to be unique to be meaningful. But that question is sharpened to a fine pencil point now. So many of our live shave lived inside the domestic and banal. If you think something has to be extraordinary to write about, that actually eliminates a lot of material. But if you can dig into this dailyness, there is a lot of truth there.
AH: I’m curious: how have your relationships changed during this time: to friends, romantically, other bodies, to ideas and authors you loved before.
LJ: Where to begin. The first is the relationship with my daughter. I’m a single parent so I already had an intense dyad relationship with her. In that first period of March, April, and May I lived with her in this unique constancy, feeling like it was a planet with just the two us. It was all the punctuation points at once.
There were times when it felt intensely tedious and claustrophobic, but also extraordinary to have that unbroken sustained daily contact and to notice slight shifts in her being over time. How she grew excited to use marker squiggles on carboard to make a tree. I felt like I actually got to see a representational consciousness forming because we were spending every fucking second together.
AH: This is something I’ve struggled with. On the one hand the pull towards the physical the local and the detail, and also the reality that more of life is happening online these days. Is this an analogue moment or a digital? I think for more and more people the prosaic nature of their everyday is drawing them into the lurid or just responsive and incident filled internet, which can give us more than the world can now.
LJ: I’m really interested in the question of what each of these zones can give us that the other one can’t. I think of it almost like a genre or medium question: what can film do that writing can’t, or vice versa. What can this particular medium do that another one can’t do quite as well.
When I think about teaching in the flesh, the questions that became interesting to me this fall when I was teaching remotely was not approaching it as a pale replication making it what it couldn’t be and summon the specter of what it wasn’t, but rather to think what was possible in this form. I love the chat feature on Zoom so much: in recovery space, it can hold tonalities that sometimes aren’t allowed in totally sincere spaces: it is the little cage that the snark can play in.
I wonder if there are spaces online, maybe Clubhouse, that you feel actually allow for things that wouldn’t be possible in the real world, for which there is no analogue. I feel like the chat allows this upstairs/downstairs, official event on top, subterranean party on the bottom. You’re not exiting the conversation to comment. You’re contributing to it, off to the side.
AH: I think that this question of what each medium can do is linked to originality. If we find what each thing can achieve in a non-imitative way, we’ll be on track to be original. Or at least open up the possibility of originality where it might not have existed before. Maybe framing it in the negative is more empowering. I remember a professor telling me that movies could do war better than books. They just have more tools to capture its scale and visual dimension. I think as a society we are all figuring out how we can be unique selves online or otherwise.
LJ: Do you feel like you have a version of the Zoom chat? A particular digital platform that gives you a version of self that doesn’t have an analogue in the analogue?
AH: I think audio is a part of it. An interesting thing about Clubhouse is that there is no chat; you have to go off app. I think we’re still figuring it out, but I like the idea of pursuing technologies or ways of being that don’t have analogues. Originally the internet was a place to be anonymous. Now, everyone wants to be themselves and their own brand online: the opposite of anonymity. I wonder if there is a third way where we can be totally ourselves and entirely different.
LJ: Maybe we are all already doing that: curating ourselves online. Always a formed, branded thing, online or off.
Can I ask you one more question about Clubhouse? Is it especially conducive for a particular kind of conversation? Is it better at some things than other things?
AH: Its ephemerality is its advantage. That’s conducive to frankness in a way that preservation would undercut. It’s both conducive to multitasking and also weirdly intense, so I’m still figuring that out.
Let me ask you about the internet and confession. Your own work is remarkable for its honesty and rawness around questions of addiction, relationship, eating disorders, and a whole range of other topics. but I’m curious about how you think the personal essay stands up against newer modes of online exposure that people younger than us are using to tell their stories. Is there a sense in which the personal essay once felt avant garde and risqué or risky, and now might be passe compared to the ability to make a Tik Tok video with a different tone?
LJ: I love being wrong about technology, or how it can make me feel dinosaur aged. Snapchat was the first technology I legitimately didn’t get. I was confused by it. I mean, it just goes away?
AH: Me to. Why would you want that? Isn’t the whole point of pictures that they last?
LJ: Right but maybe new possibilities open up when something is temporary at the outset. My first impulse when you were talking about Clubhouse was to think about Snapchat. My kneejerk impulse is to think that something is lesser if it doesn’t last forever. But maybe this facilitates a different kind of presence.
I was really proven wrong about TikTok. I was being a boring old person and my first impulse was that this was the death of the mind.
AH: I mean when you open it up its just a total assault on your senses. Not to sound old, but its so crazy and stimulating. There is no antechamber into it. It just goes. But people live in it.
LJ: Back to tone, some of the TikToks made me feel like there was something possible you could do in this format that you couldn’t do elsewhere. One of my students is my TikTok Virgil: I’d be lost without her. That’s what I needed: it’s all happening, always. She showed me these ASMR clips of gooey foods like molten chocolate lava cake and a woman’s voice saying “men think that women always fantasize about meeting the man of their dreams, it couldn’t be less but actually women just fantasize about eating endlessly for the rest of their lives.”
That was so campy and obscene and true. Like maybe I tried to write a 450 page book about bottomless hunger, and this nailed it in 45 seconds, There is a radical economy and brashness to it. Like that’s it, that’s all you have to say about it.
I have issues wit snark and sarcasm as tonal evasions, but I have become interested in typing rather than writing by hand because I access a less serious tone. Whatever tone I am trying to get at TikTok has already achieved. It’s something like a constant wink that’s a tonal feature.
AH: I also had a TikTok Virgil, and I think there is a remarkable cleverness to these videos. I don’t really know what to do with that, but I definitely believe that these videos feel different from what came before in a way that we are still catching up to.
Your writing is both smart and honest. I wonder if these other forms will tilt too heavily towards confession, with no reflection. I wonder if people will feel liberated and more themselves, or less themselves.
LJ: The essay will never be outdated because experience + reflection will always be valued, and truth and authenticity don’t dwell in the first thought, but that we become more ourselves through revision. Publishing a diary entry isn’t necessarily truer than thinking about that diary entry for three years and then writing from that place. They’re just different kinds of truth. For me what’s interesting about digital forms like TikTok is not necessarily that they are promise something less mediated, but actually involve a lot of artistry: confession refracted through ASMR- the authenticity of something crafted and almost hyper-technique heavy.
AH: What is your next subject, and the next subject as a society that we need to be honest and smart about? What is the next hidden continent?
LJ: My next territory will be thinking about motherhood, and how it exists alongside other aspects of being alive. I’m really interested in caregiving, which include parenting but also so many other interesting ways are outside of that. Covid put this question into interesting relief- there as a moral obligation to care for each other, even as that became impossible and even dangerous.
I just read this book that blew me away more than any book had in a while: it’s called Stranger Care, by Sarah Sentilles. Its partially about foster care but uses foster parenting to think about caregiving models like tree roots and systems caring for each other, where the individual bond isn’t the right unit for thinking about it. I’m also thinking about my friend Brie, who writes about queer family making and caring for friends. I wonder about the things we haven’t formalized into sacred bonds.
AH: On that note, take care. Thank you for joining Better Thinking.
LJ: Thanks, Ari. This was so much fun, as always.