July 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Oliver TwistBraided essay, hybrid essay, mixed genre—all attempts to define a style of fluid nonfiction grounded in the writer’s experience but with…more. More what? How more?

Leslie Jamison, author of the remarkable new essay collection The Empathy Exams does more. Personal events—getting hit in the face, a failed heart surgery, watching reality television—are written as memoir but woven through with journalism and criticism.

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?

If you’re contemplating an essay that you want to be “more,” but unsure how to begin, or if that’s your favorite way to write and you’d like to take it further, Ms. Jamison’s How To Write A Personal Essay, at Publishers Weekly, is an excellent starting point.

Read the whole thing.

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