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This blog was featured on 04/14/2018
Leslie Jamison on Originality, Boundaries and Structure in Writing
Written by
She Writes
April 2018
Written by
She Writes
April 2018

The book you’re seeing everywhere right now has an equally magnetic author attached to it. Leslie Jamison’s memoir, The Recovering, has turned the “traditional addiction/recovery” genre upside down and is surprising readers and critics. Writers can glean a lot from the path that led Leslie to publishing this absorbing book.

It’s Possible to Create Something New

There’s some common language around storytelling that would lead authors to believe it’s impossible to write anything “original.” Aside from the obvious ridiculousness of this claim, it seems for once, the critics agree that Leslie created something truly new to them.

Entertainment Weekly described the book as:

“[Leslie] spun a popular subgenre on its head. Here, she’s a bare-it-all memoirist, an astute critic, and a diligent archivist all in one.”

This is not only great for Leslie, but also for any writer doubting their ability to create something unique or worried that what they are creating isn’t “commercial enough.” Write what feels right to you without regard for what the proverbial “they” have to say.

Hard Stories Don’t Find Their Own Way

It can be easy to look at a runaway success and just assume the author has some natural talent you don’t. The truth is though, every writer struggles to find their footing and brilliant, “overnight” success is typically years worth of work and a lot of trial and error.

Leslie describers her method for piecing together her book to Vogue and it’s both inspiring and entertaining:

“I went through various structures over the course of the seven years I spent writing the book, and eventually just spread a bunch of pieces of paper across my floor—the floor of a house I’d been given for a month in Marfa, Texas, I should say (I don’t have that much room in my apartment in Brooklyn!)—to try to map out what the book might become.”

Great stories don’t just come flying out of your keyboard. They take structuring and restructuring and sometimes that means getting on your hands and knees with a pile of posts to find your where through a difficult idea.

Follow the Heat

Every writer wants to know if their ideas are good or not, but when you’re isolated in your story’s creation it can be hard to tell. Leslie told The Paris Review about what she calls “following the heat”:

“My friend and I were talking about what that phrase means—‘following the heat’—or what I mean when I say it, and I do think that there are certain emotions that feel to me like signposts, pointing at something important happening under the surface. Shame is definitely one of those emotions. Whenever we feel shame it’s a mark of some deep investment or deep internal struggle.”

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, recognize your own emotions as cues for when you’re heading in the right direction.

Originality is Overrated

It would seem that Leslie recognized the challenge of writing in a popular genre early on and decided to go forth with her gut instinct anyways. When she spoke to GQ, she questioned the literary and critical hurdles that could have caused her not to write the book that is now taking the reading world by storm.

“I did want to stand up for this genre that I felt has been the object of a lot of knee-jerk derision, and to question what that derision is trying to push back against or reject. What does that say about our implicit notions of literary value and, in the case of the addiction memoir, this idea that a story has to be original or somehow extraordinary in order to be worth telling?”

Sometimes getting your art out into the world means standing up for what you believe in.

Boundaries Aren’t Bad

The muse can be a tricky gal and sometimes there is a misunderstanding that to let the muse loose means you have to rip down the guardrails. In a conversation with Interview Magazine Leslie describes the importance of putting boundaries on your writing.

“I completely identify with finding freedom in boundaries. That’s why I tend to have more freedom when I write nonfiction over fiction, because I’m running up against actuality and beholden to the truth in a different way.”

Just because you’re working within the confines of a certain genre or structure doesn’t mean you lose your creative edge. Let the boundaries be your guide.

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