August 30, 2014KR BlogUncategorized

Meditation on Leslie Jamison’s THE EMPATHY EXAMS (and beyond…) (Part Five of Six)

Continued from Part Four

Again, I try to imagine whether I could have possibly chosen the word “sandpaper” in my own writing about the place.

I think I actually could have. I write a lot about the state—and when I’m not writing about it, I’m writing about the act of writing about it. And I find the roads as irresistible to describe on the page as they are to drive in real life; I often traffic in the familiar tropes, trying find something new beneath the surface. So it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that I could have arrived at a word like “sandpaper.”

But would I have brought the same level of scrutiny to my own writing as I am applying to Jamison’s? I fear not. I worry about my own blind spots, how I celebrate and perpetuate—beat the drum, beat the path—unconsciously and uncritically even while trying to be conscious and critical. When am I seeing, but not noticing? I keep calling myself an “insider” but that is not completely true, and so I must stop using that term as if I believe in it. I am, and I am not, an insider. (As I wrote earlier, I’m at home in the fringes, perhaps because I was born that way and perhaps because I was born in a region of the country that is often perceived to be fringe and hinge.) One of my great grandfathers was the Morgan who founded Morgantown; the house where we lived when I was a baby, just a few blocks off Stewart Street, overlooks the whole city. We still own that house; my brother lives there now. I am deeply connected to my home—so connected, in fact, that calling myself an “insider” is a betrayal of that connection. I know, love, and respect the place enough to understand that I could never know everything about it. A place is not a spot on a map; it is created by the many different people who live there, sharing its knowns and unknowns, each person mapping her own paths.

Before reading “Fog Count,” I didn’t even know that there was a prison near Beckley, West Virginia. Or maybe I did know, but that fact didn’t really mean anything to me. “Every fog count is an act of protest against unseen possibility; Beckley clutches men close—tallies them up, keeps them contained, seals them off,” Jamison writes (138). I stumbled over that sentence the first time I read it. I thought, Beckley is a whole town, you know. It’s more than just a prison! But to some people, Beckley is first and foremost the prison it holds. It is a spot on their maps. One hard limit. A full stop. A piece of punctuation inside of one’s life—never mind West Virginia, Appalachia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, or whatever else. I couldn’t have understood this without the help of Jamison, a fellow outsider.

Continued in Part Six, coming soon…