The Experiment in Irresponsibility

How the writer Leslie Jamison navigated service jobs, elite institutions, and alcoholism

Beowulf Sheehan / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In high school, Leslie Jamison worked in an architect’s office, at Gap, and at Jamba Juice. Later, she pursued higher education at Harvard and other elite institutions, but didn’t leave the service sector entirely, holding jobs as an innkeeper and a baker, among others. She’s now the director of the nonfiction concentration in the writing program at Columbia University School of the Arts, and an author; her memoir The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, about her experiences with alcoholism and recovery, was published in April.

Jamison has not only had to navigate spaces where experience matters most, but also those where a premium is placed on academic pedigree and critical acclaim. Recently, I spoke with her about navigating those different worlds, drinking on the job, and whether she’d mentor her younger self.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Lolade Fadulu: Your first real job was as an office assistant for an architect. What year of high school was this?

Leslie Jamison: He was a family friend, and I was 14, in 10th grade. My parents wanted me to get a job, so I worked for him in part because it was legally possible.

Fadulu: Why did your parents want you to get a job?

Jamison: They wanted to teach me some kind of financial responsibility.

Fadulu: Did their plan work?

Jamison: My parents were still paying for all my basic expenses. There were obviously all kinds of financial responsibility that tons of people have to learn early on that I didn’t have to reckon with then. I did start to think about money in terms of, If I want this, then I need to work for it. And there was something humbling about the job. Because I was a very committed, dedicated, Type A student in school. But the job was not about me performing my intellect or anything like that. It was about me watering plants, telling creditors this guy would get back to them when he probably wouldn’t. I remember returning videos for him and being told that certain porn films had never been returned. There was a lot that was in the weeds. And that was true for many jobs I had over the years.

Fadulu: Were there any periods of frustration or annoyance? Did you ever fight against the tasks?

Jamison: While working at Gap and at Jamba Juice, I did start to feel bored. There was a maddening element of standing on a Gap sales floor for 10 hours folding sweaters, listening to the same looping holiday-music soundtrack. Maddening in the sense there was an extreme tedium to it. I wanted very much to think of myself as someone who would see it through. If these people that I’m working with are waking up and doing this each day, there’s not really a reason I should be exempt from the same things the people around me are managing to do.

Fadulu: Were there any points where you felt like, Oh, this is it. I’m not going to do anything else?

Jamison: The Gap job was a good chunk of my senior year of high school and the Jamba Juice job was the end of senior year and the summer before college. At that point, I got accepted to Harvard early admission. That institutional brand has such a cultural weight and charge to it. People would be like, “Why are you working here?” The truth was I had applied to many different kinds of jobs. Most in that vein of clothing stores or food stores. Most of the applications I never even heard back from. So I was like, “Well, obviously, Harvard isn’t going to open every door for me.”

I realized that in that hospitality economy it mattered what your experience was in those particular worlds rather than a college brand name you could drop. I had two managers in my Jamba Juice job and one of them was younger and I think, to some extent, he felt better than his job.  We had this certification program that he would mock and I would mock. It was called getting an MBA, a master’s of blending arts. You had to get certified at the juice station, the frozen-fruit station, the blending station, and the pouring station. The pouring station was kind of hard to master one-handed. But he would talk about it in this kind of ironic way.

The other manager, who was the head manager and had been there for a little while, was a little bit older and took it very seriously. This was his place of work; he wanted to put out a good product and run a good shop. I remember at the time feeling a little dismissive of that. Now I look back and feel disgusted at that prior version of myself, who would look down on him for taking it seriously.

Fadulu: In that world, experience mattered most. But now, in the writing world, it seems that pedigree does matter a lot.

Jamison: That is something I think about a good amount. I direct the nonfiction program at Columbia University and one of my responsibilities is adjunct hiring.

What can matter most is what you’ve published and your reputation, and weirdly those things can matter more than what your teaching experience is or how you’ve been reviewed as a teacher. But there’s not that high of a correlation between being a good writer and being a good teacher. The skills of teaching are a whole different set of skills. It’s about negotiating a classroom and working with people and facilitating discussion and mentorship as an emotionally complicated form of emotional labor.

Fadulu: In your new book, you talk about drinking in secret for the first time when you were 15. Had your drinking affected those different jobs in high school at all?

Jamison: The first job where I feel I could see the way the drinking was affecting the job was my teaching in graduate school. In my early 20s, I started to drink every day. I was experimenting with being a little more reckless or irresponsible; I had really lived my life in kind of this frantic, steel-grip, overachiever kind of way. Part of being reckless had to do with drinking every night. Part of it had to do with letting work slip a little bit. Turning back student papers later or not being super prepared for class. Those aren’t things I really would have done before.

I had this really interesting conversation maybe six months ago with a friend of mine who was a friend from those days. She’s African American and describes showing up at the largely white writers’ workshop and feeling like she had to do everything in her power to not fuck it up. She felt like other people did not come into that space feeling like they didn’t need to fuck it up. She was totally right that I came into that space and was like, All my life I’ve been not fucking things up. Maybe I can fuck things up a little bit. This feeling that it was an experiment I could engage in to be a little less responsible. And she had felt none of that.

When I worked after grad school between the writing program and my Ph.D. program, one of the jobs I worked was as an innkeeper. That was the first job where I started to drink on the job. Part of the job included putting out evening wine and cheese. So then I would start drinking some wine. Then it was more like drinking three or four glasses of wine, especially after 8 p.m. when I was working until 11 p.m. After about 8 p.m., I wouldn’t necessarily see that many guests so it was sort of possible to drink a little bit more.

I wasn’t getting insanely drunk on the job, but I was really drinking at work. I would drink to that point of tipsiness that I really liked, but then I would get anxious: What if someone sees me like this?

Fadulu: Do you think the impulse to be reckless and to shrug off responsibilities had anything to do with the nature of the work that you were doing?

Jamison: I think it was more of an attempt to find some sort of pressure valve or release from that clenched fist of achievement-oriented drive inside of me than it was seeking relief from tedium. I did work in jobs that had a lot of tedium. But I never worked those jobs five or six days week for 10 years. I never worked those jobs without a sense that another job would become available to me once I got my various degrees. I think that sense of really being trapped inside of that kind of labor is something I’ve never had to really experience.

Fadulu: Why were you trying so hard to be “good enough”?

Jamison: Some of it had to do with how I was raised and the environment I grew up in, where the people in my family were overachievers and successful in their field. I was also the youngest by quite a bit. I have two older brothers that are nine and 10 years older. I think from very young I felt like everybody in my family was already kind of embedded in their lives and I was just trying to catch up.

Sometimes I feel wary of talking about temperament because I think temperament is always shaped by external forces, but I think there’s something inside of me that just had this kind of determined drive toward a kind of excess. I didn’t just want to be good. I wanted to be the best. In that way, the drive toward excess in terms of achievement feels related to the drive toward excess in terms of booze or getting drunk. I didn’t want to feel just a little bit of a good feeling. I wanted to feel the strongest version of it.

Fadulu: Would you mentor your overachiever younger self?

Jamison: I certainly have all kinds of advice I want to give my younger self, if that counts. I try not to project onto my students, but I do sometimes feel that the closest that I will ever get to mentoring a version of my younger self is working with students. Not only do I see lots of similar desires and anxieties in my students to the desires and anxieties I had when I was in my 20s, I also see them confronting similar work choices.

I just got an email from a student that just graduated from the MFA and is applying for a job at a hedge fund. It was a hedge fund that I applied for a job at when I was 22. And I remember thinking, God, I want to be a writer. But also would be really nice to make some serious money.

Fadulu: What would be the top three pieces of advice that you think your younger self would have benefited the most from hearing?

Jamison: Be patient. Life, hopefully, is long and you don’t need to make everything happen tomorrow.

In concrete terms, I would say to figure out other ways to pay your rent so your writing can feel a little bit freed from being the way you make money. I think so often with nonfiction, people feel that in order to be a real writer they need to be making their money through writing. But I think it’s easier to let the writing be what it wants to be and figure out other ways to support yourself financially. Supporting yourself from your writing can be a really tough, punishing standard, and just often a pretty unrealistic one.

I would most want to tell my younger self to invest in her relationships. When I think of some of the things that have gotten me through the past 15 years of my life, I feel so buffered and supported by friendships. I would want her to lean into, and give into, those relationships early.