7 March 2023

‘When the light returned, I knew it was time to construct another nervous system.’: an extract from Margo Jefferson’s ‘Constructing a Nervous System’

Posted by Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson’s Constructing a Nervous System, shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, is an intimate and innovative memoir, taking as its focus each ‘influence, love and passion’ which have gone to shape Jefferson as a person: her family, musicians, dancers, athletes and artists, and one which, in Maggie Nelson’s words, ‘takes vital risks, tosses away rungs of the ladder as it climbs’. Listen to Jefferson discuss Constructing a Nervous System with Colin Grant in our podcast, and read on for an extract from the book.

I stood in a bright, harsh light. The stage was bare.
I extended my arm—no, flung, hurled it out—pointed an accusatory finger, then turned to an unseen audience and declared,


It was part of the night’s dream work. And I was rattled when I woke up, for I’d been addressing myself. My tone was harsh and my outstretched arm with its accusing finger had the force of that moment in melodrama when the villain (hitherto successful in his schemes to ruin the heroine’s life) is revealed, condemned and readied for punishment.

I understood what I had to do.

At the end of his stage show, Bill Bojangles Robinson would look up at the lighting booth and shout, Give me a light. My Color.

Pause. Then


When the light returned, I knew it was time to construct another nervous system.

For most of my adult life I’d felt that to become a person of complex and stirring character, a person (as I put it) of “inner consequence,” I must break myself into pieces—hammer, saw, chisel away at the unworthy parts—then rebuild. It was laborious. Like stone masonry.

And on the stone masonry model the human self says go on. Admires itself for saying go on, and proceeds to . . . Go On.

As I went on, I grew dissatisfied. This edifice was too fixed. I wanted it to become an apparatus of mobile parts. Parts that fuse, burst, fracture, cluster, hurtle and drift. I wanted to hear its continuous thrum. THRUM go the materials of my life. Chosen, imposed, inherited, made up. I imagined it as a nervous system. But not the standard biological one. It was an assemblage. My nervous system is my structure of recombinant thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations and words.

Repeat After ME:
It’s time to construct another nervous system

You write criticism. You write memoir.
What will be your tactics, strategies, instruments for constructing this nervous system?

I keep carping and fussing, rearing up against the words “critic” and “criticism.” Such august, temperate words. They make me think Gertrude Stein was right, that nouns are boring because all they do is name things, “and just naming names is alright when you want to call a roll but is it good for anything else.” When you’re thrilled by a taffeta petticoat, a flying buttress, a sound chamber of notes and syllables—when an idea makes you feel “as if the top of your head were being taken off”—then abandon your too-temperate prose zone and keep writing criticism.

As for “memoir,” I keep attaching adjectives to it. Cultural memoir, temperamental memoir: What makes me so anxious? I want memoir and criticism to merge. Can they? And if so, how?

Read on.

There’s no escaping the primal stuff of memory and experience. Dramatize it, analyze it, amend it accidentally, remake it intentionally.

Call it temperamental autobiography.

Be a critic of your own prose past. These words for instance.

A young novelist asked me: Why did you choose to write criticism?

I wanted to make my way to the center of American culture, and find ways to de-center it, I told her.

Why did you choose to write memoir? she asked.

I wanted to make my way to my own American center and find language for the fractures there, I answered.

These words aren’t wrong, and they’ve worked to set the mood for readings. They’re too smooth, though, too graciously incantatory. Too designed to show the valiant journey, the honorable aim. The rule assigned and assumed. (Stand up especially straight, please, you are one of the first black/woman critics here, you are among the first of your race and gender to steadily publish reviews in a cluster of widely read periodicals from the 1970s into the twenty-first century.) Writing to honor and claim a permanent place for the arts and cultures of non-white non-males and non-heterosexuals; writing to savor and display your ease with them all, including the arts and cultures of white male heterosexuals. Writing to display your own gifts and skills.

Is this commemoratively grand? Tonally accurate, though: those times and those settings required touches of self-protective grandeur. You were always calculating—not always well—how to achieve; succeed as a symbol, and a self.

Remember: Memoir is your present negotiating with versions of your past for a future you’re willing to show up in.


Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson (Granta) is shortlisted for the 2023 Rathbones Folio Prize. The winner is announced on Monday 27 March at the British Library.

Join Margo Jefferson, alongside a stellar line-up of international Rathbones Folio Prize shortlistees, for an online event with 5x15 on Tuesday 21 March at 7 p.m. Find out more and book tickets here.

Books mentioned in this blog post