Every community has its taboos, and the literary world is no different. Dirty words like flowery, pretentious, or derivative get bounced around to describe work, but few accusations strike blows at the hearts of the seriously bookish more so than being called a confessional writer. Telling a new acquaintance that you love the work of Sylvia Plath or Rachel McKibbens might be the truth, but it will not spare you judgment from folks who consider the candor of these writers (and, let’s be honest, it’s usually women who are often shoved in the Confessional box) to be some sort of crime. Not only do these writers speak of and allude to their own lives too openly and often, they regularly return to the crime scene to confess again and again.
Squeamishness at human experiences is not what makes writing that draws directly from them a sin: it is the perceived wastefulness. It’s one thing to be guilty, and quite another to keep bringing it up. As true-crime dramas become more common in the media landscape, audiences grow used to seeing the worst in humanity displayed in an almost comforting formula. When justice is done, the show ends, and neither the criminals nor their victims pester the audience with further reflection or detail.
Confessional writers, however, don’t allow the conversation to end tidily with due punishment—if any was or could be meted out. A dozen essays might be written on the death of a friend or a score of poems that sing of a love gone wrong, and the writer will not run out of words, regardless of the reader’s store of patience. The purgative effects of writing are as well established as those of donning leeches or cutting salt from one’s diet, and older by far. Even those who disdain the confessional writer revisit their own greatest hurts and joys in their minds. The difference between them is only that the confessional writer has a catalogue of how they have evolved with those experiences instead of hiding the fact that any evolution was necessary.
Be it a broken promise or a broken heart, we’ve all urged ourselves at some point to just get over it. Nobody wants to be the friend who cries at the end of the night out or asks another to read the fifteenth revision of an aching poem—and yet, we are all that person at times. There is no shame in it. You will need help from time to time to make sense of the things you do and the things that are done to you; while it is nice to have others to bounce things off of, you will have to be able explain things to yourself in your own words. And that will take time.
In her book of essays Skin, Dorothy Allison speaks at length on the themes that have filled her literary works: abuse, sex, poverty, loss, and renewal. These may not be the things to which you must confess, but the struggle to make something neat of what was a mess to survive is something shared. As Allison says,
“I can write about years in a paragraph, but the years took years to pass.”
When you are creating and feel your hands begin to shake for fear of being “one of those,” breathe, and watch what they can make when steady.
Earlier version written for WiseLit.
Updated for guest post for Trish Hopkinson.