The Art of Confessional Writing
Walking home down George Street, in Fitzroy, last year, I saw a front window of a former shop, now a private residence, covered in hand-written notes. On the door were instructions:
Pssss! Tell us your secret. Have something you need to get off your chest? Something to say, but you can’t? Write it down and put it through our door. We’ll post it in our window. No names please.
The window was filled from top to bottom with scrap notes such as these: ‘Everyone thinks I’m cute, but won’t fuck me’; ‘My sister walks her kid on a leash and I think it’s fucked’; ‘I stole from my mum to buy smack’; ‘I’m a teacher. Sometimes my students are so annoying, I want to deck them. Sorry, but it’s true’; and ‘I am still haunted by walking in on my friend attempting suicide’.
Confessional writing is distinguished by its intimate autobiographical subject matter. Family, friends and personal information about oneself become the subjects of the work. Sharon Olds, US poet laureate of New York in 1998–2000, has been called the most confessional poet of modern times, with a Baudelairian eye for tender and gritty detail combined with an almost forensic frankness in examining all aspects of her personal life.
Olds’ marriage of 35 years recently ended in divorce after her husband had allegedly ‘confessed’ to having an affair with a younger associate. In her book Father, Olds wrote an excruciatingly honest day-by-day account of the dying of her own father, caring for him one moment, documenting the death process the next. Yet there is not a single poem predicting, or chronicling, the disintegration of her marriage. It’s as if she was looking the other way, not seeing what was in front of her, harbouring some kind of romantic ideal but oblivious of, or in denial about, what was leading to the break-up.
I believe that what is commonly referred to as forthright confessional writing is always selective, and far removed from the Catholic idea of comprehensive and total contrition. In a literary confession, the author only reveals what he or she wants to see—or wants us to see. I asked poets and authors Anna Goldsworthy, Dan Guenther, Judith Beveridge, Dave Mason, Melinda Smith, Robbie Coburn, Susan Hawthorne, Andrew Lansdown, Lin van Hek, Mark Tredinnick, Suzanne Edgar and Geoff Page to share their views on the way they practise confessional writing.
The postmodern selfhood of popular culture is saturated with the confessional, via tweeting, blogging, Facebook and confrontational television shows such as Dr. Phil, where people queue up to expose the intimate details of their lives. In his History of Sexuality (1976), Michel Foucault wrote:
The confession became one of the West’s most highly valued techniques for producing truth. We have singularly become a confessing society. The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relationships, in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life, and in the most solemn rites; one confesses one’s crimes, one’s sins, one’s thoughts and desires, one’s illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell. One confesses in public and in private, to one’s parents, one’s educators, one’s doctor, to those one loves; one admits to oneself in pleasure and in pain, things it would be impossible to tell to anyone else, the things people write books about. When it is not spontaneous or dictated by some internal imperative, the confession is wrung from a person by violence or threat … Western man has become a confessing animal.
This style of writing has taken many forms, historically, from women’s diaries, gentlemen’s pocket notebooks, love letters and poetry, autobiography and even suicide notes. It forms one of the basic fundamentals of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Step five in the AA recovery program is: ‘Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.’ It existed in antiquity, in Sappho’s fragments (600 BC), considered the earliest:
Tonight I’ve watched
the moon and then
The night is now
goes; I am
in bed alone.
(Sappho, Fragment 48, in Mary Barnard, trans., Sappho: A New Translation, 1958)
The origin of contemporary confessional poetry is commonly associated with the 1950s and 1960s, when writers wrote courageously about difficult topics. Sylvia Plath said that Life Studies, by Robert Lowell, was the inspiration for most of her poems in Ariel and that her work was not ‘some kind of public purge or excretion’. M.L. Rosenthal wrote that ‘it was the confessional poets’ willingness to discuss … shameful matters, with a frankness that can be unnerving, that sets them apart from their contemporaries’. Robert Lowell and his students W.D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton and Plath are said to have ‘forced a mutation of critical standards’. Writing in this manner is a very challenging thing to do: some part of the process always feels like a betrayal of confidence.
Geoff Page is the recipient of the ACT Poetry Prize and the Grace Leven Prize for Poetry. In his view ‘[Confessional] writing … uses “real” details about “real” people, including oneself, and allows it to stand as such. Poems with only a few details changed can also be perceived by others as confessional.’ Page’s reference to perception is crucial. A skilful writer can even lead a reader to perceive the impression of nonfiction in fictional writing.
One of the most difficult areas to write about in this way is subject matter involving living family members. Susan Hawthorne, founder of Spinifex Press, says:
My mother reacted to my novel [The Falling Woman], but after a long conversation we agreed that my representation of the mother in the novel was not all that bad and in fact some friends liked the character a lot. She felt happier by the end of the conversation. She had read an early draft and corrected me on some things because they were not true; some other things she wanted me to cut because they were true!
About themselves, writers can be more forthright. In her own experience with epilepsy, Hawthorne wrote:
In the Bath
I confront my fear
sitting in twelve inches of water
in the bath
There are so many stories of fits in baths
that end with death
(Susan Hawthorne, in Bird and Other Writings on Epilepsy, Spinifex Press, 1999)
Many authors adopt the persona of the extremely confidential ‘I’ when the writing may not be personal at all. Melinda Smith, winner of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry, defines confessional poetry as writing ‘in which the lyric “I” is actually the poet speaking their own experience, views, emotions, thoughts, without significant rearrangement or fictionalisation’. By her own definition, she considers few of her poems confessional.
Information wants to be free
Tell the priest
Pent up. Repent. Released
We the jury have found
Tell a hole in the ground
Stow the strongbox on the highest shelf
I won’t breathe a word
Tell a little bird
Tell one person at a time
Victim, weapon, motive, crime
Guilt by association
Tell the whole congregation
Tell Big Brother
Beg forgiveness from each other
When push comes to shove
Tell the one you love
Tell whoever’s in control
I promise not to tell a soul
(Melinda Smith, Drag down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call, Pitt Street Poetry, 2013)
Robbie Coburn is a young poet who grew up on his family’s farm in Woodstock, Victoria. He isn’t comfortable letting family members read his deeply personal work but says ‘the reality of this kind of work is unavoidable and therefore has to be accepted. I don’t try to shelter them from it, as to a degree they experienced my struggles with the subjects first hand.’
death was fashionable when we were
on rainy days in king lake
shielded by the birch trees
we would walk the path to the door
of your backyard
where five years earlier your uncle,
stitched into his work shed, tied
a line of rope to the rafters
to suspend his body
and instruct you to follow.
(Robbie Coburn, in Rain Season, Picaro Press, 2013)
Poet Judith Beveridge has received the Dame Mary Gilmore Award and the Victorian Premier’s Award. She was poetry editor of Meanjin for ten years. She calls confessional writing personal material that is ‘not necessarily imaginatively transformed, but is a more or less accurate account of experience as perceived by the writer’. Accuracy and experience, however, are not always welcome to those closest to us. Dan Guenther was a captain in the US Marines, with two combat tours of Vietnam. Vietnam Veterans Magazine literary critic David Willson wrote that ‘because of [his] plain-yet-elegant language, Guenther remains one of the finest poets of the Vietnam War’. Guenther still had difficulty sharing some of his writing with certain family members:
uncles and cousins … were offended by scenes of sex and violence in my war novel China Wind. As a result they have refused to acknowledge my work or allow their children to read my Viet Nam War trilogy.
Elizabeth Bishop commented once that she disliked the poetic trend of ‘more and more anguish and less and less poetry’. Coburn argues that we love Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton because of their poetry, not because of their suffering. The 2010 poet laureate of Colorado, Dave Mason, believes good writing is always the primary motivation:
I think the term ‘confessional poetry,’ for an example, arises when poet-critics like Robert Phillips take a look at the work of mid-twentieth-century American poets, including Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. There seems to have been a strong emphasis on writing that arose from autobiographical sources. But it sure wasn’t a confession, and it wasn’t simplistically true. At its best it was always shaped and driven by impulses arising from poetry itself, from the needs of the poem. The deep roots of this kind of writing lie among the Romantics, then in Whitman’s own version of an ‘egotistical sublime’ (I’m quoting Keats about Wordsworth here), and finally in Yeats and Joyce—two very great artists you can hardly read without resorting to their biographies.
In selecting what aspects of one’s personal life one is going to share with the public, many factors come into play. There can be hesitation due to not wanting to ‘freeze’ commentary on a still active relationship in the straightjacket of a printed creative work. Perhaps Sharon Olds avoided writing about the distress in her marriage because she hoped it wasn’t really over. Many relationships are rejuvenated at the eleventh hour. She might have felt poetry written too soon, and too hot, which is her style, could jinx any possible recovery. One important issue is when to make confessional
In one’s private journal, for instance, one can ‘tell all’ because the writer is the only reader. This can be of great value for achieving clarity on a pressing issue. Abraham Lincoln famously wrote an extremely angry and highly critical letter to one of his generals during the American Civil War, but never sent it. The letter was part of his private process of venting and clarification. He was able to instruct the general, the next day, clearly and effectively, without the diatribe. One of the problems with social media is trigger-finger responses to others without taking time for deep reflection.
I have a section in my own journals that I call ‘red’ pages. This is therapeutic writing I do out of anger or jealousy that I never want anyone other than myself to read. I usually write pages and pages of this stuff and then run a red texta along the edges of the pages to make them distinct from usual jottings. I always keep the red-paged journals under lock and key. Someday I may destroy these sections. But I need them now.
Most historical diaries—one of the oldest forms of confessional writing—were never meant for the eyes of others either. The habit of keeping personal diaries was practically the exclusive domain of women who, for centuries, were denied the commercial publishing opportunities of men. Today, these journals form a vital part of our cultural memory. The word ‘diary’ comes from the Latin diarium (daily allowance). Mary Helen Washington writes that:
Every woman who has ever kept a diary knows that women write in diaries because things are not going right … I think of the diary as… a private sanctuary where one’s truer self is affirmed and authorized. (foreword to The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells, ed. Miriam DeCosta-Willis, Beacon Press, 1995)
Few men kept diaries, and, when they did, they employed them for more practical tasks. Samuel Pepys recorded his daily life for almost ten years and his Diary, published in 1665, is more than a million words in length.
And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection—that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.
Most gentlemen kept a pocket notebook in their vest pocket. Mark Twain filled about fifty with sketches and plot ideas. Beethoven was often depicted in portraits holding his, which he used for musical inspirations. Emerson was prolific and kept 263 notebooks, requiring 400 pages of indexes. He even had an index for his indexes. Men wrote prolifically, but women were the true pioneers of confessional writing. The specific subject matter that a writer chooses to focus on in this kind of intimate writing can be beneficial to them in achieving a necessary therapeutic catharsis that might not be achievable by any other means. In The Diary of a Young Girl, posthumously published in 1947, Anne Frank writes:
the minute I was alone I knew I was going to cry my eyes out. I slid to the floor in my nightgown and began by saying my prayers, very fervently. Then I drew my knees to my chest, lay my head on my arms and cried, all huddled up on the bare floor.
Painter and writer Lin van Hek has won the Age Short Story Award and has had work recently included in Best Australian Poems. This excerpt, based on an early diary entry, is written about her early relationship with her mother.
When I grew to be almost a woman I wrote in my diary that being her daughter was the ultimate mind-fuck but even then she could still make me sob openly. Tears rolled down my face, twenty years later when I thought of her dark brilliance, the subtle complex composition of raw pain that I now know is the pain of many women.
My grandmother liked to kneel in the dirt growing things. It’s healthy, she said as we lay against the rear wall of our garden soaked in sunlight waiting for a miracle. The promises of fantasy are filled with greater splendour by reality itself, she told me. I asked her, ‘Why do you believe that, Gran, does mum believe that too?’ This believing was too much of an issue to explain, said Gran. I wanted to know in my child’s way if it was a free choice or something that was forced upon you. My grandmother, I noticed, was sobering up from this conversation. She understood the functions of conserving, patching and mending but she could not tell me why my mother sometimes picked me up by my hair. (Lin van Hek, The Ballad of Siddy Church, Spinifex Press, 1997)
It can be problematic writing intimately about family and loved ones while they are still very present in our lives. Not everyone is comfortable having their ‘dirty laundry’ aired in public. Also, if they are writers, they could write about you. Mark Tredinnick won the Montreal International Poetry Prize and the Cardiff International Poetry Prize. He commented that:
It’s a hard gig loving a (confessional) poet. You’re going to end up in one of her poems … I have found myself rendered in others’ poems, and though I have liked or disliked sometimes how that came out, I’m content to let each writer depict things as they see it; and I treat myself not as myself in their work, when that’s happened, but as a metaphor, a character, really, in the story they’re trying to tell. Who anyone is will never make it true and complete into anyone’s book. Literature always mythologizes, and so it should. What it makes, unless it’s a piece of journalism or a biography, is enormous moments, small stories. Small myths meant to tell us all something about our own lives, we readers. As Robert Gray once said to me, ‘if a poem isn’t fiction, it should be’.
This excerpt is dedicated to his grandfather, Rev Wesley Tredinnick:
He was not a man
and his was not a faith
That held much with dancing. Teetotal.
Charitable. Stern. Stone-cold
Sober. I think he came in that way: a stiff
black shirt and a white dog’s collar, the
In his steady hand. He lived most of his
life within an inch of one tight pastoral
trope or another.
The Christmas Eve, for instance, when I
axe in his preaching hand, and the hen
Running, heedless and headlong and
around the vegetable patch, stepping out
an absurd and touching dance of death,
until she dropped.
(Mark Tredinnick, from ‘The Ministry of Dance’, Bluewren Cantos, Pitt Street Poetry, 2013)
Any single poem or portrait can only capture certain aspects of a person. Family and friends sometimes find this kind of selected fragmentation distorts how they are represented. Suzanne Edgar was the research editor, South Australian desk, for almost three decades at the Australian Dictionary of Biography and regularly has work included in Best Australian Poems. She says:
The only rule should be the normal sort of civility and kindness and consideration for others’ feelings etcetera that one practises in normal interpersonal relations … obviously poems critical of one’s family should not appear while they are alive as they may give pain; and they, not being writers, are unable to defend their point of view in like vein.
Robbie Coburn is reluctant to name names and Melinda Smith prefers at least two years to elapse before she publishes work about close friends who are still alive. Smith said one poem was particularly hard to write: ‘I have tried several times to abandon it but it has kept on coming back to haunt me. It is a pretty frank account of living through the first few years of life with a child with neurodevelopment problems …’
First thinking it was normal to scream
until throwing up whenever we
Then shocked when I realised other
families didn’t have to live like that
First astonished he could read at eighteen
Then astonished at his shrieks every time
his baby brother cried
First proud of every fact he could recite
about the planet Jupiter
Then wondering why he needed twelve
weeks of physio to learn how to jump
(Melinda Smith, from First … Then …: Poems from Planet Autism, Ginninderra Press, 2012)
Anna Goldsworthy is a classical pianist whose memoir, Piano Lessons (2009), was shortlisted for the 2010 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. I asked her if she thought anyone figuring in her work, in some intimate role, should grant permission to be portrayed in that manner.
This would usually be courteous and in certain cases an ethical necessity … I do think it’s unfair that the writer should have such a disproportionate amount of power, in the sense that it’s their version of reality that sticks.
She describes an early teacher:
It was my grandfather who found her. He pronounced her name with an extravagant French accent that spoke of her mystery, her glamour.
She had recently arrived in Adelaide with her husband and teenage son and was teaching piano at a western-suburbs high school. My grandfather was a regional director of the Education Department, and he had chanced upon one of her lessons during a routine inspection …
‘Mrs Sivan is from Russia,’ [my father] told me that night at dinner. ‘She’s on the Liszt list.’
‘What’s the list list?’
‘The Liszt list. Liszt taught the teacher of her teacher’s teacher.’
He gave me one of his looks. ‘A very famous composer.’
I liked the sound of that. If I learned piano from Mrs Sivan, then I too would be on the Liszt list. It sat well with the grand narrative I had in mind for my life.
Tredinnick doesn’t think requiring permission to portray the living is realistic, that ‘literature would stop’. Page believes if the work is dedicated to the person, it should be ‘run past him or her’. Everything can depend on the nature of the relationship and the amount of love, trust and respect between the writer and the subject. Hawthorne says her fiction is often taken for truth:
In The Falling Woman, the character of the father dies in a tractor accident. A friend said something about my father dying. I said, no I made that up, my father is still alive and well. You mean you lied, said my friend. No, I said, it’s fiction.
Ali Cobby Eckermann has won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry. I set one of her poems to music a few years ago. She told me that the lyric was not about her own life, but based on stories related to her by friends in the Aboriginal community. She writes for her people yet this poem reads as a very confronting first-person confessional account:
I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true,
since I found my sister dead,
she hung herself to stop the rapes,
I found her in the shed,
the rapist bastard still lives here,
unpunished in this town.
I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true,
since I cut her down …
So if you see someone like me,
who’s drunk and loud and cursing,
don’t judge too hard, you never know
what sorrows we are nursing.
(Ali Cobby Eckermann, from ‘I Tell Ya True’, in little bit long time, Picaro Press, 2010)
The most sensitive area for a writer to address is commentary about living family members. I once wrote a cathartic song about my father’s violence to me as a child that I was unable to sing to him while he was alive. I tried. Visiting my home town, decades ago, I was sitting in my old childhood bedroom tuning my guitar, getting ready to present my song ‘Father’ to him.
I find my father again and he’s broad and
And he’s tall as an oak as he stands over
‘Stand up like a man!’ once again striking
And my mother just watches it so passively
With her unspoken glance filled with
It is a hard-hitting song but I hoped the chorus would demonstrate the reconciliation I hoped for.
The anger and deep rage burning in my
Is fading with anguish and tears to depart
To free me from this labyrinth dark
On the day I forgive my own father.
Just as I was about to step out of my room and sing it to my dad, my partner Lin came into the room and whispered to me that she didn’t think it was the right time. Lin and my parents had been sitting together on the sofa watching The Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey was interviewing old TV stars who had once been very famous but whose work was now relegated to nostalgia. They had written very personal books about their painful upbringings. My father said, ‘Look at that, Lin. Their careers go down the drain and then they all start blaming their parents!’
My dad passed away before I had another chance to play my song to him, but I came to realise that the song was really meant for me, and my own inner work, not his. (He dealt with our issues in his own way—he once told me he was sorry for being so hard on me as a child—and we did become quite close in his last few years.)
It is crucial to identify for whom the confessional work is intended. Some pieces simply might not be meant for other family members, or even the public, to see. Once again, like diary entries, no matter how well written, these works might be just your own business, private. Suzanne Edgar said in an Antipodes interview:
Many of my poems are biographical portraits … other poems are concerned with reviving memories of people, raising them from the dead, pretty much as in biographies. People interest me: I like to revive them by writing about them …
In Australia, traditional Aboriginal people do not want the memories of the dead revived or raised and won’t even mention the full name of departed family members or friends. In Western culture, however, we have the tradition of the elegy. Dan Guenther included seven poems in The Crooked Truth (2010) that have ‘elegy’ in the title. He explained that:
The elegiac impulse has to do with ways of completing the process of grieving and mourning. There is also that sense of obligation I feel to honor the dead. Certainly, in my case, some of it has to do with being a witness to the tragedy of war. The guilt of surviving and the sense of further obligation gave rise to such confessional poems as ‘Elegy for Jock’. For me this poem is an example of one that helps inter the lost, at the same time honoring their memories.
Elegy for Jock
In a previous life I crossed the border
from Thailand into Cambodia,
back to those smoky barrooms
where the social misfits and morally
mixed in deadly crowds to sell their skills.
Even now as glaciers in the Himalayas melt
and the Mekong flows
quiet and lazy, merging with rivers
whose names I have forgotten, primeval
out of the broad, flat plains of my
When Jock committed suicide in Phnom
his Khmer wife danced for days before
a floor-length mirror, wild-eyed, her black
like that of a sorceress, her blade-thin body
and glistening in a haze of incense and
‘He has already returned in the incarnation
of a cat, of that I am confident,’ she
snapped at me.
‘You will find him at that cosmic
he often spoke about, mingling with
from other galaxies who change their
shape at will,’
she said, twirling, her madness quite
So we wept one last time for Jock, our
two Yanks having found and recovered his
Jock, who all his life yearned to understand
who believed in a Karmic chain
woven intimately into everything,
who believed that beauty
offered the only path through the
Dave Mason said that he felt a responsibility to be fair, to honour departed family members and not use their lives as ‘material’, but he gives the example of James Joyce, who felt guilt when his father died, ‘because he had turned his father into the sometimes loathsome Simon Dedalus’.
Fathers and Sons
Some things, they say,
one should not write about. I tried
to help my father comprehend
the toilet, how one needs
to undo one’s belt, to slide
one’s trousers down and sit,
but he stubbornly stood
and would not bend his knees.
I tried again
to bend him toward the seat,
and then I laughed
at the absurdity. Fathers and sons.
How he had wiped my bottom
half a century ago, and how
I would repay the favor
if he would only sit.
he gripped me, trembling, searching for
Don’t you—but the word
was lost to him. Somewhere
a man of dignity would not be laughed at.
He could not see
it was the crazy dance
that made me laugh,
trying to make him sit
when he wanted to stand.
(Dave Mason, in Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, 2004–2014, Red Hen Press, 2014)
I wonder if Mason was able to read that poem to his father. Or if Sharon Olds ever shared the poems of Father with hers while she was writing, and he was dying. I found it impossible to sing my own song ‘Father’ to my father. Maybe Geoff Page had better luck:
Coming to say goodbye
—what else at 95?
we find you gone already,
a ghost in outer rooms.
Two jobs they leave you
to moor you to the world.
Stringing beans and ironing
and in the long retreats
that pass for sleep
you find again the exact shade
of a skirting board,
scratched patterns on a door,
that grainy air, long afternoons
of rubbing silver, sharp words
of a stepsister—not easily forgiven …
Full-time work, this
dusty midwest 1880’s girlhood …
and sometimes you smile back
as through a half-closed door
but it’s too late.
We’re using now
that loudness meant
for foreigners and children;
and as we leave you ask three times
do we have a car.
(Geoff Page, in Cassandra Paddocks, Angus & Robertson, 1980)
When Foucault called Western man ‘a confessing animal’ he could not have envisioned the tweet, the personal blog and social networks such as Facebook. The speed at which personal and sensitive information can be shared with complete strangers is staggering. I have seen many posts on Facebook that sound like cries in the dark. Friends quickly rally around the distressed friend with brief letters of encouragement, offering help and support. Social networks can often serve as lifelines.
The suicide note is one of the oldest forms of confessional writing. It is estimated that 25 per cent of suicides are accompanied by a letter. Robbie Coburn, who has struggled with self-mutilation, anorexia and depression, thinks ‘the suicide note, the final and perennial voice of any life and person, is the truest of all confessions’.
But the words that are left behind are very selective. Most notes are written either to ease the pain of survivors by attempting to dissipate guilt, or to increase the pain of survivors by attempting to create it. Other reasons for leaving notes: to explain the reasons for the suicide, to express difficult feelings that the person was unable to express in life, to give instructions for disposal of remains and sometimes to confess to murder or other crimes.
It is estimated that each suicide leaves behind at least two dozen people traumatically affected by the death. Among those who have left suicide letters are Kurt Cobain, George Eastman (founder of Kodak), Virginia Woolf, Hunter S. Thompson and Clara Blandick (most famous for playing Aunt Em in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz). John Noble, a Las Vegas resident, left a 270-page note, with a table of contents, and a two-hour DVD. (Noble’s example was eerily foretold in the title of a book of poetry by Amiri Baraka, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.) No notes were left by Van Gogh, Plath or Hemingway.
Confessional frankness is an essential part of our culture and is required sooner or later by most people in order to realise a fully creative life. But there are difficulties in doing this in one’s art. Nitya Yati was a philosopher, psychologist and poet and believed that one of the fatal traps of popular culture could be seen in the tragic lives of many public figures once they embraced what Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson described as the wounded healer, or the pagan role of the tribal shaman.
Jim Morrison, the late lead singer of The Doors, comes to mind. Premature early suicide, drug overdoses, especially in the rock music world, the chronic alcoholism of the great legends of country music, and so on. These modern shamans experience an ‘illness’, which gives them the insights they need to create their art, and then use their art to create confessional catharsis with their audience—before they suffer the inevitable train wreck.
‘To be at home in the darkness of suffering and there to find germs of light and recovery with which, as though by enchantment, to bring forth Asclepius, the sun-like healer,’ wrote Károly Kerényi. There is a hidden shadow in focusing one’s artistic expression in this way, as Yati points out:
The hidden nucleus of the dark spot of the psyche … can erupt in time and cause a pathological catastrophe. When this deep-seated discontent or fear acts only as a dormant stimulator, it produces pathos or sublime sadness tinged with suggestive fear, which can make one’s work of art most appealing to the critic. At that stage, no one would suspect the genius is heading for a crisis. When he is praised or congratulated for being so beautiful in his sadness and so powerful in inciting our emotions, the effect of such acclamation of him is the same as nailing him permanently onto the cross of his insanity. He becomes a martyr to his mistaken cause.
Love poetry is one of the most satisfying, and highly selective, forms of confessional writing. Done with imagination, it is transformative. In this kind of writing one must be judicious, not just for the art form but also to avoid embarrassing the lover. Suzanne Edgar has written a beautiful and erotic poem:
The Red Chalk Drawing
Thus, in a thousand years all men shall see
How beautiful you were, how I was faint
And yet how wise I was in loving you.
Michelangelo, Sonnet XVII
It seemed as if I held
the image in my arms—
how else to comprehend
the form of the greatest art
so exactly, intimately,
if not by holding you?
As we made love this afternoon,
I felt your body become
the drawing by Michelangelo
of the nude, in red chalk,
with long curving muscles
in bottom, belly and back.
The male buttock
is taut like a rock
but smooth in the hand
and rounded, warm,
packed with energy;
not cold like marble or stone.
My old way of looking
was somehow incomplete
whereas now I possess
the chalk drawing fully,
as I do you,
with all five senses.
(Suzanne Edgar, in Antipodes, Winter 2015)
Andrew Lansdown, twice winner of the WA Premier’s Book Award, feels differently about this kind of personally erotic writing:
I think it is inappropriate for a writer to disclose the intimacies of the marriage bed: to do so involves a betrayal of the relationship, if not of the beloved. Further, it fosters prurience where there should be privacy and purity … I do not write about the sexual intimacies I share with my wife, although I am happy to allude to the fact that our love is sexual.
Disturbing the lines
of her torso and my thought—
the curve of her breast.
beaded with water ricocheted
from her body.
She feeds the baby
then comes to me. Her body—
everybody wants it!
(Andrew Lansdown, in Inadvertent Things, Walleah Press, 2014)
Geoff Page makes a distinction between private and secret and feels the secret life ‘is always better not written about’. Judith Beveridge says you can write about anything, but should be selective in what you publish. This is where the famous ‘50 years after I’m dead’ box becomes an option. The confessional approach to writing is only one of many approaches. In the following masterful poem, Beveridge combines both the honouring of an acquaintance and remembering a father:
When we first heard the news that Harvey
had fallen to his death, my father and I
walking by the inlet. Ducks strung out in echelon
were coming in to dabble and dredge, we were
watching them along with the rise and swirl,
lift and spill, spin and glint of the spindrift
blowing across the shore. Harvey was my father’s
oldest friend. For years they’d shared a love
of seabirds, they’d go almost anywhere for a
Harvey would always risk the difficult places:
the top of a rocky outcrop, a ledge or bluff
where he could watch the swoopings and
of courting pairs of osprey, or see the brood
inside an eagle’s nest. Nearly every bird named
in my father’s notebooks Harvey had spotted
A streaked shearwater, a great and least
a white-faced storm petrel they’d seen almost
as a single sighting one day off a headland
as Harvey zeroed in upon a distant fleck,
then into the crevices in the rocks. Whenever
I thought of Harvey, I’d see his face locked
to his binoculars as he swept the sky to track
some speck to its point of vanishing. His fingers
skilful as an optometrist’s, adjusting the scope,
bringing the cliffs in close, or lengthening
his vision outwards, his hands always keeping
his line of sight steady. After Harvey’s death
my father locked those binoculars away
in an airless display case along with a frigatebird
he’d paid to have stuffed in the soaring position,
its red throat pouch in full ballooned display.
Years later, I opened the cabinet. The bird had
begun to slip its mount and I wanted to set it
but first I took out Harvey’s field glasses. I
them to the back of the room and saw what
to be the sky in mauve-grey, sea mist patterns
full of flecks like the birds I could never bring
to view. I tilted the glasses closer to the light
and saw the dusty, spotted, buff-coloured shells
of falcon eggs and what seemed to be the
on the breast of a grey goshawk. Then I
what decades ago my father had done. Grief
had broken him and for quite some time
he seemed locked away, fixed to a lost field
trying to scan for all the old vignettes
at the edges. I saw him again clasping
binoculars between his knees, working the
and the light-gathering lenses he’d
into place—and slowly sealing into each
chamber as much as he could of Harvey’s
(Judith Beveridge, in Storm and Honey, Giramondo, 2009)
Beveridge revealed to me that this evocative personal poem wasn’t true. But it is a perfect example of writing in the fictional confessional ‘I’.
Sharon Olds wrote many frank poems after her marital break-up in 1997, the year of her divorce. However, she waited 15 years, until 2012, to publish them, in Stag’s Leap, which subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize. The verse, she admits, is ‘the story of an idealist’, suggesting that she created a semi-fictionalised ‘I’ in an idealised relationship while the marriage was on the rocks.
Some people think I should
be over my ex by now—maybe
I thought I might have been over him more
by now. Maybe I’m half over who he
was, but not who I thought he was, and not
over the wound, sudden deathblow
as if out of nowhere, though it came from
of our life together.
(Sharon Olds, from Stag’s Leap: Poems, Vintage, 2012)
Each of the writers I have spoken to comes to a slightly different conclusion on what confessional writing means to them and how they practise it. What all do seem to agree on is this: confessional writing is selective and involves the creation of a persona, under the control of the writer, for a desired outcome. The result, though beautiful and resonant, may not be accurate, even though the writer may believe it is. It may also be fiction. Tredinnick believes true, honest and authentic confessional writing has its rightful place in the writer’s toolbox, properly used:
Nothing else can touch the soft power of the lyric, confessional poem … but not in every writer. Show-offs and narcissists shouldn’t go near themselves—or any of us, for that matter. Confessional writing will always find the writer out.
To the close readers, and students, of an author’s biographical material, the confessional nucleus is always apparent in an artist’s work; even in fiction. Lansdown believes fiction and nonfiction have always been quite blurred in the greatest classical writers:
Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno involve confessional elements, in that they reflect the thoughts and preoccupations of their authors, and perhaps even contain personal experiences in disguise. But if that is stretching what is meant by confessional writing, then we would have to say that these two works are not confessional …
Here is something I wrote last year about my relationship with my daughter:
The Daughter that still Loves Me
One out of two isn’t bad.
I haven’t spoken to her brother for thirty
She and I don’t see each other that often—
the major family-love days: birthdays, Christmas,
Father’s Day. (Sometimes
she forgets, but,
under the circumstances, that’s ok—the
with her mother was ugly.)
But I think she has forgiven me
for abandoning her, or however kids
view separation, when one parent has to go.
My daughter loves me and I love her.
We never got divorced.
The term dirty laundry once signified personal family issues that had no business being shared with the rest of the world. Screenwriter Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver, said:
The secret of the creative life is how to feel at ease with your own embarrassment. We’re all in the dirty laundry business and we’re being paid to take risks and look silly. Race car drivers get paid to risk their lives in a more concrete way; we get paid to risk our lives in an emotional way.
Today we call it confessional revelation and we find ourselves immersed in it.
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