The harrowing personal essay—is it worth it?
I began a writing degree one month after my sister was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. At the time, people would exclaim how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to write about the illness. How insensitive, I thought to myself. This is not literary, it’s life.
‘Write what you know’ was the mantra espoused by my writing lecturer. The first genre we were introduced to was the personal essay, and the first assignment we were given was to produce one. The lecturer hoped we’d be inspired by our intense analysis of Joan Didion’s In Bed.
Towards the end of my studies, I was tasked with producing a 9000-word piece. Again my academic adviser thought it was obvious what I’d write about: my sister’s leukaemia. So I did. And it proved cathartic. But I struggled with the idea I might be using my sister’s trauma for some kind of writing gain, some kind of life kudos that didn’t belong to me.
Anne Lamott admitted that on the first day of a workshop, she tells her students that good writing is about telling the truth. Flannery O’Connor famously said that anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write about for the rest of his or her life. Observations, stories of pain, survival and struggle have long been the fodder with which writers have played, toiled and spun works of art. The scrapings of a writer’s inner world provide readers with an unspoken connection of ‘me too’. It’s the writer who puts words to the ineffable experiences left in the unvisited corridors of our minds.
In the brave new world of the internet, those scrapings seem to be artfully plastered across blogs and online platforms. As Andie Fox says, ‘the internet, with its immediacy, collapsing the private and public realm, prioritises the undistilled thought’.1 But are a writer’s confessions helpful to the broader public, or does the mass consumption of the genre point to the fact we revel in people’s pain? And for a writer, does the process of confessing offer catharsis, or does the potential viral fame fall on them like an illness?
In 2010 the then-editor of literary magazine the Paris Review, Philip Gourevitch, said he had witnessed a skyrocketing of non-fiction as literature during his tenure. ‘The past fifty years has seen an explosion of exciting new work in memoir, reportage and the literature of fact in all forms and lengths and style.’2 But the past 50 years has also seen an immense change across publishing thanks to the internet. While New Journalism may have catalysed observational reporting, it is only due to the advent of participatory online sites that we have witnessed the full chain reaction of the genre. The vertical pronoun particular to the writers of New Journalism has taken full force in orbit around the web. Rebecca Harkins-Cross put it well in her 2012 take on Joan Didion for Meanjin:
Didion’s writing of the self is far removed from the brand of memoir we are familiar with today. Didion was born long before social media and reality TV began encouraging the masses to narrativise their lives, and her sensibility is at odds with the salacious tell-all or the voyeuristic confessional. Hers is more a brand of emotional honesty: sometimes brutal and always piercing enough to scar.3
‘How I fell in and out of love with my dad’ is the headline that Slate’s senior editor Laura Bennett interrogated in her 2015 reflection on how the harrowing personal essay took over the internet.4 It fits in well with what Harkins-Cross identifies as the salacious tell-all. The piece, written by a Natasha Chenier, told the story of how the 19-year-old was overcome with lust on first meeting her stepfather. In her investigation on the unprecedented rise of this genre of writing, Bennett unpicked the editor’s duty to reader and writer.
She said the rise of the unreported ‘hot take’ means editors seize pitches by writers with any claim to expertise on a topic. ‘First person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story,’ she says, ‘without paying for reporting.’
For writers hoping to break in, the ‘first-person boom’ has cultivated a landscape where, Jezebel’s editor Jia Tolentino says, ‘writers feel the best thing they have to offer is the worst thing that ever happened to them’. Unfortunately, following the publication of the story, Chenier fell out of touch with her mother’s family. When she pitched another story to Jezebel, it was declined.
For other writers, the advent of online publishing has brought such opportunity that for two years or so, literary publications have offered the epoch luminary descriptor: ‘a golden age for female essayists’. In Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times book review column on the topic, she advocated for the success of Lena Dunham, Leslie Jamison, Roxane Gay and Meghan Daum. She admitted to having found Jamison and Gay online where a number of women have found ‘if not fame, a following’.5
‘In this insular yet influential milieu,’ Strayed says, ‘where the measure of success has nothing to do with book deals or best-seller lists, but is quite simply many people posting a link preceded by a sentiment along the lines of you have to read this—the personal essay is king.’ Surely, to a young writer keen on making a story out of his or her own truth, this golden age would appear motivating to expunge their own confession. If Lena Dunham can write about such and such, why can’t they?
Since Saint Augustine (354–430 CE) first identified his sin in stealing pears from a stranger’s tree, there has been a traced history of confessional writing. The North African theologian wrote about the episode as part of his Confessions after converting to Christianity. In a sermon, Augustine explained that the forgiveness of mortal sins requires confessing to one another. It is not enough to confess them privately to God; the effect of isolation they visit on the soul can only be resolved by public confession.
When Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, exposing some detailed descriptions of masochism, was published, eighteenth-century Paris was shocked. He was accused of literary exhibitionism. His contemporary Edmund Burke lamented the ‘new sort of glory’ the philosopher was getting from ‘bringing hardily to light … obscure and vulgar vices’.6
Although Rousseau wasn’t the first confessional writer to be lambasted as an exhibitionist, neither was his act of confessing all that unusual. Psychiatric nurse Elizabeth Todd says confession is part of the therapeutic process.7 She says man has an instinctual need to confess that which he perceives to be wrong or an offence against himself, against his fellow man, or against God. The experience of guilt causes man to use, in some form, the tool of confession to be reconciled with significant others. Truth lodged in our most secret nature, according to Michel Foucault, demands only to surface. ‘If it fails to do so, this is because a constraint holds it in place, the violence of a power weighs it down and it can only be articulated at the price of a kind of liberation.’
The reading of another’s work is like a transference of weight. As we read another’s stories, we take on their burden, even if just for the duration of a page. A public confession is the transference of a burden from an internal battle of guilt or shame to a public liberation. Reading of another’s confession or deep dark secret invokes shared meaning. It is like trying on someone else’s pain for a while, and feeling the weight of purging it.
In Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she says we are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.8 American memoirist Mary Karr says that as a child, reading the sagas of Helen Keller and Maya Angelou, she felt less lonely. ‘In some animalistic way, I believed they were talking (as my toddler son once said of the infuriatingly saccharine Mr Rodgers) “Only to me”.’9
Since the seventeenth century, journals, periodicals and papers have served a role in the public square as playing host to ideas and to update readers on current affairs.10 These publications have had a role in maintaining the fourth estate, offering comic relief and providing a platform for conversations. Professor of journalism Doug Birkhead describes the role of journalists and the practice of journalism as public confessor: ‘a position of immense responsibility, in the name of the public’s right to know’.11 What, then, is the public’s right to know? Some talk of confession and guilt as two sides of the same coin. That there should be a correlation between the number of people involved in some act of crime, sin or shame and the number of people to whom that act should be confessed.
The public square has a duty in seeing a public wrongdoing, or a crime, rectified. Newspapers do their job in calling to account corporate wrongdoings. Academic Sue Joseph says that journalism reflects an impulse to bring events into a forum so they may be accounted for. ‘The press has traditionally sought to make itself—and us—bear responsibility of bearing witness rather than merely onlookers.’12
While the press plays its part in bearing witness to what we might call public sins, it is more difficult to call to account those done in private. Perhaps this is why we rejoice when an increasing number of female writers call into account private and personal flaws—whether done to or by them—because they are finally putting words to confessions that have remained unexpressed for so long. These confessions can span the gamut from voicing guilt for a flaw that is only socially unacceptable (female beauty techniques, for example) through to putting words to events so personal that writing about them takes bravery—and, I would argue, the caution of an editor to ensure the writer understands fully the act they are undertaking.
And while the voicing of the later errs on the personal—and, without an editor’s careful guidance, potentially unhelpfully so—there can be greater liberation for the reading public who might identify with these experiences. New Journalism scholar Norman Sims says that personal experience illuminates political issues.13
It would seem that public confession is beneficial not only to the confessor but also to those confessed to, who are equally flawed, who are reminded of their human inadequacy. Professor of journalism Matthew Ricketson talks about the value of this type of journalism to ‘unearth fresh, even revelatory information that at its sharpest will speak truth to those in positions of power and authority’.14 Who is it up to then, to determine whether a potentially inflammatory piece is helpful to a writer to purge a guilt and offer a new voice to the public sphere, or whether the pain or guilt involved in that story is better off confessed in a small group where it is unlikely to bite back at the author?
Where the internet has left many of us living behind the thin sheen of social media posts, it is obvious why the harrowing personal essay cuts through—and connects. But whose responsibility is it to ensure that once this story has been written, the writer is not cast out? Is that simply what is at risk in telling a true tale? Who is our internet’s keeper? When it comes to narrating the personal, is the hope for confession, connection and catharsis enough of a motivator?
The success of the harrowing personally essay over the internet is, as Bennett suggests, evident in the hits. In storytelling-as-therapy advocate Alain de Botton’s take on The News, he says, ‘while news is not fiction, it is a story about reality, not reality itself. Yet because of the privileged status as reality and truth, the seductive powers of its narrative are particularly significant.’15
The publication of these personal stories under the masthead of news has a specific power for the stories. It is here, I believe, that the internet’s harrowing personal essays diverge from literature’s memoir. These stories, while personal, have been deemed newsworthy. According to researchers in the area of narrative journalism, the capacity of reader engagement in news is affected by the forward motion of the narrative.16 Storytelling has a special power to engage the emotions and help people make sense of things.
Is the rise of comment writing and personal essays to do with the fact it is a welcome divergence of style from the news pyramid we got in the papers for decades? Or is it the power of connection that forms from person to person as the writer’s story becomes the reader’s for a moment? The personal essay, the one Cheryl Strayed refers to when she talks about the one she links and shares, is likely the one found on publishing platforms under some sort of masthead. If these essays did not have the privileged status of the masthead, would the confession have the same result? I have my doubts.
Memoirists, scholars and writers would all agree: there is value in confession. There is catharsis in the process of putting pen to paper, purging the guilt, burden, or whatever it was that promoted the author to write their true story.
When I explained my proposal to write a memoir-style piece on the experience of living with leukaemia, an adviser promptly responded: ‘I don’t read those types of books.’ I felt lumped into a category I didn’t want to be in. We argued about how and why I deemed it journalism: I pointed to my studies of the New Journalists—and threaded an investigative narrative through my personal essay.
As I wrote, the truest points of catharsis came at my ugliest moments of confession: the shame I felt when, for example, at the height of her illness I could hardly identify this bloated, hairless person as my sister; the shame I felt when I met other writers who had experienced far worse stories than mine; and the shame I felt when others acknowledged the piece—a story that was never really my own.
- Andie Fox, ‘It’s time to stop condemning “confessional writing”’, accessed 11 July 2016, <http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/its-time-to-stop-condemning-confessional-writing-20140729-3crni.html>.
- Philip Gourevitch, quoted in Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir, Harper, New York, 2015.
- Rebecca Harkins-Cross, ‘Writing the Self: On Joan Didion’, Meanijin, no. 2, 2012, p. 80.
- Laura Bennett, ‘The first-person industrial complex: How the harrowing personal essay took over the Internet’, accessed 1 July 2016, <http://www.slate.com/articles/life/technology/2015/09/the_first_person_industrial_complex_how_the_harrowing_personal_essay_took.html>.
- Cheryl Strayed, ‘This is a golden age for women essayists’, accessed 12 July 2016, <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/books/review/is-this-a-golden-age-for-women-essayists.html?_r=0>.
- Daniel Mendelsohn, ‘But Enough about Me’, accessed 11 July 2016, <http:www.newyorker.com/2010/
- Elizabeth Todd, ‘The Value of Confession and Forgiveness according to Jung’, accessed 12 July 2016, <https://www.jstor.org/stable/27505805?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents>.
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Scribe, 2008 .
- Karr, The Art of Memoir.
- Jeremy Treglown and Bridget Bennett (eds), Grub Street and The Ivory Tower, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998.
- Norman Sims and Mark Kramer (eds), Literary Journalism, Ballantine Books, New York, 1995.
- Sue Joseph, ‘Narrating the Silence of Trauma’ (paper), accessed 1 July 2016, <http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/trauma/docs/SueJoseph-paper.pdf>.
- Norman Sims, Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990.
- Matthew Ricketson, Telling true stories: Navigating the challenges of writing narrative non-fiction, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2014.
- Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual, Penguin, London, 2014.
- S. Bird and R. Dardenne, ‘Myth, Chronicle and Story: Exploring the Narrative Qualities of News’, in Daniel Berkowitz (ed.), Social Meanings of News: A Text Reader, Sage, London, 1997, pp. 333–50.
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