Monday, November 26, 2012

Confession versus Expression

Austin, TX
This is an unusually long blog post - I am letting you know because it's been a long time coming, and is in fact a draft of an essay for my book on writing in-progress called Sleight of Hand. I promise it is worth it, but it's longer than you are used to here at Inside Space.

I write memoir. It's the main genre I write, though some essays are more "essay-like" and some are more "memoir-like," depending on how you define the genres. Definitely I fall into the category of "creative non-fiction."

In my experience (reading and writing), what makes non-fiction creative is not the number of adjectives or the less-narrative-more-lyrical-structure. These are common definitions that I myself use in clarifying the distinctions of this new-ish-ly celebrated genre, which rarely finds shelf space of its own.  What really makes it "creative" is that the truth is being communicated in a less conventional manner. Instead of reporting the facts, confessing the crimes, objectively investigating the connections, creative non-fiction (especially of the memoir ilk) explores the truth through poetic form.

Naturally-occurring metaphor (situations where coincidence make you say "You couldn't MAKE that up," or "Truth IS stranger than fiction!"), universal emotional resonance despite the reader/listener having a completely different set of life experiences, allowing for non-linear descriptions that communicate an unknown fact but felt truth...these are what make creative non-fiction distinctive for me.

And in the process of writing memoir that is creative non-fiction (it IS possible to write memoir which is distinctly straight forward non-fiction, though it tends to get categorized as autobiography) has made it clear to me that there is no need for confession. It's really the process that has taught this to me - not the product. However, reading a product (for instance, just now finishing the book of "essays" - really a memoir - by Brenda Miller entitled Seasons of the Body) that clearly has a lot of tough things to communicate: uncomfortable, unfortunate and awkward things to say, makes it also clear to me that if something feels like it's a confession, it's not processed enough yet to be creative.

This is a strong statement. I realize this. Perhaps that's why I couched it at the end of a potentially run-on sentence at the end of a long paragraph. As so many say on the internet these days YMMV - your mileage may vary. However, I think it's worth considering the distinction between confession and expression - considering that I have found such a distinct difference between the two in all my writing and reading. And my students, whether they plan to or not, wind up writing a lot about confession-caliber things in my classes. There's a distinct difference, even in the rough draft, between someone who is writing something the first time and something that is coming through after many writes, or, possibly, many therapy sessions, much self-reflection, etc. I always tell people that Olga Broumas told me she wrote many poems - and published them - about her mother (after her death) until she was able to write the "real" poem - awkward, hard, but real (and, ironically, also with swimming imagery - see below).

Confessions, to me, aren't real intimacy. They are practice. Necessary, but not actual intimacy. They are too literal and not vulnerable, though they may feel more vulnerable, more exposed, than a well-written, deeply explored self truth.

I realize you need examples, so I am here to give them to you. I picked samples that actually use some of the same language in my own memoir - which is tentatively titled My Bermuda Triangle, and uses a lot of sea/water images.

Awhile back, I read a three memoirs that closely related to one of the memoir (manuscript-length) books I am writing. My memoir, in the few words, covers my early relationship to intimacy -  my parents' deaths, sexual experimentation and trauma, bisexual hilarity. I have read everything I can get my hands on (hint: you need to do this if you want to try and sell your manuscript to anyone) that at all relates. The closest (and best) books are Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen (found at Target late one night on accident) and Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water (recommended by a friend, then forgotten until it cropped up again on another friend's list). One day, at Frugal Muse books, I spied a memoir entitled Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg. It's about the author's hyper-dramatic mother, her own spates with drugs and sex, and struggling with intimacy. Because the issues sounded close enough to those with my own mother, I picked it up.

Her Last Death was - is - a disappointment. Natalie Goldberg, my writing - and reading - teacher, always instructs us to read books that have sold well in order to figure out why they have sold well. I am here to tell you that I think that Her Last Death did relatively well (Scribner/Simon & Schuster bestseller) because it is confessional. All the reviews on Amazon point to this - folks call it a "tell-all," state that she tells too much, in fact, in some cases. But she says no more than any other memoir of this type - the discomfort comes with the *way* she tells her stories.
A passage from Her Last Death:
When Penelope answers she sounds like she's drowning. "Oh, sweetie," I say until she can stop sobbing and tell me what she's heard. Newly married, lucky with fun jobs that flame out fast, Penelope lives in the New York apartment where we grew up, subletting from our mother. She doesn't seem to mind being buoyed by the swells of Daphne's manic behavior.

It's a pretty good passage. Alliteration, a hallmark of creative writing ("flame out fast"), simile/metaphor - drowning versus flaming, continuity of images: buoyed and drowning. It's well-written, tight, but also strangely lacking in emotion. This is in fact one of the least "dramatic" parts of the book, but even in a more personal part, with much more at stake, you can feel her emotional distance and the clinical way she describes her trauma:
Water rose up the sides of the tub, lapping against my hips. I waited and thought about the lawn mower mowing, my mother putting a stamp on a postcard, Shelly holding the door, and then my first orgasmic flush spread up my thighs, around my ass and into my tummy, which still felt queasy from my father's interest.

A passage from Loose Girl, which I think is the second-most (or least, depending on which way you are going) personal of the three. Published by Hyperion/Random House, a major press, it got some good press attention. I had not heard of it, but found it to be pretty honest and straight-forward - not as lyrical writing as I wanted/as I write, but still "less confessional":
Before boys put their soft, eager hands on my skin, before they pull me into dark rooms and whisper promises I hold on to like rope pulling me from water, before I sink further and further into trouble, I have crushes. Most girls know what its like to long for boys in this way...overwhelmed by both my mother's need and her absence, that sensation feels like desperation.

This passage uses a lot of physical description and is incredibly precise in those descriptions, almost claustrophobically intimate. As soon as I read it, I knew that no matter "what" happened to this woman, even if our stories vary dramatically (which, it turns out, they don't) the feeling she was communicating, the fundamental truth, was closer than any I had read or heard before.

Finally, Yuknavitch's Chronology of Water, which uses water and swimming (she was a swimmer her whole school career) as central metaphor. This title came out through Hawthorne Press, a small but distinguished Pacific Northwest press. Yuknavitch is friends with Chuck Palaniuk and keeps good writer company. Her book got an unusual amount of attention for the size of the press run, and she has a cult following, but it certainly had no sales on Cohen or Sonnenberg.

Yuknavitch writes about losing a daughter in a miscarriage, something I cannot relate to at all as a story (this is significant), and yet, the emotional truth is so resonant it blew me away:
I sat on the stool and closed the little plastic curtain...I bled, I cried, I peed and vomited. I became water. Finally she (the nurse) had to come back inside me and "Save me from drowning in there." It was a joke. It made me smile. 
Little tragedies are difficult to keep straight. They swell and dive in and out between great sinkholes of the brain. It's hard to know what you think of a life when you find yourself knee-deep...
Upside down I saw the sun and sky at the surface make silver blue electricity. The rushing water and strength of current pulled my arms, rocked my head. The upsidedowness of blood in my skull made my head ache. I closed my eyes. Still smiling. The cold wet of my life. My body in deep water. Weightless. Airless. Daughterless void.

What's the distinction, or what are the distinctions here? When we are confessing, we are looking to someone else for forgiveness: demanding, pleading or simply asking. We are vulnerable - very vulnerable - showing that we need something from someone else. But that kind of vulnerability can have a lot of aggression in it. Expectation. We need the reader to sympathize, demand that they understand and ironically, it is a false intimacy. You can feel the separation that Sonnenberg puts into her writing.  In Amazon reviews people cite it as a refusal to "name names" seeing as how Sonnenberg is a society girl, but I think it's more this kind of lack of intimacy, ironically. It's as if we are asking, when we are confessing, others to do something for us (forgive us) that we cannot do for ourselves. In the New York Times review, the critic states that she doesn't do any "dime store analysis" and that both distances her in the book and also drops us into a present tense experience. Except for it doesn't; other than the book being in present tense, there's little sense of her being present at all whatsoever, as a person (if so, an accurate betrayal of dissociation) or as an author (a more disturbing state of dissociation).

We have to forgive ourselves, first, or at least have done some of the footwork. Then real intimacy can occur. The thing is, this isn't just for memoir, though clearly that is my "genre" at least for now. Real intimacy with the self, with one's own mind, is necessary for any writing. I'd argue it's necessary for real living. Dissociation, rampant in a world full of traumatic experiences (whether one writes about them directly or not!) is dangerous. Intimacy is essential. As my previous blog post explores, we can make a new normal - not a confessional normal, which is what so many "sex and drugs" memoirs are now being cast as, perhaps rightly. But a REAL normal, that allows others to directly experience - with emotional language offering lyrical resonance, a universal quality while not belying the individual experiences. At least in memoir form.

Yuknavitch's book is not without problems. I think she needed stronger editors - it wanders a bit, and it's clear the opening part is the strongest. But she took on her own narrative - with a chronology, as she says in the interview in the back - more like water than anything else, running over itself, far from linear - and dropped herself, and us, right into it.

I want to close with some words from that interview with Yuknavitch about the "confessional genre." Clearly I have a lot more to say about all of this, but this is a good beginning. Thanks to the patient students who have waited a few months for me to write this, and to my cats who woke me up this morning, realizing I was ready to give it a try.

So like the drug and alcohol monolithic narrative, there are so many stories of incest out there yet to be told. But if you don't tell the right incest narrative, you got butkus. My goal in offering my own story isn't to claim that abuse suffered from my father is any more important than anyone else's. Nor is it to "claim" the incest narrative to sell books.
My goal is to put the reader into the space of childhood and young adulthood where fear and confusion and rage get born -- like they do in all of us for different reasons. To put the reader in their body through language. Because when I teach or give readings or workshops, I meet a hundred people who know what it feels like to be shamed, or beaten, or molested, or just made small. We all move through the waters. Language helps us feel less separate.

I would say it does. I agree. However, the language that makes us feel less separate has to come from someone not separate from her own experience. It has to come from direct experience. As Yuknavitch quotes later in the interview, from the Tempest: "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine." Blame and shame are outcroppings of pain - but if we stay out at the edges where they are, we don't actually get to the human intimacy inherent in all our experiences. The writing suffers.

This is what true creativity requires - radical intimacy and honesty. 
Not confession - true expression from deep inside experience, where clear waters run.


  1. I found this essay to provide a valuable point of view in that tender arena of recording, for public consumption, the travails and triumphs of my own vulnerability.

  2. I really got a lot out of this, as a writer of memoir-like items. Thank you!

  3. ... if something feels like it's a confession, it's not processed enough yet to be creative.

    This is a strong statement. I realize this. Perhaps that's why I couched it at the end of a potentially run-on sentence at the end of a long paragraph.

    Wonderfully observed -- and perfectly expressed. A bold statement, softened by a reflection that, paradoxically, strengthens it.

  4. This is, of course, thought-provoking, especially since I'm straddling that line in my own memoir re: confession that Madison Guy so poignantly referenced.

    I don't know much about the editing process of Cheryl Strayed's "Wild," which I'm finally reading now, but I found myself hungry for more information about her writing process. I found this article where she talks about things she had to leave out that pained her to do so:

    Funnily enough, as I read Wild, I do love it, but I wish for more confessions. I find myself hungry for more information about her heroin phase before she hiked the PCT, more information about her grieving the loss of her mother (though there is a heavy chunk of that), more information like the kind she discloses here:

    You didn't bring up Wild, and I'm not sure where that would fit in to your scheme of things. Now you have me curious about the editing of it.

    But it definitely fits with Natalie's advice about a good-selling book--Reese Witherspoon is playing Cheryl in the film adaptation, and this was the book that caused Oprah to re-start her book club.

    After reading the article about what was left out, I find myself very curious about what gets left out of books I read. Some of that is certainly likely worth including, and I wonder what part is an editor's call and what part is the writer's choice. I sometimes wish that books came with a kind of apocrypha so you could see them more fully.

    I agree with you about Lidia's book. My friend Ana read it and resonated with a lot of it, but Ana picked up on things that I hadn't even noticed, like how often certain phrases repeat, and things like that. But I am rereading Chronology of Water right now for guidance with my own messy memoir.

    I'm curious if you've read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and if so, what you think of it, either as a memoir or in general. I think I have mixed feelings about it. The opening chapter about his mother's cancer broke my heart, and I think it set me up for expecting that from the rest of the book, which is so not like that at all, as you know if you've read it. In a way, in retrospect, it feels a little sloppy and self-indulgent to me (one could argue that all memoirs are self-indulgent, but I think you know what I mean). I don't know if Eggers knew it would be as big as it was or why he wrote it. I just suddenly remembered that.

    Keep writing posts like this, love!

  5. Also, I am in the next room and it wouldn't be bugging me if you wanted to talk about this. :)

  6. I meant to also say (sorry for all the comments!) that I didn't offer to lend Wild to you only because I have it only on my computer and not in hard copy. But if you want it on your computer to read, I can hook you up. :)

    Plus I was stil thinking about this today. I might need to take today (well, not the full day, 'cause I'm too addicted) off from writing and instead use that to absorb what I read of your memoir, our conversations, and the other reading I've been doing lately.

    Something I thought of the other day which may or may not fit in. Since I decided to get more serious about memoir and personal essays, I've been reading other people's voraciously. And I think that's a good thing, and it certainly won't hurt me to read that stuff.

    But I also had to come to terms with something that I realized while re-reading Speak, Memory. That is a glorious book. It is innocent and perfect and vivid and human in all the right places. As much as there is to learn from Nabokov as a writer, I realized that I was, in my estimation, getting nothing I could use from Speak , Memory for my own memoir because there are so many differences between us and the purpose behind each of our memoirs and the kind of language we each need to use. I'm still pondering this, the idea of how much we can get out of texts that are well-crafted but totally off for whatever it is we are trying to do.

  7. Thank you to angelpricer, Madison Guy and Beth. I knew for sure that this would provoke in your, Erin! I was hoping it would. I am still wading through this - parsing out the roles of editors, a writer's experience and skill, along with intensity of emotion. Bold statments indeed.

    One thing I want to make sure comes across is that I approve of writing of any kind - and certainly there is a role for rawness in publication, by big presses (I'd like to see more of it!). But rawness and clean editing, I think, are actually two separate things. I'll be interviewing folks over at Memoir Mind (where I will also re-post a revised version of this, with all the comments taken into heart) to find out some authors' experiences with this process.
    Clearly I am invested in it as well.

    This is an interesting, if short, article on Viktor Frankl writing about his memoirs:
    Feeling the intensity of today's school shooting? Please write about it. Connect to yourself and others.

    I have a Heartbreaking upstairs and am ready to read it; I have not read Wild, though I am aware of it. Good to know. Ditto, Speak Memory. Yay, more assignments!