Confession as Storytelling
I’ve been wondering why humans have such a deep need to confess, to bare their souls in search of relief. Whether a confession happens in a church confessional, on a therapist’s couch, or at an AA meeting, the goal is similar: to find reconciliation, grace. To unshed burdens. To gain back yourself. Absolution comes through expression, acknowledgment. By giving your story to another, you find a new story.
I’m thinking of confession because I’m thinking about confessional writing. I have a theory that the trajectory of American literary history has been all about a desire to get closer to the self — to find the self, reveal the self, unburden the self.
As a nation dominated by a protestant ethos of stoicism and repression, most of our early literature tended to avoid lifting the hood of the self, but beginning with Walt Whitman’s declaration in Song of Myself, “I contain multitudes,” American literature has reached further and further into the self. Spurred on by the advent of psychology in the 20th century, “confessional poets” like Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, the Beatniks, and others wrote about taboo subjects such as mental illness, family dysfunction, suicide, and sexuality — subjects “polite society” would rather sweep under the rug.
American readers weren’t used to writers exposing themselves in such a way, so it was shocking, and shock was part of the purpose of the confession for some, but I think writers in all genres have been getting closer to themselves and more comfortable with revelation over the years, which has obviously led to the widespread popularity of memoir. We look to others to tell a truth so that we recognize our own truths through them.
“Art is confession.”
You’d think we’d treat such brave truth tellers with reverence for risking revelation, but the hazard of confession is that instead of finding belonging, writers often find stigmatization. Many readers and critics are wary or squeamish or just dismissive of anything that rings of confession, and once a writer is ensnared by a confessional label, their work is often minimized as solipsistic, self-indulgent, and self-absorbed.
Whitman’s Song of Myself itself was critiqued as “trashy, profane & obscene” upon its 1855 publication, and those words are still branded on much revelatory work today.
This is especially true for women writers. I think of Adrienne Rich, who lamented the introspection of her confessional poetry because of the way others confined her within it. In her poem “In Those Years,” she wrote, “We found ourselves / reduced to I,” when reflecting on the way she and other poets were treated by critics. Even though America is a country that can be characterized as self-obsessed and self-promotional, it paradoxically seems to judge people for being self-involved when they’re perhaps just involved in exploring themselves.
With a poet like Adrienne Rich, her “I” is relevant because it speaks to a larger “we.” It’s an expansive “I” in other words. For years I’ve quoted Albert Camus, who said, “Art is confession,” and the reason I like that quote is because I think the best art is the art where the artist is the most vulnerable, where the artist is interested in revealing things previously unspoken or forbidden, and being vulnerable is an artistic strength that transcends any craft technique for me.
I mention this quote not because art needs to be personally confessional, per se, but because you have to dig deep into yourself to unearth your truths and allow them to rise in some form. And I see this process as breaking down barriers in a good way, so “confessional literature” is a type of wrecking ball, banging down structures of confinement.
I recently read Confessional Writing Is Not Self-indulgent, by the writer Leslie Jamison, and she wrote about how people sought her out to tell her their stories after she wrote The Empathy Exams because her confessional writing created an intimacy that led to a deep feeling of connection.
“When they confessed things to me, these strangers were offering something but they were also asking for something,” she said. “They were asking for the subject of the book itself: empathy. They wanted an enactment of its central principle, its primary call: to pay attention.”
“Writing is like firing a nail gun into the center of a vanity mirror.”
The “confessional” writer serves the role of allowing the reader to do a type of confession, to experience reconciliation along with the writer. The best confessional writing doesn’t pull any punches — it doesn’t exist in shame and it doesn’t offer an apology. Its aim is truth, and sometimes its literary style is rawness.
As Robert Lowell described his poetry in his National Book Award acceptance speech: it is “huge blood-dripping gobbets of unseasoned experience.” His style of confessional writing didn’t seek to adorn itself with the pretty flourishes of the usual poetic lyricism, but to go beneath the surface of the skin.
I recently had an enlightening conversation about confessional poetry with Kim Addonizio on my podcast, Write-minded. In her poem, “Confessional Poetry,” from her new book Now We’re Getting There, she explores the nature of confessional writing, starting out with the painful image that “Writing is like firing a nail gun into the center of a vanity mirror.” She also compares writing to “sewing rhinestones on your traumas so you can wear them to a pain festival” and like “beating a piñata selfie with a pink rubber bat so you can pet the demons that fall out.”
But, no, she decides, pausing to counter the previous analogies: “the confessional is a mode among other modes,” she decides — it’s a form designed for a certain type of exploration, in other words, a writing technique.
In a scene that follows, she explores how the confessional is a genre to work within by tying risque sex to high-minded intellectual theory to the self-indulgence of social media in a single brushstroke that brilliantly critiques the label of “confessional poet” on several levels:
Right now I’m getting fingered in a museum bathroom during a Cindy
while discussing Susan Sontag’s “The Pornographic Imagination”
& live streaming it on Instagram
Why don’t you follow me
The scene highlights how a supposedly personal revelation is part of a show, how it’s performative, and how the performative nature of the scene is part of the exploration of ideas. Getting fingered in a museum isn’t just getting fingered in a museum, in other words; such sexual revelation is part of the mode itself, but not necessarily part of the literal life.
The poem goes on to recount the belittling threat of “a beef-witted male critic” who indexes her sins in a literary publication, “Supergluing my clitoris forever to the pillar of historical irrelevance.” We feel how that disrespect, that misunderstanding, hurts beyond a sting. But she goes on, telling how she really likes “feeling something when I stagger into a poem.” And this is it, right? This is what we want from a poem: for the poet to help us feel something.
Addonizio flinches at the label of being called a confessional poet. “I am a poet of ideas,” she said. “I am not trying to confess my sins. I’m trying to write about what it’s like to be alive in the world.”
She said she’d been “tarred and feathered” with the label of confessional poet many times, and she felt that the label is usually applied to women poets as a way to diminish them. “It’s dangerous to conflate the artist with their work in such a naive, direct way,” she said. By using confessional poetry a mode, as a narrative form that works to serve expression, she has “no fidelity at all to writing the literal truth. I’m much more interested in the emotional truth and exploring ideas about things, so I’ll use whatever is at hand.”
A confession is not just a confession, in other words. It’s a canvas, a musical instrument, a stage.
It’s interesting because when I revisited Now We’re Getting There, I noticed that the opening quote was, “Everybody knows the captain lied,” by Leonard Cohen. It’s a clue to all the writing, all of the “confession” that follows. The lie is the story of the self, in other words. Enjoy the lie for the truth it conveys, but know it’s a lie.
Grant Faulkner is executive director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. He’s the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, LitHub, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.