In Defense of Confession

Annie Leibovitz - Louise Bourgeois

It seems every six months or so there’s a new viral essay disparaging memoir. They bemoan the fact that hoards of narcissistic memoirists are clogging up our MFA programs and slush piles, poisoning the minds of the reading public with confessional junk food and ultimately edging out the real writers (i.e. journalists and fiction writers), who actually have something important to say. You know, really important stuff, like essays trashing an entire genre.

I generally stay out of the line of fire, mostly because I’m too busy actually writing something to stop to defend it. Besides, I can usually count on Stephen Elliott over at The Rumpus to handle it better than I could (as he does here). I agree with Stephen when he says:

Most people’s lives are very interesting but most people don’t look at their lives in an interesting way. The unexamined life is never interesting. If a good memoir was merely predicated on having an interesting life then some of the best books would be celebrity memoirs. These people live a life most of us know nothing about. But celebrity memoirs are rarely interesting, despite how interesting their lives appear from the outside. The problem is not that they don’t live interesting lives, it’s that they’re not writers.

It’s easy to point to bad memoirs and use them to attack the entire form but the form is never the problem.

It’s never the form that’s the problem and it’s never the subject that’s the problem. Russell Banks once said to me, “A book is never about what it’s ‘about.’” I loved that. I think about it a lot, and let it remind me that what’s important is the heart of a thing, not the hat it’s wearing.

I was drawn to confessional work long before I ever sat at my desk and turned my own life inside out looking for some kind of truth. When I was twenty, I saw a Louise Bourgeois (pictured above) retrospective in Paris about twelve times. I knew I wanted to do what she did. I had no idea what my medium was going to be, but I got that she was using self to transcend self, and I felt instinctively that therein lay my destiny.

Confessional work has always been essential to the artistic expression of the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the voices for whom mainstream avenues of education and distribution aren’t readily accessible. For feminist artists and writers in the 60s and 70s, confession was a political statement. It’s a tradition I’m proud to inherit. Some of my favorite gut-spillers include Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Dieter Roth, Tracy Emin, Nan Goldin, Kathryn Harrison, Nick Flynn, Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr.

I consider the process of confessional writing to be neither cathartic nor exhibitionistic. Rather, I think of it as a sacrifice. I sacrifice my life to the muses, the gods, the world, and hope that it will be of use to someone. The gift I receive in return is that I get to live with a sense of purpose- a reason for noticing, for listening, for trying to be aware and present in any given moment.

There are people who can better defend the confessional genre than I, on grounds aesthetic and political. But I can speak from the inside of the creative process and say that we don’t choose our medium, it chooses us. The derogatory essays always seem to imply that if we memoirists were less solipsistic and more talented, we would choose to write about something else. But writing is never a choice, it’s a calling. For me, at least, I find it way too hard to be strategic and calculating. I don’t sit down and say, “Hmmm… What important thing can I write about today?” I sit down and I pray.

4 Responses to 'In Defense of Confession'

  1. Sharon says:

    Thank you, Jillian. I used to write fiction, and often received the editorial comment (from men) that the work was too confessional. In essay and memoir, I’ve found the form I needed all along.

    I also think people forget that confessional doesn’t cancel out artistic. I took a master class with Dani Shapiro recently, and she said that when she meets people for the first time, some will say, “I read both your memoirs. I must know everything about you.” And she explains to them, politely, that no, you don’t know it all. I’ve carefully chosen every word.

  2. Crystal says:

    First let me begin by telling you that i’m no reader. In fact, I really (REALLY) dislike reading. I began reading your blogs because… I’m so sorry to say it … well, i’m a huge Weezer fan. Scott had posted a link to your blog & BOOM I was addicted. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. FINALLY a realist mother who isn’t afraid to write about the fears that come with being a mom. I felt like my daughter & T had a lot of behavioral traits in common. I have and still continue to struggle with what seems to be my little girls self esteem but I’m still trying to figure it out.

    It’s absolute misery to meet other momma’s who want to have a polite debate about who has the daughter of the year. Besides what Super Nanny has to offer (joke), it’s comforting to know that i’m not the only mom that has spent countless days crying because you just want to understand your child. Sometimes I want to reply to your blog with a simple “it will be okay” because I understand how helpless it can feel. I figured since your writing gave me a little bit of comfort it’s almost selfish of me not to try and return the favor.

    So after reading this blog that probably only a writer truly understands, I figured the least i could do was give you my opinion about your writing. Undoubtedly your writing is different. Before you even wrote this blog, I could almost tell your blog topics were random interesting thoughts. As i read I almost imagine that you carry a small notebook because your mind goes 2500 different directions a day with your view’s or maybe because you seem to be an analytical thinker. Besides your intriguing personality it’s obvious that your writing is from the heart and not from your hat (sorry for the bad mom joke). I haven’t really liked any other author so maybe it’s those two things combined that keep me addicted. Whatever it is, it’s awesome. I’ve tried reading other mommy books written by some of my favorite comedian’s but it’s just bleh… that’s the best word I could come up with “BLEH”.

    Well, I feel incredibly cheesy right now so I will just stop writing and just say THANKS. I think you are amazing!

  3. JO says:

    Nice job:)

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