Is All Memoir Confessional?

January 11, 2013 § 25 Comments

From Brevity Managing Editor Sarah Einstein:

memoirKatie Roiphe is the latest voice in the conversation-of-the-moment about what’s wrong with memoir, sparked by Susan Shapiro’s piece in the New York Times and Hamilton Nolan’s response to it on Gawker. While I’m not willing to concede that there is any particular crisis in memoir at the moment, the article is nonetheless full of insight and good advice.  Turn a critical eye on yourself. Entertain the reader. Write well. Make the reader feel you’re being honest (which, I might humbly suggest, is best done by not being dishonest). All good stuff.  Do those things. Or do your best to do them. They aren’t easy things to do. I try and fail almost every day.

But what concerns me, in this otherwise excellent piece, is the way in which Roiphe conflates confessional and personal writing in the second paragraph. Her purpose, she says, is to “think methodically about what separates good confessional writing from bad confessional writing,” but she then moves seamlessly into a larger discussion about all personal writing.

Is all memoir confessional? Is all personal writing memoir? What is the value of subgenres in creative nonfiction, and what do we lose (or gain) when we collapse them? What do you think?



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§ 25 Responses to Is All Memoir Confessional?

  • […] Is All Memoir Confessional?. […]

    • rbshea says:

      I’ve read all three pieces. All three writers show a surprising lack of knowledge of memoir’s variety as well as the range of personal essay. Mark Slouka, Mary Karr, James Atlas, Frank Conroy, Tobias Wolff are just a few names that come quickly to mind. The quality of the work, varied as it is, is hardly “confessional” but clearly well crafted, literary and distinctly personal.

      I thought the Shapiro article was a bit self-serving to say the least. Why have journalism students write “confessional” pieces? As a college teacher, I find my undergrads (not j-students) very much in the throes of finding and trying out an identity No wonder there’s discomfort and dis-ease at such an assignment. Is “confessional” the most creative way for a j-student to explore/discover the personal essay? Seems like a shallow exercise reflecting an immature teaching perspective.

      As to the other two? Nolan’s was petty snark and of little value. Roiphe’s suffered from the lack of knowledge noted earlier.

      I’d suggest Shapiro and Roiphe might do better with their their students by using something like Ben Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page about what “voice” means in writing. Then have them write but not “confessional” drivel.

  • aarongeiger says:

    Philosophically, even fiction is confessional. Nonfiction is merely a blatant admission of some sort of confessional. To muddle the two is to simultaneously value the aesthetics of art by ignoring convention. And that’s where I have the most fun.

  • jerrywaxler says:

    The question disappears when you attempt to see each memoir as its own author’s best effort to turn life into a readable story. If an author thinks of the writing as confessional or a reader chooses to view it that way, the label is neither true nor false. It is a matter of individual interpretation.

    Jerry Waxler
    Memory Writers Network

    • Excellent point, Jerry. Confession is in the eye of the beholder.

    • rbshea says:

      I agree, Jerry. Well said.

    • writerdee7 says:

      I so agree with Jerry Waxler. When I write my memoir, I am not confessing anything, I am telling about a period of my life, Hopefully my great great grandchildren will read and enjoy it.
      My blogs are not earth shattering, they are about life, things I am interested in, my family, and my memories of being a child. Truthfully I don’t think anyone would read my blog twice, I would and hopefully my sons and family would but not others,

  • There is a lot of genre blurring, for good or ill. I’ve noticed that The New Yorker calls “essays” what in another day would have been called “articles.” I’m not sure that’s so much praise for the essay as it is elevation of literary journalism, which means, in part, journalism that admits a human being wrote it.

    I think Vivian Gornick helps clarify things in The Situation and the Story regarding the key issue of persona: “From journalism to the essay to the memoir: the trip being taken by a nonfiction persona deepens, and turns ever more inward.”

    By the way, all criticisms of the memoir for being confessional, or whatever, really, are stupid. Substitute “novel.” A genre can’t be pigeonholed.

    • rbshea says:

      Gornick is a great reference, Richard. Totally agree. Shapiro and Roiphe should read that and use it in their classes.

  • Sonya Huber says:

    Here’s this definition from a quick Googling: confessional as an adjective means “In which a person reveals or admits to private thoughts or past incidents, esp. ones that cause shame or embarrassment.”

    There’s that weird uptightness even in that definition about “confessing” as being equal to “being honest”–if I tell you something personal, it must be something I am embarrassed by. I think this confusion is more a diagnosis or symptom of our larger cultural hang-ups than a problem with memoir. The ultimate message, I think, is that if I tell you something personal, I should be ashamed–no matter what it is I am relating.

    I think that, given the wide variety of memoirs available, the number that focus on shame and embarrassment as their sole aim is pretty small.

  • Mandy Len says:

    I’ve finally gotten around to reading Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life”, which I can’t help but consider as I ponder this question. To me, this discussion revolves on the word “confessional”, which can be read as writing which treats the self (or the character of the self) unsparingly, or as writing which aims to confess sordid acts the same way one might confess to a priest.

    Reading Wolff, I notice the moments in which he makes himself most vulnerable to the reader are not in describing instances of delinquency (though there are plenty), but rather honest observations about his own boyish longing: “It was truth known only to me, but I believed in it more than I believed in the facts arrayed against it. I believed that in some sense not factually verifiable I was a straight-A student. In the same way, I believed I was an Eagle Scout…. And on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, I saw, at last, my own face.”

    These passages are confessional in that their honesty is arrived at through a depth of reflection, rather than admission of social deviance. Were the book merely a good story of his troubled youth, it wouldn’t be the classic of the genre it is today.

    To me, being really honest in memoir/personal writing means a willingness to arrive at uncomfortable insights. Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” is a great recent example of a book that succeeds because it takes a good, hard look at the author’s own longing, not because it chronicles her titillating misadventures or exposes her family and friends.

    • I’m a huge fan of Cheryl Strayed and WILD, primarily because I find her writing sublime. However, IMO, sublime writing on its own would never have catapulted this book onto the NYT list. That took a combination of sublime writing and sensational content.

      If she had stopped with confession, the document would have sat on her hard drive forever. She confessed bits and pieces, then added insights and interest to those confessions as she made sense of the early experiences and moved beyond them.

      Secrets. Confession. These are the foundation of reader connection, but those readers will slip of your hook if you don’t reel them in by tying that confession to the larger story.

  • jerrywaxler says:

    Here’s another problem with deciding if something is “confessional.” When I first started writing my memoir, I would never, ever have admitted to shoplifting. Simply thinking about the memory filled me with so much self-loathing that it didn’t seem possible to ever share. When I read Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life” I realized that you can write about ratty experiences of your teenage years and not die. In the pages of his book, it is obvious that he’s a young person trying to find his way. I eventually came to that conclusion about myself, especially after studying John Bradshaw’s perspective that “good shame” is actually a healthy emotion that indicates a social conscience. I gradually came to realize that some of the things that formerly shamed me are simply parts of my life.

    So as my memoir writing journey proceeded, the feeling of shame disappeared and in its place, I found an interesting story emerging. In the act of opening myself up and becoming vulnerable, I was actually becoming less ashamed. So was it confessional in the sense that I was sharing something that made me vulnerable, or was it something else? I certainly don’t know the answer, and if one critic calls it confessional and another does not, which one is right?

    Jerry Waxler

  • Sidney Polan says:

    Well said, Sarah Einstein…..

  • Trudy says:

    Confessional. Otherwise, I think, a memoir would be but a list of facts, wouldn’t it? It implies subjectivity, expressing that subjectivity and that brings with it some sort of confession.

  • sandrabranum says:

    I don’t dwell on whether memoir is confessional or not because: if I write about being abused as a child, am I admitting to being naive or stupid to have allowed it to happen?

  • George says:

    Certainly not, unless one choose beforehand to define “memoir” as limited to the confessional.

    The memoirs I have most enjoyed are scarcely confessional, though one, Confessions of an Original Sinner does have “confession” in the name. Some have omitted details that a confessional writer would have dwelt on: Grant’s memoirs make no mention of his drinking, Sherman’s no mention of his depressive episode early in the war, George Kennan’s do not mention adultery, though apparently he had more than one affair. Aren’t the sins mentioned in the grandaddy of them all, St. Augustine’s Confessions pretty weak stuff by the standards of the modern best-selling memoir/

    The one memoir that I did enjoy reading, and that more or less fits the “confessional” model, is Wilfrid Sheed’s In Love With Daylight.But the same material in the hands of a lesser writer could have been tedious–not many writers could turn a sentence the way he did.

  • George says:

    Correction: Sherman does mention that he was removed from command, but presents the incident as a misjudgment by the War Department.

  • I confess I am human. I confess I have a great interest in reading others’ well written personal essays and stories. And I confess I am constantly trying to connect myself to others and make sense of life through writing my own life experiences.

    We make much of categorizing and compartmentalizing and naming, but who really cares?

    I’m sorry if I seem flippant (maybe I am being flippant), but the questions that are more important to me are: Did the writing move me? Was the narrator’s tone genuine, authentic, open and honest? Was the writer searching for an answer to a burning question? Did the work cause me to perceive or think differently? Connect me to something or someone? Did I grow in some way by shadowing the narrator’s journey?

    Why are we so compelled to genre-ize? It seems to me that the rising tide always erases lines that are drawn in the sand.

  • jerrywaxler says:

    Neat discussion. Thanks Brevity and Sarah for giving us the opportunity to swap thoughts on these fundamental issues. I wanted to add a few more points to add to the discussion.

    about labels:
    When a label with questionable (snarky?) intent is used to characterize an entire genre, don’t be surprised when it generates strong emotions. As Shakespeare said, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” Everyone knows that insults are designed to get the blood boiling. In fact, the great beauty of memoirs is that they characterize reality through the wonderful integrative medium of “story” instead of the left-brain distortion of labels. This is the paradox of writing ABOUT memoirs, we try to use analytical thought to package something that ought to fly free in its own medium, like writing about music, only more tempting.

    about confession:
    Frank Mccourt did a wonderful thing with confession in Angela’s Ashes. He went into a church in despair and a priest came over to him and said “do you want me to hear your confession?” He declined and the priest said, “Well just tell me your story.” The resulting story went on to sell millions of copies. Not bad for a non-confession.

    about subgenres:
    I have my own take on genres. Here are a few of them with random examples. Pardon the awful punctuation.

    Coming of Age – childhood: Glass Castle, Angela’s Ashes
    Coming of Age surviving drugs and alcohol: Girlbomb by Janice Erlbaum, Dopefiend by Tim Elhajj, Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro, Tweak by Nic Sheff
    Mothering: Amy Chua Tiger Mother
    Fathering: David Gilmour Film Club, Beautiful Boy by David Sheff
    Spiritual seeking, Dinty Moore, Accidental Buddhist, Devotion by Dani Shapiro
    Assimilation: Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Alli, The Islamist by Ed Husain, Colored People by Henry Louis Gates, Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas
    Adoptees searching for identity: Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood, Mistress’s Daughter by AM Homes
    Grieving, Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup, Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
    Caregiving: Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman
    Surviving disease with dignity: Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner, Seven Wheelchairs by Gary Presley
    I could go on.
    Best wishes,
    Jerry Waxler
    Memory Writers Network

  • John says:

    In the Introduction to the 2012 Best American Essays, edited by Robert Atwan, this year’s guest editor, David Brooks, makes much the same point — memoir is out of control. In fact, much of the volume focuses on journalistic type essays, rather than personal. Compared to the 2011 edition, which was much more personal essay based.

    I think there is truth on both sides of the argument. In a rush to have the Next Big Bestseller, publishers have been publishing a great deal of bad memoir. Witness Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love”, the most narcissistic, pointless book I’ve read in a long time. After all the soul searching, she realizes, at the end, that she wants all her friends to not buy her birthday presents, and, instead give the money to someone to buy a house. Noble, in a general way. Crap, if you realize how shallow it is to believe, and expect, your friends are going to buy you enough presents worth that kind of money. There are a trough full
    of other memoirs of the same ilk, and, it’s no wonder people are raging again memoir writing.

    There are, thankfully, many others who write memoir well. Who do, as Roiphe suggests, confession with honesty, and humility, and including your faults, and not being a blameless victim of every little bad thing that happens. Authenticity is key.

    I like to believe that there are enough of us who enjoy reading and writing the personal, memoir-type essay to keep the genre alive.

    Thanks for sharing all the articles. Many things to contemplate.

  • […] So Charlie, did you read that article in Brevity?  What did you […]

  • […] the page? I’m not sure that Shapiro intends to promote a dear-diary approach to memoir, but many commenters seem to be reading it that […]

  • Joanna Eleftheriou says:

    I just read a few articles on the confessional memoir in preparation for a craft talk. One I liked a lot is about contemporary confessional memoir, and it’s from the book LIFE WRITING and is by Blake Morrison.

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