Can Confessional Writing be Literary?

February 22, 2016 § 42 Comments


Kelly Sundberg

Kelly Sundberg

By Kelly Sundberg

When I defended my MFA thesis—a collection of linked personal essays—one of my committee members, the only woman on my committee, said to me, “So many women have been traumatized on these pages. I don’t know women to whom things like this have happened. It seems a bit melodramatic.” I don’t remember how I responded. I remember how I wanted to respond. I wanted to say, “Is it melodramatic if it’s true?”

After the defense, on the way to my car, I called my best friend and told her about the comment, and about how much it had confused me. My friend’s response was that maybe that committee member was not the type of woman whose friends would trust her with their stories of trauma, and therefore, that was why the committee member didn’t think the stories existed. It never occurred to either of us that the committee member’s friends hadn’t suffered acts of gender violence. Based on our own (admittedly limited) subset of friends, but also on the statistics that show one in three women will be subjected to gender violence in their lifetime, the committee member’s friends having escaped gender violence simply didn’t seem possible.

At the time of my thesis defense, I hadn’t yet acknowledged that I was being physically battered by my then-spouse. That acknowledgment came later, in the form of an essay that was later anthologized in Best American Essays 2015. If this committee member read that essay, I wonder if she thought it, too, was melodramatic? All I know is that everything I described in that essay really happened. If it was melodramatic, it was still truth.

In her Boston Review essay, “Wounded Women,” Jessa Crispin writes, “I am worried about the implications of throwing the label ‘women’s pain’ around individual experiences of suffering, and I am even more uncomfortable with women who feel free to speak for all women. I worry about making pain a ticket to gain entry into the women’s club.”

I don’t know that pain is a ticket to any “club” that I would want to be a part of, but personally, I am worried about having to constantly assert my legitimacy as a literary writer, simply because I often write about my experience of trauma. I am worried about the notion that writing about trauma is somehow easier (or less than) other writing.

In all honesty, many of us have traumatic stories, and perhaps this is where the stigma originates—the easy access we have to our own experiences—but simply having the story doesn’t mean that we can write it well. As literary writers, when writing about our individual traumas, we’re still called upon to use the elements of our craft in a way that strives to move beyond the individual story, and instead, capture something universal, or offer something educational. When I wrote my anthologized essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” my goal was not to exploit my own trauma for personal gain. My goal was to show readers why I stayed for so long in a relationship that had become dangerous.

I had always been a literary essayist with an interest in complex structures, and I used the fragmented structure of this particular essay to represent the see/saw of love and violence that is symptomatic of domestic abuse. The essay went through many revisions and had multiple readers; It was hard work to try and write about a traumatic subject, while also maintaining a high level of craft.

In her essay, Crispin also wrote, “Suddenly women writers were being valued for their stories of surviving violence and trauma.”  This seems dismissive to me of the literary merit of these writers. The writers she describes—such as Roxane Gay and Leslie Jamison—are valued because they are excellent writers. They may have stories of surviving violence and trauma, but it is the ways in which they tell these stories that distinguishes them from other writers in the field.

When I sit down to write literary writing about my trauma, I am a writer first, and a trauma survivor second, but I am not ever not a trauma survivor, and as such, I am often interested in examining the roots and effects of my own trauma. Sometimes, I am interested in examining these effects in ways that might be considered therapeutic—that dastardly term that literary nonfiction writers hate. As a result, I have created a separate writing space—my blog—where the writing is not about my craft, but rather, about my story. The blog is where I talk about my journey of recovery, and the blog frees up my emotional space and intellect, so that I can approach my literary writing with more remove and thoughtfulness. Like most literary writers, I do not believe that literary writing should be therapeutic. When I teach creative nonfiction workshops, I tell my students that the therapy needs to come before the writing.

In her essay, “The Memoir of Recovery (Not Discovery),” in Kirkus Reviews, Debra Monroe laments the current state of memoir, where she posits that “The memoir became therapeutic: a narrative offshoot of self-help.” On many levels, I agree with Monroe. In one instance, she describes an editor who responded to her manuscript with “I just wish her childhood had been worse!” I can imagine how frustrated Monroe must have felt by that response, but when my own memoir proposal went out on submission, I received a somewhat different response.

One editor, after having read my blog (which very openly addresses the lingering effects of my domestic abuse) said that she didn’t feel the ending of my story was happy enough (I’m paraphrasing here). Another editor, with whom I spoke on the phone, asked me if I thought my memoir would have a “redemptive ending.” I answered that, of course I did. After all, I got out of the marriage. What could be more redemptive than that? But I added that, if someone is looking for a Lifetime Movie-esque redemptive ending, they won’t find that in my story.

In the end I was able to place my book with an editor who seemed to respect my work and my aesthetic, and who I trust will not pressure me to change my actual, lived experience in an effort to get more readers.

Truthfully, with the editorial feedback we received, Monroe and I were both victims of the same problem—that of memoirs being posited as “recovery” and “redemptive.” In this way, even though, like Crispin, Monroe laments our culture’s infatuation with traumatic experiences, she also differs from Crispin. Monroe thinks the problem is with the focus on recovery. Crispin thinks the problem is that women are valued for their wounds. To Crispin, I would say that I am not grateful for my wounds. To Monroe, I would say that I am also not redeemed by them. My wounds are simply a part of my existence. Still, because I am interested in an examination of the self, my wounds have, naturally, become a subject of my writing.

Part of what I appreciate about the writing of Leslie Jamison and Roxane Gay’s writing is the way they both actively resist portraying their wounds as redemptive. Instead, they address the wounds honestly, sometimes brutally, and with all of the tools in their arsenal that true literary giants possess—beautiful language, interesting structures, nuanced examinations of culture, and novel forms of presentation.

With my own writing, I seek to approach trauma in the same way. The story is important, but it must also be written with craft, and with nuance. I have no desire to always write about trauma, nor have I always written about trauma, but I am fatigued by the notion that narratives of trauma are rewarded simply on the merits of the struggle that one has endured. I had a traumatic experience, and perhaps that did gain me entrance into a club—a club of women’s pain—but that traumatic experience did not make me a literary writer. My hard work and my craft are what have, hopefully, made me into a literary writer.

__

Kelly Sundberg is Brevity’s Managing Editor. Her essays have appeared in a variety of literary magazines and been listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2013. Her essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and a memoir inspired by that essay, Goodbye Sweet Girl, is forthcoming from HarperCollins Publishers in 2017.

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§ 42 Responses to Can Confessional Writing be Literary?

  • ryderziebarth says:

    This is an important distinction Kelly, you make here. One between a therapy session and a work of literary craft. Thank you so much for writing on the very subject I am struggling with now in my work and for helping me to see the difference.

  • Ruth Carmel says:

    Wonderful essay. With apologies to the Passover haggadah, that’s the question: why is your trauma different from all other traumas? Depends on the way you write about it. And that will decide why I read it.

  • There is another complicated factor here, one that sickens me. But there are a lot of people who enjoy a woman’s pain. There is a market for reading about women and girls being being abused. “I wish your childhood had been worse” is part of that. Thanks for your reflections.

  • Reblogged this on wallacerunnymede and commented:
    Andrea Dworkin said ‘So we whisper. We lower our voices.’ Men must ask ourselves: why why do we feel uncomfortable about hearing about such oppression? There could be many reasons. But is there some small part of us that wants to disavow any complicity with what men do to women? Do we think ‘I would never do that!’ as though that were somehow even a remotely relevant consideration? Do we get complacent, and forget that even though we do not abuse, we are also are obliged to hold ourselves 100% accountable for the system gender oppression and our place in it, including the things we let other men get away with… as much by inaction as by action? Who do we think we are, that we have a ‘right’ not to hear about these things? We need to think. We need to reflect. We need to… LISTEN.

  • Reblogged this on Butterflymumma and commented:
    As a confessional writer, the question addressed in this essay is one I often ask myself as well.

  • dorothyrice says:

    “As literary writers, when writing about our individual traumas, we’re still called upon to use the elements of our craft in a way that strives to move beyond the individual story, and instead, capture something universal, or offer something educational.” Many great reminders in this piece (such as this quote). Great essay. Thanks.

  • Thank you for this! Struggling with the same issues myself (about to submit my own MFA Thesis, which is also a collection of linked essays). I have fought the pressure to end the collection on a note akin to, “And look – I SURVIVED!”

    For me, the best literary essays about trauma don’t end in fists pumping into the sky, as if to say, look at how hurt I was! Look at how happy I am now! The good ones say, look at what this experience helped me to understand about myself/the world/love/existence. The good ones ask, how can I help someone else make sense of a similar mess? And as long as the end product is not a show-and-tell of hurt, as long as it seeks to answer a larger question about what it means to be a person/a woman/alive, then you’re good.

  • corpoperfeito314 says:

    Tá certa, muito boa a matéria.

  • Annie says:

    Crispin was correct in her assessment and your attempt to dismantle her argument fails. You say “When I sit down to write literary writing about my trauma, I am a writer first, and a trauma survivor second, but I am not ever not a trauma survivor, and as such, I am often interested in examining the roots and effects of my own trauma.” Actually, as a writer you are drawing from the trauma, so you are not a writer first, you are a person who had a trauma that will now turn into a piece of writing. If you try to divorce the writer from the material, then what you have done is turned the material into something secondary, not primary. Then you claim that your goal in your essay “It will look like a Sunset” was not to expose the trauma but rather to show why you stayed. Well, actually, be honest, it was to expose the trauma because the trauma is what made you stay, and from it you got a book deal, which will expose and explore it deeper. So, instead of trying to justify why you do this, which was part of Crispin’s larger point, just be honest that half these narratives are penned to expose the trauma not because the writer is a writer first.

  • Thanks for this thoughtful analysis, Kelly. Seems to me the current kerfuffle about trauma in memoir is an extension of the denigration of the sentimental as female, and the elevation of the rational as male. My favorite example: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which can be objected to on many levels, is often attacked as “sentimental,” yet it had a tremendous impact on American history, thought, and culture.

  • I often write about the trauma I suffered. Sometimes right out in the open and sometimes reflected in dark pieces of fiction. I too have experienced those responses which attempt to negate my experience because they can’t relate. One’s absence of experience, however, does not make my reality less real. Thank you for sharing.

  • Caroline Mufford says:

    Some thoughts on writing trauma that have relationship to a gender writer

    C On Mon, Feb 22, 2016 at 4:24 AM BREVITYs Nonfiction Blog wrote:

    > Dinty W. Moore posted: ” By Kelly Sundberg When I defended my MFA thesis—a > collection of linked personal essays—one of my committee members, the only > woman on my committee, said to me, “So many women have been traumatized on > these pages. I don’t know women to whom things l” >

  • Caroline Mufford says:

    M On Mon, Feb 22, 2016 at 9:06 AM Caroline Mufford wrote:

    > Some thoughts on writing trauma that have relationship to a gender writer > > C > On Mon, Feb 22, 2016 at 4:24 AM BREVITYs Nonfiction Blog comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote: > >> Dinty W. Moore posted: ” By Kelly Sundberg When I defended my MFA >> thesis—a collection of linked personal essays—one of my committee members, >> the only woman on my committee, said to me, “So many women have been >> traumatized on these pages. I don’t know women to whom things l” >>

  • Stacy Moore says:

    The idea that a story should be “redemptive” is key. I think it comes from the ubiquity of three-act structure and warrior archetypes—tales of triumph and overcoming (or defeat, if you want to be noir about it). I often write about chronic illness and find that the idea of chronic anything is problematic in a culture that expects its protagonists to have some redemptive realization or eleventh-hour cure or inspirational moment of overcoming. We want people’s lives to match our predominant story line rather than to encounter stories that tell messy truths.

  • I appreciate what you say here about, well basically everything, and I do whole-heartedly agree that this type of literature is not as highly esteemed as other subsets (is this influenced by the fact that it is female dominated?), It’s just another example of genre exclusion in artistic elitism, isn’t it?

    What you elude to, that the genre has been railroaded because it can be wielded as sensational to pull in readers, is causing me a bit of a headache. I think the reason the committee member made that comment is partially rooted in her experience with the way emotional trauma is exploited. I don’t believe such exploitation is intentional, but rather is an indirect result of the emotional rawness of these types of literary pieces, making them highly attractive marketing fodder. You are right, being sensational doesn’t make it less true, but its emotional provocativeness certainly does hang the genre out to dry a bit.

    I don’t think that we should be segregating laypeople who write about trauma from writers who write about trauma. In my mind as soon as someone picks up a pen with an intent to write literature they become a literary writer, regardless of their training or background. Please don’t also fall into a pit of artistic elitism in your attempt to defend your genre from elitism.

    To me, the opinions of writers who look down on certain genres are as compromised as a writer who looks down on other writers. If the work speaks for itself, that’s all that matters to me. I subscribe to reader response theory, not author-centred analysis. The who, why, and how of the author matter little in comparison to the actual text and the way readers react to it. In that vein, my response to Annie (above commenter) is of course she can be a writer first and a trauma survivor second, because if we hold up the tenants of RRT then we must acknowledge that the writer’s personal experience as a trauma survivor shouldn’t be taken account into analysing her literature. Only her literary expression matters, and that comes from her being a writer first.

  • I was once a member of a professional group of young women from differing areas who were working to build better businesses. 26-35, doctors, lawyers, architects, developers. One night when we had finished our business and were having a glass of wine and a bit together, the discussion came to a painful halt when one admitted to having been molested, and her tormentor had moved to the area. Her tormentor was her uncle. In the course of that discussion, it was discovered that 9 out of the 10 women had been molested as children or had a violent act done to them. I was the one who hadn’t. I was flabbergasted, and I believed, and I did not diminish nor doubt.

    I do believe that trauma can sell and be good literature, and examples are many.

    Regarding editors, I wrote a good memoir when my husband dropped dead that Incorporated larger issues of grief counseling, community, and craziness (not mine.) I had several editors hand-write me notes about it being such good writing, something I’ve never gotten from editors on any other occasion (just returned manuscripts) but explaining death did not sell. That was in 1999. After 9/11, they had a different story to tell.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you so much for this. I suspect that in our effort to succeed in almost any field, women may turn a blind eye to other women’s troubles and even our own. Sometimes, ragged and wounded, we refuse to bleed.

    One of my MFA advisors confided to me that she had not read many women authors, actually not any. Later, on a panel, she and two other women announced that they had only followed after their fathers’ examples, never their mothers’.

    During freshman orientation over 45 years ago, a woman engineer came to speak to my group. I asked her what her experience had been, had she been discriminated against as a woman in her field? She absolutely denied it. I did not think she was lying, but I also did not believe her.

    We learn to keep quiet about our experiences. Like Claire Messud’s Woman Upstairs, we are nice, we are silent about our needs and about our suffering. “We are all fine here.”

    I do not doubt the intention of these women to tell truth, but I do doubt.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    And I have to add that since Roxane Gay can make competitive Scrabble an interesting read, it is a bit absurd to criticize her for incorporating her personal experience into essays about abuse.

    Have readers not always valued men with authentic (or authentic-sounding) experiences at war, hunting yadda yadda yadda?

  • “I am worried about having to constantly assert my legitimacy as a literary writer, simply because I often write about my experience of trauma.”

    I have a sneaking HUNCH the real reason you feel you’re constantly having to assert your “legitimacy” is because you’re a woman. What woman writer/artist/creative doesn’t feel that way? When women write about trauma it’s bad writing (ie: “melodramatic”) about silly women’s issues. When men do it, they’re “cool.”

    Great article.

  • […] “As literary writers, when writing about our individual traumas, we’re still called upon to use the elements of our craft in a way that strives to move beyond the individual story, and instead, capture something universal, or offer something educational,” writes Kelly Sundberg in her essay, Can Confessional Writing be Literary? […]

  • @lorrie_tom says:

    I’m writing a memoir right now and I love the tension between telling the truth of my story while also crafting a structure with a narrative drive. This article gets to the heart of that struggle. An experience can be redemptive, but that doesn’t meant it’s always a happy version of redemption that some publishers might prefer.

  • Carol Zoref says:

    Some 50 years have passed since the death of Sylvia Plath and 40 years since the death of Anne Sexton. But we are still having this conversation? Dear writers: do not take the bait. Write what you want to write.

  • Awesome post. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  • Michelle Weisen says:

    Why not write our truth? If our painful experiences are too raw in a scholarly venue, perhaps literature should be redefined. I am appalled by the comment from the committee member. I find it unprofessional and shaming, not only because of her position but because she is one of us. When we were girls, we suffered in silence. As women, we must tell our stories for ourselves, and those who follow in our footsteps. Melodramatic? I think not. The women I know have been through terrible circumstances. The fact that they do not have the vocabulary necessary to lift writing to the next level, does not negate the past and the lifetime of pain that follows. Certainly we can quote other writers but your time is now. That is why you must continue your work and prove that personal experiences most definitely constitute literature..

  • Well said, Kelly. As with any genre, memoir is going to churn out both masterpieces and drivel, but given the incidence of poignant, literary, unapologetic memoirs out there, I can’t believe women writers are still fighting this uphill battle. Keep up the important work!

  • Also, I just realized our essays were published in Guernica on the same day!

  • quillfyre says:

    For criticism of writing about trauma in general, is it strictly related to women writing about abuse by men? Do people call writing about terminal illness melodramatic? What about male writers on the trauma of war service, PTSD? Are male writers similarly accused of melodrama? And what is behind the need for Cinderella endings to every story?

    I applaud any woman who has the courage to share her story and to open up about why she stayed. Especially if she knows what criticism will be leveled at her once the story goes public. The very fact that you felt you had to defend your writing is appalling to me. Especially if someone who has not experienced abuse is criticizing. Kudos to you!

  • What good timing to read this here today, Kelly. My “Writing on Wednesday” blog post, “Shaping the Chaos,” addresses this same issue, and applauds a wonderful collection of essays by memoirists, “Why We Write About Ourselves,” edited by Meredith Maran. It’s got to be art. http://susancushman.com/writing-on-wednesday-shaing-the-chaos/

  • […] a piece up on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog asking Can Confessional Writing Be Literary? The essay by Kelly Sundberg discusses a number of interesting things, among them the cultural […]

  • […] recently read an excellent article by Kelly Sundberg on Brevity, where she shared a remark an examiner made when Sundberg defended her PhD thesis, […]

  • This gives me a whole new perspective on my writing. I wrote a memoir, myself, that does detail some past abuse and one of the reviews on Amazon said “A well written memoir that does well to separate fact from emotion. Powerful perspective and narrative of a troubled (or troubling) youth without the melodramatic, prepubescent voice… ” …While I was pleased to read the good review anyway, it is now further in perspective for me after reading your post… I guess I didn’t really think about/realize that so many memoirs or trauma based stories from women are often considered as melodramatic, etc.

    (Personally I enjoy reading well written personal stories, regardless and tend not to automatically assume anyone is being melodramatic unless it reads that way – which for me is about the quality and the way it’s written, not the story events themselves.)

  • […] I actually wrote about the idea of therapeutic writing in a Brevity blog post here, where I ascertained that there should be a difference between therapeutic writing and literary […]

  • “Instead, they address the wounds honestly, sometimes brutally, and with all of the tools in their arsenal that true literary giants possess.”

    And this is how it should be. Addressing trauma or emotional scarring by placing it in a box and tying it up with a pretty red bow is not reality. Redemption can simply be the escape from with the potential for better. Of course, any trauma we prefer to be sutured nicely so the scarring is minimal. But sometimes that scar is going to be a little bit ugly and raised regardless. Sometimes that scar instead of an open wound is the better tomorrow.

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