Re-posted from Inside Space. This post truly began this blog, Memoir Mind. To follow in a couple of days will be a student piece that explores the confessional issues in writing memoir.
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
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
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
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
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.