I don't know when it was exactly that I got the message--how does one 'get' a message? Passing remarks, sighing attitudes, rich subtext?--that writing about one's life, one's feelings about one's life, was somehow aliterary, or at the very least, less literary. I'm starting to think about a personal essay that I've wanted to write for a while, so the 'no' chorus is loud in my head, performing all the reasons why this would be a bad idea. To be sure, I've written about myself before--here, past blogs, Real Pants, etc. Contrary to what some might be tempted to think because it is written in first person, my forthcoming novel MOTHEREST is not autobiographical or even semi-autobiographical. First person helped me inhabit the character of Agnes, and it felt good (and bad, but mostly good) to zip into someone's life, someone's skin, and navigate the world from there. It felt, in some ways, like cheating, although I don't think there's anything inherently 'easier' about writing fiction in first person. If anything, you're in a constant state of pivot, of not-me. First person, in some respects, is the closest thing to acting, to putting on someone else.
But there was a period of time, maybe college, maybe grad school, maybe not inside the classroom proper but in the halls, in the bars after class--where I got the distinct sense that poets such as Plath and Sexton and writers like Nin were sort of in-jokes, hysterical women edged into the canon for the sole purpose of being something that men--Serious Men With Ideas--could laugh at: at best, foils; at worst, amateurs, zeros.
I don't think one can call oneself a serious reader or critic and feel this way, not really. I'm also intrigued by the term itself--'confessional,' as in, the Confessions of St. Augustine, with its starkly religious overtones, the admission of sin or perhaps more interestingly, the very room in which the sins get confessed. I love this notion particularly for poetry, since stanzas are just that, cubicles of language, where humanity gets told, whispered, yelled, confessed. The 'original confessors' weren't necessarily women; and yet, the genre is more frequently associated with women--their woes, their manias, their dreams deferred. I was a pre-teen when I first became aware of the outrageous popular theory that Feeling is circumscribed by women; Thinking, by men. That the memoir or personal essay or confessional poem was, at some point in the course of literary history, asterisked or demoted, speaks volumes about a general cultural discomfort with people's stories--i.e., their pain--much more so than reflecting anything at all about the artistic merit therein.
Furthermore, I'd argue: it is extremely difficult to write about yourself, to shape your life into language, into a readable format, to overcome the fear of judgment, to not flinch, to get it right, to get it exactly right, to be fair, to be true, to be bold. Alison Bechdel, Molly Brodak, Melissa Broder, Mary Karr, Audre Lorde, Eileen Myles, Jeanette Winterson--all are such examples, and these are just the great books whose spines are visible from where I sit right now, books that have lit up the darkness with their bravery, wit, wisdom, feeling.
And I mean, I know men can do this too. 😏
*Title of post is a line from Jenn Blair's poem "Tell" from her wonderful new book Malcontent, which I don't think I'd categorize as confessional, but who am I to say, really.