The Dangers of Confessional Writing: Two Case Studies

There was a point in my life when I revealed damn near everything about myself on the Web. I ended up attracting a stalker who tracked down my home address. This ostensible “fan” knocked on my door and announced that she was going to “help” me. I was baffled by this. I was just some guy on the Internet. And as far as I’m concerned, to this day, I remain “some guy on the Internet” lucky enough to talk with authors and get paid for his writing every so often.

This stalker and I talked. It was creepy enough that this stalker discovered where I lived. But she also divined aspects of my personality that I had unintentionally revealed through my words and that she, a troubled soul herself, related to. This, she explained, motivated her trek to San Francisco. (I was somewhat relieved to learn that she lived in the East Bay, as opposed to some Midwestern town halfway across the country. It was as if this shorter distance somehow undermined her troubled temperament or partially justified her stalking.)

We chatted for about twenty minutes. I felt extremely exposed, but I somehow steered the conversation away from my personal life. I listened to her tell me about her life and, when she claimed that honest writing was the existential answer, I suggested that she keep a journal. A safe place for her to record her thoughts and tell the truth. I never heard from her again. I hope she turned out okay.

This incident made me acutely aware of what I revealed every time I wrote a personal essay. I eventually decided to reveal aspects of myself only when I felt sufficiently informed or wise enough to translate my character into essays. I began seeing a therapist, who helped me to overcome many lingering demons, and I got out my often feral personal confessions in a more constructive manner. (I stopped seeing the therapist a few years ago, save for one visit after last year’s skirmish with the police because I was terrified that I would slip back into territory that I had thought long conquered. But I do keep a journal and take long brisk walks whenever I come up against my neuroses. And I am prepared to go back again if I ever fall off the wagon.)

I also decided to take down my earlier incarnation of edrants.com, although I kept and adapted many of the styles I employ to this day. There’s a marked disparity between the various voices I adopt on this blog and the person who I really am, just as there are certain crossover qualities. While I do my best to remain as humble as I can, even I must confess amusement when some of my more outrageous posts are taken seriously. I’m also immensely entertained when people are absolutely convinced that they know me exclusively from my writing and form the most amazing impressions. I respond to this game by fabricating additional details to throw them off further. (By the way, did I ever tell you about the time when I was terrified of walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, or the time I entered a hot dog-eating contest, or the time I jumped naked into the Pacific Ocean? Only one of those anecdotes is true. Believe at your own peril.)

* * *

Which brings me to John Freeman.

I should note from the onset that, despite all of my criticisms of the man, I happen to believe that John Freeman is a good guy.

The two of us went to high school together. I can tell you that he was one of the only middle-class jock types who didn’t tease me mercilessly because of my comparative poverty, my hair in recurrent need of a barber’s scissors, the dark trenchcoat I wore to hide my wiry and hungry frame, my Looney Tunes tees (acquired not so much because of cultural loyalty, but because they were extremely cheap at Marshall’s and there wasn’t a lot of money to go around), and pockmarked jeans.

I talked with John Freeman on the phone last year and I can tell you that he’s still a good guy. And it is because I believe him to be a good guy that I must write this.

I was prepared to say nothing, but a few months ago, Freeman began turning out a series of essays that were overly confessional, much as my personal writing had been many years ago. I figured that, after many hard years freelancing as a book critic, John Freeman was entering a transition phase, searching for a more ambitious voice. But in Freeman’s ambition, I recognized the voice of a man who doesn’t know himself nearly as well as he thinks or, to be more equitable, a man who didn’t seem to be aware how much he was really confessing. And I grew concerned. I had once walked down the same road.

I didn’t want to embarrass him. So I didn’t link to this Babble essay about being childless, which, unlike other Freeman bylines, didn’t list Freeman as NBCC President. It was the kind of personal essay written without hard introspective insight, much like the essays I once wrote. It was the kind of writing you never want to reveal to the public because you’re still too immersed in the turmoil to see it clearly.

(I must pause here and point out that, with enough hard thinking, one can write about an ongoing personal dilemma. As evidence, I refer to Tim O’Brien’s infamous 1994 essay. Despite some shocking revelations, such as O’Brien revealing his suicidal impulses, it doesn’t come across as embarrassing. O’Brien has clearly mulled over his predicament, demonstrating in compelling and lucid language the development and continuing existence of a twenty-five year old problem. Additional examples of such essays include nearly anything written by Joan Didion and, more recently, Jonathan Lethem’s “The Beards,” which can be found in his essay collection, The Disappointment Artist.)

Then I stumbled upon this essay in The Believer (to be found in the current issue) and became even more uncomfortable by what Freeman was revealing about himself. It was very much like Ayelet Waldman’s troubling 2005 essays for Salon or Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone, where the writing serves as a surrogate for therapy (or, for those who disbelieve in therapy, a reasonably healthy method of confronting personal trauma). Freeman’s essay likewise featured brazen revelations, embarrassing for all parties, thrown into a thesis (in this case, how John Updike’s writing serves as a personal crutch, not dissimilar from Jonathan Franzen’s extraordinary revelation that he wanted to learn how to live by continuously reading Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters) and didn’t feature a resolution, or at least a conclusive cognizance, after a linear progression of events, but a man making the same mistakes over and over again and possibly not seeing this.

Then there was this outburst on the Critical Mass site, which was picked up yesterday by The New York Times. While I didn’t entirely disagree with Freeman’s comment, as NBCC President, I was surprised by Freeman’s decidedly undiplomatic tone, particularly this sentence:

I’d be curious to know how many of my fellow NBCC board members who voted for this book have been inside a Muslim household, let alone a Muslim country?

This led fellow NBCC member Jennifer Reese to remark that she had lived in a Muslim household for two years and had voted for the book, despite its controversial content. And it led me to wonder if Freeman’s personal confessions were creating more rancor than resolution.

I don’t know what’s going on with John Freeman, and I can’t profess to know. I’m not a mental health professional. I write here as an observer and a humanist who hopes that John Freeman is aware of what he is doing, or I hope that he becomes aware by way of this essay, assuming he doesn’t take offense at my speculations.

I must observe that writing, in and of itself, is not a panacea for personal problems. Writing is certainly a starting point for half-formed visceral or intellectual reactions to the world around us that we writers often discover later, if we’re smart enough (and often we’re not), or we have pointed out to us.

But it is not the manner in which one goes about finding an identity. That takes much more. To begin with, it takes a remarkable degree of confidence, discipline and/or drive to carry on as a writer. (Even those working writers who view themselves as sacks of shit have some ability to continue writing and not let anything stand in their way. Whether this is compulsion or confidence, who can say?) It is certainly not a profession for the weak of heart. It is an often absurd vocation. Every writer, no matter how good, is greeted with continuous rejection, with an acceptance accompanied by a paycheck of varying dollar value. A writer often never knows when her next paycheck is going to come from. A writer never knows if an editor who shoots her steady work will decide if her work just doesn’t fit the publication’s needs anymore, with even the most steeled writers often contemplating whether this might in some way be personal.

Given these circumstances, why would any writer turn to professional writing as a catholicon, essentially prostituting his personal experience in lieu of therapy? Why would a writer turn to a medium he knows damn well is devoid of the stability and nurture one should experience when dealing with an alarming undulation in this crazy little thing called life?

I am not against unfettered expression and I’m certainly not suggesting that today’s personal writers shy away from explicit personal writing. I am only asking for today’s confessional writers, who often lack the measured hands of O’Brien, Didion, and Lethem, to consider that spilling it all onto the page simply isn’t enough. This seems, in my mind, to be the motivation behind all the recent daddy memoir writing and it seems to be the m.o. behind Freeman’s recent essays. These writers should know better. A good writer simply doesn’t write an essay about a subject he knows very little about. A good writer knows how to organize his thoughts. Should not these same principles apply to confessional writing?

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3 Comments

  1. This is a wonderful essay, Ed. Your humanity shows, and it’s refreshing.

    Although Freeman’s outburst may not be the most diplomatic way to speak against a book he disagrees with, it’s a peek into the debate over award winners that outsiders don’t usually get to see. It reminds us that those considered qualified to determine excellence in writing are people with passions, too.

  2. Interesting stuff. I read the Babel essay and didn’t find anything overly confessional about it – my cringemeter stayed well below the redline. He comes across a little weak and weird, but the emotions feel true as far as I can tell. I’m not sure what perspective would add. It’s not much of an essay either way.

    I’d have to read more by Freeman to see if I felt like he’s out of bounds. Waldman in her essays doesn’t even seem to recognize their may be boundaries. The biggest difference between her (or maybe even Pollack) and Freeman or Franzen is that she’s writing about her children without their permission in ways that violate their privacy. I can’t imagine the hell to pay when her kids grow up and read that stuff on the net. With Waldman, the cringefactor is pinned to red from the first sentence.

    Pollack has a lighter touch, but there is again, something about using his kid in the way he does for fodder. Pollack’s writing has a much more obvious “persona” but I feel as though there will be consequences down the line there as well.

  3. Interesting stuff, Ed. Something I constantly worry about on my blog. Of course I react personally to what I read…but how much do I reveal in service of the words?

    Further, as you know me personally, you know there are aspects of my life that never appear on the blog, as those close to me wish to preserve their privacy. And who can blame them?

    Waldman’s Modern Love essay about loving her husband more than her children blew my mind. I have never forgotten it. File under things you just don’t say aloud. Much less publicly.

    But then there is indeed Didion, who can admit anything and make it sound elegant.

    Food for thought.

    BK

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