Essays - Spring 2015

Confessing and Confiding

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Knowing the difference between the two can elevate an essay from therapy to art

Photoillustration by David Herbick

By Emily Fox Gordon

March 4, 2015


 

 

In the course of teaching a personal essay workshop a few years ago, a watchword popped into my mind: “Don’t confess: confide!” I tried it out on my students and found that it seemed to hit some target. At any rate, several produced notebooks and jotted it down.

Later, I directed the group to write about a single situation in two ways, first as a confession and then as a confidence. In discussion, I asked them to draw out the distinction between the two notions by analyzing what they’d written. As Socratic pedagogy the experiment failed; if anything, the distinction was muddied. I was disappointed, because I’d been hoping the students would confirm or clarify my own developing views, about the abstract difference between confessing and confiding as well as its relevance to the practice of autobiographical writing. But the exercise did seem to intrigue the class, and it yielded some promising writing. The mere juxtaposition of confessing and confiding had set internal chords humming.

I hadn’t yet figured out the exact relationship between these two idea-cousins, but I knew that I wanted to offer my students an alternative to the purely confessional mode. I wanted them to write about themselves without falling into a paralyzingly portentous tone. I wanted more humor in their work, more complexity, more detail, more balance—more good writing. I wanted fewer italicized passages, less use of the breathless present tense. I wanted no more tears in the workshop, no more embarrassing scenes.

I’d been teaching these classes for many years, and had suffered through several such episodes. The worst one happened in the late ’90s. On this occasion, in a quavering voice, a woman in her 30s read a short opening to an autobiographical piece, something like this: It is night. I am seven. He stands in the dark at the foot of my bed. Only 15 words, more or less, but enough to make all hell break loose. Not only did it cause a general outbreak of tears and hugs, it sparked an insurrection. Instead of letting the student continue reading her work, others burst forth with their own memories of abuse. These were fragmentary recollections, or hypotheses based on flimsy psychological evidence—“I get anxious every time someone comes up behind me,” said one student. “My therapist told me I’ve got all the hallmarks,” said another—but they came out under high emotional pressure, like testimony in a Pentecostal temple. At one point three huggers were working the room.

Meanwhile, I sat stiffly at the head of the seminar table, deeply embarrassed and a little panicky that I’d so completely lost control of the class. My provisional sympathy was doing battle with my native skepticism. Was it really possible that five of the 12 in this group had been sexually abused?

But that was beside the point. What really bothered me about this communal outburst was that it was so unliterary. The sexual abuse narrative had been contracted to a cue, a signal. How could anything new ever be written about it? I was reminded of the old joke about the jailbirds who had been telling the same set of jokes for so many years that they needed only to call out a number—97!—to make everybody laugh.


The tale my student never got to tell would be classified in the creative nonfiction world as a trauma narrative. Some teachers actively encourage their students to read and write these. I know one who taught an MFA memoir workshop using Jaycee Dugard’s memoir, A Stolen Life, as her central text, supplemented by other accounts of captivity and sexual exploitation. I tried to conceal my horror when she told me this, and also my envy—students would be eager to get into this class, and it would, as they say, teach itself.

I know another teacher, a writer and now-retired professor of creative nonfiction, who not only solicited stories of abuse from her students but also made it her business to unearth them. When she suspected that a student was concealing a secret—her evidence threshold was low: weight problems, heavy makeup, dull prose style; all these were flagged as symptoms—this professor called the student into private conference in her office. Once the underlying trauma had been excavated, and the student persuaded to retire the boring cover story she’d initially turned in and to recognize the trauma as her true subject, her writing improved. The student herself improved, according to the professor. She dropped 20 pounds, left off the thick foundation, was spotted dancing in a local nightspot. Much as I disapproved of this substitution of therapy without a license for writing instruction, I must say I was disarmed by the teacher’s candor. She’d been teaching in a lackluster MFA program for many years and confided to me—we are, or were, friendly acquaintances—that she found the unmasking exercise much more interesting than scrawling “Show, don’t tell!” in the margins of one dull theme after another.

As it happened, I was paired with this professor in a debate about writing as therapy at the meetings of a national writing association. She defended the proposition that writing can and should be taught as a purely therapeutic exercise. I held that it should be taught as art. I readily conceded that autobiographical writing often does have a therapeutic effect on the writer, and sometimes on the reader too, but insisted that therapy should be secondary to the central aim of creating art. My opponent’s rebuttal was impressively subtle. Aha! she said—she’d obviously been waiting for this—the better the writing, the more effectively it serves as therapy. To write about the trauma is to get the trauma out, to remove it from the self. To write something good is to make what’s been removed beautiful, a well-wrought literary object that stands free of the self and compensates the writer for the shame of self-exposure.

She had me there, or at least she made me stop and think, and that threw me off my rhetorical stride. She won the debate, hands down, but once the discussion period got started, I realized I’d been sunk from the start. All the questions and comments were addressed to my opponent, and everyone who spoke up seemed to represent some organization or interest group. Victims of birth defects, sufferers from chronic fatigue or PTSD, prescription pill abusers, alcoholics, adult children of alcoholics. This was not a literary audience. It was a gathering of constituencies.

The trauma narrative mode had long been in the ascendant, of course, both in the literary world and in the culture, long enough to have weathered decades of satirical assaults and earnest opinion pieces calling into question the narcissism at its core. Like many a long-lived cultural phenomenon, it has waxed and waned and changed adaptively. Starting around 2005, my students began to diversify their narratives. Some continued to write about childhood sexual abuse, but their accounts tended to be tinged with irony. You’ve heard this one before, they’d acknowledge. Others opened up adjacent territories—depression, eating disorders, procrastination, shoplifting, sexual promiscuity. In recent years, bullying has taken the spotlight.

The confessional impulse: Who better to understand it than I, the author of two memoirs, both roughly classifiable under the trauma narrative heading? As a workshop teacher encouraging students to write about their lives, I was hardly in a position to deplore it. And yet I did. I brooded about it, accused myself of bad faith. It was when I was suffering most acutely from cognitive dissonance that the “Don’t confess, confide” maxim sprang into my mind.


“Don’t confess, confide.” What does this catchy exhortation mean, and what is the difference between the two modes?

Confessing and confiding are overlapping concepts, like envy and jealousy, often used interchangeably, but distinct at their cores. The fundamental difference between them is that a confession, in the word’s historical, nonliterary sense, is addressed to some entity—God, the court, the public, a person one has wronged. That entity or person holds the power to condemn, punish, absolve, or forgive. The receiver of a confidence, on the other hand, can comfort or chide or laugh or weep in sympathy with the confider, but has no true authority over him. Confidences are offered to equals, or at least the offering and acceptance of a confidence places the two parties involved on equal terms.

Confessions can be coerced; confidences are intrinsically voluntary. Confessions tend to be tonally serious and emotionally charged. This can be true of confidences as well, but they can just as easily be light, comic, trivial. (Hard to imagine a languid, low-energy confession, except perhaps from a debilitated patient on his deathbed, or a character in a Russian novel.)

A confession can be addressed to a single person, a group, or to the world generally, but except in the case of the Catholic confessional, the person receiving a confession does not implicitly promise to keep it secret. A confidence—interesting that the noun form has become nearly obsolete—is by definition private, generally offered to only one person, though sometimes a small group can receive a confidence, as in a late-night session in a college dorm. A confidence is shared with the understanding that it should not be repeated, though of course it often is.

Confidences can be self-deluded (“Don’t laugh, but I think that young man’s interested in me”), but the confider must believe in the truth of what’s being confided. A knowingly false confession remains a confession, but if a person offers a confidence in the consciousness that it’s untrue, it’s no longer a confidence. It’s a calculated manipulation, a confidence trick.

What’s always most important about a confession is its content; what’s often most important about a confidence is the relationship it creates or furthers. Confidences are the currency of friendship, and are meant to be exchanged. They have a pedagogical function: through sharing them, we teach others about ourselves and signal our readiness to learn about them. In established friendships and marriages, much of this teaching has already been done, but the viability of these relationships often depends on keeping the stream of confidences flowing—or trickling, at least. If it dries up, a confession may be in order.

Of course people do, famously, confide in strangers. Who hasn’t been privy to a confidence told by a seatmate on a plane, or read a novel or short story that uses such a scene as its premise? The confider places his trust (confidence) in the common humanity that he and his stranger-confidant share, and also in the anonymity of the situation—his secret is safe with someone he’ll never see again.

A confidence will often contain a confession at its heart, but in this context the confession loses its charge, like a deactivated bomb. What remains is poignancy. Confessions are by nature intense, sometimes disruptive of social order. Confidences are gentler, and tend to reinforce it. Even gossip, it’s often said, serves as a bonding agent.

When I think of a confession, I visualize the confessor gazing at an angle—up or down—into the confessee’s eyes. When I picture a person confiding in another person, I see the pair regarding one another face to face, eyes level. When I think of confessions, the word “honesty” comes to mind, and I envision a torrential waterfall. When I think of confidences, I see a still pool, and the associated word is “candor.”

On the page, however, confessing and confiding operate very differently from their real-life counterparts. In the case of literary confessions, there is no God, jury, priest, or injured spouse to render judgment or offer expiation. There’s only the reader, whom the confessional writer addresses like an actor who has mastered the trick of gazing across the footlights, creating in each audience member the illusion that his eyes, in particular, are being engaged. Even so, the author isn’t granting the reader a private audience. Just as one feels the breathing mass of people around one in a darkened theater, so the memoir reader feels the supportive presence of fellow readers, and also feels, I’d venture, the echo of a communal power to grant forgiveness, to welcome the prodigal back into the fold. This is one of the atavistic comforts of memoir, this feeling of being part of an imagined community that receives the writer’s confession. In contemporary memoir, that’s nearly always injury or infirmity, not sin, and the reader, surrounded by a ghostly company of fellow witnesses, understands the nature of the confession from its very beginning. It’s almost a matter—as it was with my workshop tears-and-hugs outbreak—of instantaneous response to a cue.


Of course these two modes are almost inevitably woven together in any piece of autobiographical narrative, long or short, though memoirists tend to do more confessing and personal essayists more confiding. Sometimes a confession and a confidence are present in the same paragraph, or even in the same sentence. (A parenthetical phrase, inside brackets or not, is nearly always classifiable as a confidence, and personal essays tend to be loaded with them.) To help my students see the distinction, I assign Bert O. States’s “My Slight Stoop,” which is the most purely “confiding” essay I know, paired with “The Love of My Life,” Cheryl Strayed’s intensely confessional narrative about her plunge from intractable grief into wild promiscuity after her mother’s death.

States’s essay is an account of his transcendence of his blue-collar origins in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, made possible by his older sister’s sacrifice of her own aspirations. A philosophical current runs through the piece, a trickle at first, later a torrent. Right from the start, States assumes a chatty intimacy with the reader that relieves him of pressure to cut to any chase.

Strayed, on the other hand, wastes little time: “I did not deny. I did not get angry. I didn’t bargain, become depressed, or accept. I fucked. I sucked.”

At roughly the same point in his own essay, States is going on, as he has been for a couple of pages, about the odd coincidence that he and his older sister were born 10 years apart to the day:

So there was always something distantly mystical about “our” birthday, and I can’t recount the number of times when a smile of disbelief came over the faces of people on first hearing about it: it was as if they’d been told that the cinema projector was invented, of all people, by the Lumière brothers (which it was).

Do I need to mention that my students tend to love “The Love of My Life” and to find “My Slight Stoop” exasperating, and that I’m a partisan of the latter and have mixed feelings about the former? I was dazzled by “The Love of My Life” when I first read it 10 years ago, but since then I’ve developed doubts. Once the shock and glamour of the piece wore off, I found myself poking at it suspiciously. It bothered me that Strayed never attempts an explanatory connection between her bereavement and the two-year sexual binge that eventually destroyed her marriage. She does report that in her grief she avoided sex with her husband, whom she adored, because marital intimacy felt oddly like disloyalty to her mother. This deep, if distorted, need to stay true to her mother—the love of her life—seemed movingly plausible: I bought it entirely. But why the anonymous couplings with strangers? Why did her grief take this form? It wasn’t that I required an answer; what struck me as unsatisfactory was that Strayed never asks the question.

Strayed rarely speculates on the page. Her tone is flatly reportorial. What saves her account from reading like the transcript of a psychiatric interview are moments of hipster mordancy. She gives her anonymous sexual partners capitalized titles—the Prematurely Graying Wilderness Guide, the Formerly Gay Organic Farmer. These asides, which are tiny confidences, reassure the reader that Strayed is sane. But they are only grace notes; they never add up—their effect is to throw the essay’s confessionalism into high relief. The revelations in “The Love of My Life” are intensely personal, but there is nothing intimate about the way Strayed discloses them. She is a canny writer, and though her narrative comes out under high pressure, she controls it tightly. She keeps her distance from the reader. To do otherwise would compromise the essay’s theatrical effect.

In the classroom, I gloss “The Love of My Life” lightly and then turn to the task of selling my students on “My Slight Stoop.” This is not easy: they tend to balk at its prolixity and chattiness. Why doesn’t he get to the point, they ask. I tell them to hold on, he soon will.

But his point is quite different from Strayed’s. In her case it’s to deliver her confession, and the more stripped-down her narrative, the truer its aim toward that end. It doesn’t matter, really, who she is—though she deftly situates herself with a few ironically inflected observations about the Portland, Oregon, milieu in which her drama played out. Her role is to represent the constituency of the bereaved, but only the seriously bereaved, she insists, not the casual, once-removed kind. (I don’t go into this with my students, but I’ve come to believe that much of the power of “The Love of My Life” depends on the religious echoes of Strayed’s promiscuous behavior: whatever its psychological motivation, her sucking-and-fucking compulsion dimly recalls the fleshly self-mortifications of the early saints. Unacknowledged and unexplained, this inverted resonance works subliminally to establish her authority as a high priestess of contemporary grieving.)

Bert States, on the other hand, invites the reader to know him in the fullness of his particularity. To this end, he tells stories, many of them comic, some of them poignant, about his lower-middle-class Pennsylvania childhood in the ’40s. In lieu of drama, he offers a lovingly detailed portrait of a lost world, assembled from homely details like the cold chicken wrapped in stiff brown paper he carried to his father for lunch at his railroad job, or the two-staple anti-masturbation pamphlet his aunt sent him in the mail. He introduces his mother, who longed for the “copper wall lavaboes” and “pewter guinea hens” she saw photographed in glossy magazines, and his beloved sister, who would grow to be more and more powerful an influence in his life. These two “ran the family,” while the father’s travels for his railroad job kept him outside it, an occasional visitor with little parental authority. At one point, States mentions, parenthetically but tellingly, that there were “problems in the marriage.” “But that,” he goes on, “is a matter I don’t care to get into here.” By flagging these marital troubles, he levels with the reader. At the same time, he puts us on notice: this will not be a confession.

States’s father, who came of “solid farm stock,” wanted his son to follow him in his career with the railroad. But this son was inward-turned and reflective; in adolescence he began to betray signs of incipient literary-mindedness—solitary rambling and a dreamy, moody tendency. An early symptom was his aversion to Sundays, which seemed “saturated with emptiness … a hollow parenthesis in the week.” At his sister’s insistence, and at the cost of her own education, he became the first in his family to go to college. From there he went to graduate school, and on to a career as an academic and a writer.

The first two-thirds of “My Slight Stoop” is straightforwardly, nostalgically narrative. There’s no intimation that any psychological shoe will drop, no hint of impending crisis. It’s such a tale of normality that if it were told less beguilingly, the reader, like my students, would start to wonder what the point was. But then a turn comes, a startling one. It’s as if the narrative part of “My Slight Stoop” had been designed to drop away like a booster rocket, allowing a payload-carrying capsule to shoot straight into the higher reaches of philosophical insight.

States jumps ahead to the current day. Now he’s in his 60s. He opens, in the reader’s presence, the earliest of 40 years of his own letters, returned to him by the older sister we’ve heard so much about, who saved and treasured them until blindness rendered her unable to read them. These letters, kept in careful chronological order, unnerve him profoundly. Do they contain evidence of some incident he’d repressed, a memory of some trauma? No. What’s disturbing about them is that they smell of mortality, like Lear’s hand.

It is one thing to try to understand life, even by going back over it in your memory. … It is another thing to return to the artifacts you cast out while you were living it, to see that what you took as your own spontaneity was an infinite series of conventional choices or unconscious adaptations of attitudes, fears, and intolerances that are shared by almost everyone.

The earliest letter is full of pretentious “quites” and “indeeds,” just what you’d expect from a bright, self-conscious high school student. Absolutely normal and ordinary, but States’s point is that it’s his letter. Reading it now, he suffers a “spasm of self-allergy.” This and the letters that follow it were all “necessarily written from the standpoint of ignorance and in-betweenness. … Thus there is a real inevitability about letters that are re-read: they have the mark of fossils trapped in the tree gum of their own nearsightedness.”

It’s not just embarrassment at his youthful affectations that bothers States. It’s the record that his letters add up to, and what that record betrays. Any author’s work, taken as a whole, contains patterns—turns of phrase, frequently repeated words, characteristic figures of speech and metaphors—that serve an almost diagnostic purpose. They reveal, he writes, “the ‘genetic’ stamp through which a particular mind unthinkingly speaks itself, since style, good or bad, is something that expresses itself independently of conscious will.”

Here follows an aphoristic gem: “Style,” States writes, “is what you don’t know about yourself.” And what you don’t know about yourself is what you learn—if ever you do learn it—too late. “You find out about it all afterwards,” States writes, “in a sudden convulsion of realization. Pop, there it is. And of course it’s all over.”

To read your own letters is to view yourself from the outside, as if posthumously. States alludes to the scene in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in which Hans Castorp considers an X-ray of his own hand, and understands that he will die. “What a stunner!” writes States.

The last few pages of “My Slight Stoop” are given over to an extended meditation on time and the way we experience it. It’s not the abstract conclusion we might expect; instead it’s a playful account of his attempt, in the course of driving from Santa Barbara to Monterey to visit his sister (That sister! She becomes a mythic figure, an Atropos) to mentally merge the departure and arrival times, eliminating the interval between them. It’s such a familiar journey to States that this almost seems possible, though of course it isn’t. The problem is that he can’t retain his image of the projected arrival in the “mint condition necessary for the Match.” The moment of image formation slips away, inevitably “eaten” by its progeny, the moments that follow:

In short, this moment, any moment, is made of every other moment … so close are they as they unfold through each other that you should be able to walk backward in time on a path of moments to the beginning, if you could only convert time into little steppingstones about the size of your mind’s feet.

There’s more to follow about time’s one-way directionality, but I’ll leave States here, with this marvelously characteristic analogy. In the end, his essay is impossible to summarize without distortion. He’s not traveling directly from premise to conclusion. Instead, he’s following the course of his thought as it is interrupted and redirected by his memories, just as a mountain stream parts and closes around the rocks that litter its bed.

And this, I say to my students, is the reason he told us that long, comfortable story about his past. He was acquainting us with his memories, teaching them to us so that we might later follow him as he moves freely through philosophical space. In the absence of a confessional purpose, how did he motivate his narrative? By confiding in the reader.


But really, “The Love of My Life” and “My Slight Stoop” are incommensurable. Their narrative shapes are so different that it’s hard to believe they belong to the same genre. “My Slight Stoop” is like a mushroom—that’s how I envision it—a thick stalk of reminiscence flaring out into a philosophical cap. “The Love of My Life” has a more conventional design; it’s a scale-model memoir—it will later become the memoir Wild, and then a movie of the same name—with a memoir’s inverted narrative arc. It contains very little analysis, only Strayed’s complaint that in our deritualized society the pain of bereavement goes unacknowledged. (A fair point, but is it explanatory? Does she mean to suggest that if only she’d felt free to wail and rend her clothing, she’d have refrained from fellating the Terribly Large Texas Bull Rider?)

At any rate, after Strayed confesses her multiple infidelities to her husband, she develops a heroin habit and undergoes an abortion—this period obviously represents the inevitable bottoming-out—and then, having made a decision to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, begins to climb toward a familiar kind of redemption. She is too sophisticated not to ironize this development. The reader won’t get to witness a healing, she cautions. “Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing.” (My students are always impressed by that “burnt.”) Healing means picking up one’s burden and trudging on.

But this is a distinction without a difference: the reader does get to witness a healing, and it’s all the more gratifying for having been disinfected by irony. “The Love of My Life” offers the ready-made satisfactions of a confessional narrative—the pilgrim’s-progress development, the uplifting ending—without the cornball aftertaste.


Let me return to the story about the debate on trauma narratives in which my opponent so thoroughly bested me (and spiked the ball outrageously at a party later that evening, I might add).

Nothing is wasted. My debate partner’s riposte—the one that stumped me and threw me off my timing—was that there need be no conflict between the therapeutic and aesthetic goals of autobiographical writing. You can get the painful story out and make it beautiful, which is all the better for your self-esteem. Since that evening, I’ve had a wisdom-of-the-stairs insight. I’ve realized that in spite of our differences, my debate partner and I both shared a fundamental—and wrong—assumption about the nature of autobiographical writing. It was that notion of “getting it out.”

The metaphor of taking something from inside the self and “removing” it to the outside is commonly used to describe the goal of art generally, but in autobiographical writing it carries a particularly heavy burden of literal-mindedness. It would seem that you contain your life history in a more obvious way than you contain a landscape you’re planning to paint or a novel you’re planning to write.

On second thought, maybe it doesn’t seem that way.  A novelist might take an idea for a novel, which at least feels like a thing he harbors inside himself, do the writer’s work of shaping and developing it, and then remove it to the outside. Now the original conception has been replaced, the way a blueprint is superseded once the house is built. But after a memoirist completes a memoir, the past remains. Even if he somehow managed to extrude an exact replica of his past (and how could that be put into words, and who would want to read it?), the original would still be there inside him. Actually, the phrase “there inside him” concedes too much: his past constitutes him. It is him. He can’t, strictly speaking, get it out, or if he does, it can only be a version—a distortion—of the thing he wanted to get out. He can’t remove even a piece of it without threatening the integrity of the whole, because the elements of personal history are connected to one another. There’s no way to lift a portion out cleanly; it can only be torn loose, shreds of context still attached. A confiding writer is less likely to violate the truth of his own history than a confessional writer, if only because his claim on it tends to be more modest. Often, he is interested not so much in getting it out as in displaying it to illustrate some observation that the reader is invited to consider in the light of his own experience.

So what is the correct literary use of the mass of inalienable material that is a writer’s subjective history? There is no single right use, of course, but many, not excluding confessions, even if they’re never quite true (because a sophisticated reader knows to make allowances). But the real liability of confessional memoir is that, like fiction, it funnels experience into one or another of the very few basic narratives to which any story can be reduced. There’s the famous Joseph Campbell ur-plot about the hero who ventures away from home, survives great dangers, and returns, bringing back with him some power that benefits his people. Conversely, there’s the tale of the stranger who comes to town. But the story that most confessional memoirs can be reduced to is the simplest of all. It involves a protagonist (often a woman) who gets hurt or falls ill, and who survives through healing. A shockingly rudimentary plot, but highly versatile. There are so many ways to get sick or hurt, some bodily, some psychological, some both; there are so many impediments to healing, some built into the process itself (as in the “recovery” narrative), some attributable to the sins of others.

And what could be more universal? Everyone gets sick or hurt, and to one degree or another, everyone heals. The trauma narrative is associated with all kinds of good feelings for the reader—schadenfreude, of course, and also the comforting sensation of inclusion in a community of people who hurt just the way you hurt. Listening to a story of pain and healing can revive a demi-religious sense of awe, because healing really does seem miraculous. It’s pleasant to feel empathy—to know you’re capable of it—and reassuring to imagine others feeling it toward you. No wonder the trauma narrative is so powerful. No wonder my students, like subjects in some operant conditioning experiment gone awry, responded to it prematurely. If you know the story in advance, why delay the delivery of the feelings you know it will make you feel?


A confession always has to do with power. Either the confessing writer is appealing to some power that he invests in the reader or working his own theatrical power on his reader. He can even do both these things simultaneously, but the relationship is never for a moment reciprocal, never equal. As I observed earlier, his eyes are either raised or lowered, never level with the reader’s.

The confiding relationship, on the other hand, is inherently equal, reciprocal, and free of the taint of power. Like reciprocity more generally, it’s morally superior to the exercise of power—in real life, at least. But what about on the page? How can the writer enjoy a relationship of equality and reciprocity with a reader he can’t actually know? This is impossible; some trick must be involved.

And so it is. Here’s how I think it works: the writer invents a kind of stand-in for the reader, an imagined representative who asks the writer the kinds of questions a real reader would ask. Meanwhile, the actual reader, who of course can never be addressed directly, listens in. It’s a three-cornered arrangement.

This internalized other, this miniature U.N. observer-figure, need not be characterized, or even personified. He can shrink to the size of an Archimedean point. His function, however, is just like that of any real-life confidant. Entire categories of things about us—our style, as Bert States observes, is one of them—can’t be seen from the inside. When we confide in a friend, we are, among other things, soliciting an outside view, a corrective to self-blindness. So too the writer depends on the internalized reader as a check against the notorious temptations of an intensely subjective genre—self-mythification, self-dramatization, self-justification, self-pity. In the process of accommodating the questions that he imagines a reader might ask, a writer may also examine his own motives, raise moral issues, explore philosophical implications, make sociological observations. Because the confiding mode is not goal directed in the way confession is, it allows great space and leisure for speculation. But it need not open out this way; the confiding writer can stay close to home.

This is the great distinction of the confiding writer—that in his work he recognizes himself as the stable occupant of the home of the self. Instead of getting anything out, he invites the reader in. Or rather, through the benign mediation of the imaginary reader he has invented for the purpose, he gives the actual reader a virtual tour. If the imaginary reader asks the right questions, and if the actual reader is attuned enough to them, then the actual reader follows one of the thought-paths that he might follow if he were an actual confidant. It’s an “as-if” dialogue.

The confiding mode in autobiographical writing offers both the writer and the reader (the real reader, that is) relief from loneliness—not the loneliness of pathology, but the intrinsic loneliness of the human condition. This is how it is in here, the writer is saying as he flings open the doors to his subjective home, and the reader is relieved to see that it’s very much like his own set of rooms.

From the actual reader’s perspective, the relationship between writer and reader can seem uncannily transparent and artless, especially when the writer has mastered that skill so specific to the confiding form—writerly tact. A really good writer can manage the three-way relationship so as to bring the reader very close. I think of the moment in Natalia Ginzburg’s “He and I” in which she confides that when she weeps during fights with her husband, she always remains quite calm beneath her tears. Reading this, I thought, yes, exactly, and that small shock of recognition woke me to the reality that I’d been reading and not talking with a friend. It had seemed so real. I’d forgotten for a moment that it wasn’t, that it couldn’t be, that it was an illusion, and that this illusion made it art.


Emily Fox Gordon is the author of two memoirs, a novel, and a collection of essays, Book of Days. Her essay, “At Sixty-Five,” in the Summer 2013 Scholar, was selected for Best American Essays 2014.


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