We live in an era of endless self-exposure: we parade our babies on Facebook, flaunt our witticisms on Twitter, turn our pancake brunches into still lifes on Instagram. At this point, the indignant backlash has become as familiar as the exposure itself: We parade our babies on Facebook! We flaunt our witticisms on Twitter! We spare no sepia filter for our syrup!
Now that amateur autobiography and its detractors are everywhere, autobiographical writers are increasingly invested in defining and defending the value of their work. How can it escape the gravitational pull of solipsism? For a growing number of essayists, memoirists, and other wielders of the unwieldy “I,” confessional has become an unwelcome label—an implicit accusation of excessive self-absorption, of writing not just about oneself but for oneself.
“What might seem ‘confessional’ from the outside is just an arrangement of facts,” the writer Charles D’Ambrosio says of his essays about—among other things—the suicide of one brother and the attempted suicide of another. “ ‘Confessional’ is not a good descriptor of my work,” insists Chris Kraus, best known for a book, I Love Dick, about the unrequited obsession of a character named Chris Kraus. “ ‘Confessional’ of what? Personal confessions? There’s a great line from … [Gilles] Deleuze: Life is not personal.” The essayist Meghan Daum, known for her unapologetic candor, resists the term as well. “I don’t confess in my work,” she says, “because to me that implies that you’re dumping all your guilt and sins on the page and asking the reader to forgive you.” The label can also imply a failure of craft. “Confessions are not processed or analysed,” she continues, “they’re told in a moment of desperation.” Instead, Daum calls her personal revelations “events recounted in the service of ideas.”
Five years ago, in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, the writer David Shields articulated an anticonfessional notion of self-disclosure as a means of pursuing conceptual insight: “What I believe about memoir is that you just happen to be using the nuts and bolts of your own life to illustrate your vision.” His recent book—I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, co-authored with a former student, Caleb Powell—experiments with the machinery these “nuts and bolts” might build. It’s an edited transcript of an intimate argument spanning a long weekend that the pair spent together in a cabin in the woods in Washington State. As they wrestle over the Yeatsian choice of “perfection of the life, or of the work,” their conversation is full of self-disclosure that feels less like confession and more like trial evidence. The dialogue is strategically literary: their plan is “to come out of this with a book.” In Ongoingness, her third foray into memoir, Sarah Manguso offers another kind of structural challenge to the traditional confessional style. She describes an 800,000-word diary she kept for 25 years, but never quotes from it. Which is to say that she narrates the process of narrating her own life, rather than tapping the more predictably confessional vein of the diary itself. Both books offer a vision of personal experience as something intellectually constructed rather than nakedly exposed; in their pages, revelation is a mode of self-scrutiny rather than a plea for absolution or attention.
Manguso’s 800,000 words could probably fill a dozen books—but she never wrote her diary to be read, she says, and eventually decided that “the only way to represent the diary in this book would be either to include the entire thing untouched … or to include none of it.” Instead, with a kind of anti-prolix purity, she evokes the diary in lean abstractions and polished reflections that elide or condense the experiences that shaped them. Her prose feels twice distilled; it’s whiskey rather than beer, writing about writing about life. Many of her short blocks of text swell into aphoristic closing beats trailed by the gently understated exclamation point of white space.
“I didn’t want to lose anything,” she writes of her need, as a younger woman, to document everything she lived and felt. “Imagining life without the diary, even one week without it, spurred a panic that I might as well be dead.” Despair at the impossibility of her task—“I knew I couldn’t replicate my whole life in language”—gave way to a new sort of self-transcription once she had a son: “In the diary I recorded only facts. Minutes of nursing, ounces of milk, hours of sleep.” Maternity asked her to surrender the project of recording her life comprehensively: “He needed me more than I needed to write about him.”
At the emotional core of Manguso’s book is an exploration of how motherhood changes her relationship to writing, memory, and time itself. “I used to exist against the continuity of time,” she writes. “Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against.” And her book is a formal enactment of this process, presenting a self that cedes particularity and centrality in order to become a backdrop for larger questions: How do we find meaning in our experiences and hold them in memory? How do we reckon with the fact that we’ll all eventually die and be forgotten? For Manguso, becoming a mother means she no longer feels her hours are always full of significant observations waiting to be extracted—“Nursing an infant creates so much lost, empty time”—or preserved in writing: “Then I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life.”
Manguso does deliver some beautiful un-forgotten moments, their visceral immediacy brought into even sharper relief by the book’s largely abstract topography. We see her son feeding a piece of pancake to his little blue dog. We hear him calling everything “Bamboo!,” whispering the word to his teddy bear at night. At times my attachment to these anchoring flashes of concrete reality—my growing hunger for narrative and revelation, for a glimpse of the diary itself—made me feel inadequate, as if I weren’t good enough to appreciate the kind of book Manguso envisioned this one being: “a book without a single quote, a book about pure states of being.”
I couldn’t help missing the visceral texture of her first memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, an exquisitely particular reckoning with a rare autoimmune disorder, and a book I still love deeply. In Ongoingness, Manguso comes close to a disavowal of the “obsessive, all-consuming” self-reflection involved in writing about her sickness. “The illness,” she writes, “wasn’t the real problem. Thinking about it was the problem.” But even as I felt complicit in that problem—guilty for wanting the more traditionally confessional narrative she’d once given me, guilty for wanting the diary she wouldn’t quote—I also appreciated that her new book was asking me to question my own hungers. I felt a different sort of proximity between us: not the intimacy of experience exposed—secrets or trysts, psychic depravities or bodily degradations—but the intimacy of self-interrogation laid bare.
The polish of Manguso’s prose stands in sharp contrast to the ragged texture of I Think You’re Totally Wrong, in which Shields and Powell (especially Powell) constantly interrupt each other’s epiphanies: “By focusing so much on art,” Shields wonders, “have I closed myself off so completely from—” But Powell stops him before he can finish his question. Their fractured back-and-forth implies that fruitful inquiry is provisional and open-ended, that epiphanies are most useful when challenged. At the same time, the rawness of their conversation—its friction, its banter, its splay—has been carefully sculpted. Its shagginess is calculated: “We’ll cut from live moment to live moment,” Shields declares, and after confronting Powell about his drinking, he acknowledges, “I’m doing this partly to get ‘a moment.’ ” The production of such “moments” is an effect Shields anticipated in Reality Hunger. “At once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice, I know all the moments are ‘moments’: staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized.” In calling attention to its process, their conversation offers itself as unprocessed; admitting that it’s been constructed guarantees another sort of authenticity. “It’s staged,” Powell says, “but it can’t be fake.”
The premise of the book could easily play as straight farce: two self-involved and argumentative men argue with each other about … themselves. Often in a hot tub. (“You said you wanted homoerotic tension,” Powell says to Shields. “Were you hitting on me?”) But what unfolds is actually quite gripping, and they’re well aware of the farcical qualities. They approach Yeats’s “forced” choice as if they are characters in a morality play: Shields, a tenured professor whose six-figure salary comes up more than once, is “Work”; Powell, a stay-at-home dad whose writing career has never gotten off the ground, is “Life.” (The title of Powell’s unpublished novel, This Seething Ocean, That Damned Eagle, is “among the worst” Shields has ever heard, but Powell can “life-drop” plenty of experiences from his years abroad, telling anecdotes about his encounter with a transvestite in Western Samoa and scaling Huayna Picchu.) All along, their discussion of lofty questions (What is the purpose of writing? Can art make the world better?) is punctuated by the banalities of two men on vacation. They watch My Dinner With Andre, and Powell “snore[s] through all the major epiphanies.” On a hike through the woods, they’re talking about a weeping widow in Kabul when suddenly the scenery intervenes: “Hey,” Powell says, “this is a nice waterfall.”
There’s a blunt insistence to these juxtapositions—we live in a world of widows and waterfalls, deal with it—that’s echoed by the unsentimental delivery of material that might feel decidedly confessional in another book. When these men offer personal disclosures, they aren’t atoning, or looking for pity from each other—or from us. What they’re up to is something more like D’Ambrosio’s “arrangement of facts.” They’re sniffing around for clues as they pursue their larger questions. Powell tells Shields about one of his wife’s miscarriages and her gay ex-husband; Shields discusses his daughter’s body-image issues and describes fighting with his wife about whether to have a second child. These aren’t sob stories milked for emotional impact; they’re exhibits in service of debates: What aspects of life (a bigger family, marital stability) does the artist sacrifice for his work?
Not only do we witness personal experiences conscripted into intellectual work; we witness these disclosures getting heard and processed. In the end, the form of the book is more illuminating than any resolution the authors find to their central conflict. Shields and Powell offer a different vision of how the confessional might play out: rather than baring their psychic flesh for the sake of exposure and intimacy (“You said you wanted homoerotic tension”), they are excavating complexities inside their experiences.
Both Ongoingness and I Think You’re Totally Wrong represent efforts to reconcile the competing selves in every writer, however autobiographical her work is: the self that lives in the world—getting sick or getting pregnant or serving brunch—with the self that creates the world, or re-creates it with a purpose, reconstructing its vicissitudes in order to compose an emotional narrative or ask hard questions. Both books start out by proposing a conflict—between life and work, between immersion and reflection—only to subvert it. Manguso has written a book about how motherhood took her away from writing. Shields and Powell have generated a “lived” creative inquiry with its roots in the conflict between living and creating.
“Art can serve people,” Shields declares. “Basically, the royal road to salvation, for me, lies through an artist saying very uncompromising things about himself. And through reading that relentless investigation, the reader will understand something surprising about himself.” This notion of investigation offers an alternative to confession. Its goal isn’t sympathy or forgiveness. Life is not personal. Life is evidence. It’s fodder for argument. To put the “I” to work this way invites a different intimacy—not voyeuristic communion but collaborative inquiry, author and reader facing the same questions from inside their inevitably messy lives.