“The differences between a personal essay and a confessional essay can be tricky to spot. The personal essay — the more exalted form of the two — can be as dense and layered as a short story; it fancies itself a prism and uses the personal to shed light on the communal. . . .The telltale signs of the confessional essay include a warm, pseudo-confiding tone and a penchant for lists and adverbs like ‘humiliatingly’ and ‘embarrassingly.’” This was part of a N.Y. Times review by Sloane Crosley (who happens to be a pretty good personal essayist, in my opinion) about a book of confessional essays, one whose author I no longer recall. Crosley goes on to say that one is not a higher art than the other, etc. etc. but I think what she means is that one totally is, but she’s going to try to be fair in her review. If she didn’t really mean that, well, I mean it.
A few nights later I woke up at 2a.m. and thought about how I didn’t feel like sleeping anymore. I decided I could just read instead. This started out extremely well, but ended extremely badly, when at around 5a.m. I decided that I actually should try sleeping but couldn’t. And then it was morning and I had to go to work. But between 2 and 5a.m. I came across this great personal essay in The New Yorker by Emily Raboteau, who I had never read before, but immediately became smitten with. Her writing falls into the personal but not confessional category. Joan Didion is probably the best example of that kind of writing, in that she is both there and not there, and Raboteau kept that same kind of distance from her readers, maybe even a mildly amused disregard for them, and a kind of delightful wickedness at times that reminded me of Shirley Jackson, whose fiction and nonfiction is some of my favorite writing ever.
I’m not quite sure if my writing is confessional, I confess, but I do know that I generally don’t like reading that kind of writing and that sometimes when I read confessional essays it makes me never want to write again. This is how I’ve been feeling lately. You know: what’s the point? But then I read some wonderful personal essay and I realize that I am just ending up in the wrong places sometimes.
This is not really an explanation of anything; perhaps it’s only a reminder to myself to stop being discouraged. And to write the things I most want to read, which is “so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it” (I know I’ve mentioned that Seymour Glass quote from Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters a dozen times already, but it is so worth remembering).
Reading good writing always encourages me. It always makes me feel like, All right, things are getting done! And sometimes it even makes me think, Good, that was written, so now I don’t have to write about it. Because, you know, it’s always nice to pass the work off to someone who does it better. But sometimes I have to do the work too, even if my natural impulse is to shrink from it, is to think that there’s no real reason to keep writing (I mean, there isn’t really, except the compulsion, which has been lifelong).
All of this is to say that I am at the start of something. And hopefully, eventually, I will get to the end of it. And perhaps shed light on the communal, etc. etc. I’ll let you know.