Four writers on the gendered world of confessional writing, telling the truth about loved ones, and the line between bravery and betrayal.
Earlier this year, one of Guernica’s editors published a personal essay about her experience as a would-be egg donor. It was a smart essay, an elegantly written and politically astute essay. But readers rarely called it these things; instead they called it brave. This started a conversation among us—we started to wonder what it means when the label “bravery” gets affixed to art, and what that has to do with gender. Is it braver for a woman to write about her sex life than for a man to do the same? Does it take more courage for a man to write about being broke? When this year’s PEN World Voices Festival focused on the theme of bravery, we convened a panel of “confessional” writers to explore these questions.
The group of writers that assembled in early May was a motley one, whose collective work runs the gamut of confessional writing—they have taken risks in what they’ve written about themselves and the people in their lives. Anthony Swofford—the author of Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, which documents his time as a Marine in the first Gulf War—more recently tackled some closer-to-home conflicts in his second memoir, Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails: A Memoir. Swofford writes about his troubled relationship with his father, and about his own self-destructive streak that seems at times to be just as dangerous as war.
Poet Trisha Low uses a deceptively familiar and youthful voice to push readers toward uncomfortable and unfamiliar places. Her piece “Confessions (of a variety)” is a transcript of several confessions she makes to a series of Catholic priests—their responses to the confessor’s honest up-speak is sometimes hilarious, sometimes troubling, and often both.
Benjamin Anastas is the author of the novels An Underachiever’s Diary and The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance, and last year he published the memoir Too Good to Be True, which opens at a moment in his life where his marriage has dramatically crumbled and he is literally searching for loose change with which to buy groceries. His book chronicles this difficult time with unusual immediacy—reading it, one has the feeling of sitting down across the table from a friend who’s right in the middle of working through some of his life’s hardest truths.
Agata Tuszynska, having published six collections of poetry and many works of biography and reportage, can boast of a literary prolificacy that is practically Joyce-Carol-Oatesian. Two of her books tell personal stories—A Family History of Fear tells of her Polish and Jewish ancestors and Exercises in Loss chronicles her husband’s experience with cancer—but it’s her most recent book, Vera Gran: The Accused, that turned out to be most relevant to our discussion. In describing the last years of a formerly glamorous woman, Tuszynska doesn’t shy away from the indignities Gran suffers. Is this kind of honesty bravery, or is it betrayal?
What these writers share is a commitment to story and the understanding that honoring that commitment means revealing uncomfortable details about the people in their lives, and about themselves.
—Rachel Riederer for Guernica
Guernica: This panel came about because one of our editors published a piece about egg donation, and the responses she received—rather than addressing the work itself—tended toward, “You are so brave.” I wonder if this happens to everyone, or more to women writers of personal narrative. So let’s start with a very unscientific survey question: have you been called brave for writing about your lives?
Benjamin Anastas: Yes, I was called brave just the other day at the Newburyport Literary Festival in Massachusetts. I think it was because I wrote about being broke, which is certainly—here in the prosperity bubble—a subject that nobody really wants to talk about. I felt like there were very few taboos left in literature; money is kind of the last taboo. Most of us lie about it, whether openly or not so openly. Around this time, most of my income had vanished—some of which was of my own making, by being an idiot and quitting jobs every time I got a book contract, that kind of thing. And also because of the media retraction that happened in 2008 and 2009, a lot of these magazines that I wrote for just kind of went under or stopped hiring freelance writers. It was strange to be living in New York at the time, when a lot of people were going through something similar and nobody was talking about it. Everyone was going on as usual. People would slowly drop out, and you’d think, “Oh, they’ve left the city.”
I guess I’m not super interested in being brave. I feel like that moment has really passed.
So I did write about being broke, quite openly, and I wrote the memoir in real time. I started it at a very low point, and I was writing the book by hand as I was trying to figure out: how do I find work, how do I save a relationship, how to I spend more time with my son, how do I deal with this marriage that just imploded. I guess the upside is that people do think it’s sort of brave for someone to write about a subject that nobody is open about. But the downside is that, man, the internet comments have been harsh. I mean, just brutal. I think partly because I am a man who ended up being broke, there’s a lot of venom. There’s someone on GoodReads who live-tweeted me reading the book because she hated it so much: “You’re a loser! Get a job! Oh my God! He’s borrowing money from his girlfriend on page forty-three. Get a job!” [laughter] So on one side, yes, there are people who think it’s brave to write about a subject that not everybody is open about; the downside is that it does leave you open to a lot of criticism.
Trisha Low: I don’t think I’ve ever been called brave. I feel like that’s something really applied, in poetry, anyway, to male poets, if we can make that distinction. It seems like when male poets have this moment of vulnerability, audiences want to reward them for it. Eileen Myles wrote this piece for the The Volta that said poetry is the space “where men get to feel like women always feel.” I think that’s true to a certain degree—but there was this nineties identity politics moment where women were told that they were brave for postulating this “authentic” subjecthood. That’s being pushed up against at this moment—I think that it’s almost more taboo not to be brave. I think that when one reads a memoir by a young girl, certain kinds of assumptions come forward—either she’s going to write about sex, she’s going to write about her love life, she’s going to write about her feelings, and all of these things are cliché now. It’s like “I love you, I hate you, let’s get a Coke?” But I’m interested in those moments, and how those moments are actually displaced acts of listening. This idea that you are actually replicating a literary trauma that has been done to you. I guess I’m not super interested in being brave. I feel like that moment has really passed.
Anthony Swofford: I’ve been called brave, I’ve also been called many other things—some of which I can’t repeat here. I think sometimes to call a piece of writing brave is a shorthand way to distance ourselves from what’s really happening there. For instance, Ben’s book is about financial failure and the kinds of decisions that led him there, and my last book was about financial failure and the decisions that led me there. I think I was probably called stupid for that book and not ever brave. But I think that any kind of active memoir writing, confessional writing, has to attempt to narrate a personal moment, a personal journey and then make it universal, because those are the only kinds of books that we’ll really read and make part of the conversation. I would imagine that Ben’s live tweeter was probably deeply immersed in the book and afraid, very afraid of something that she was reading in order to react that way.
Benjamin Anastas: That’s a very generous interpretation.
Agata Tuszynska: Well, I think this was my case as well. I’ve been called brave many times, not just for one but two or three of my books. In the first, I don’t think I truly was so brave. For me the word brave belongs to war; it belongs to different circumstances. When I wrote my book, Family History of Fear, I revealed a secret. It was a very deep secret of my family: I didn’t know for nineteen years that my mother was Jewish. She never told me that. When she told me, I was so shocked and so afraid that I didn’t know what to do with this information. I’m Polish, I’m a Polish Jew, and I was born, and I live still, in Poland. [Being Jewish in Poland] is maybe not dangerous, but it is something that you’re not proud of. I’m now proud of it, so this was the work of building my own identity. When I finally decided to talk about my Jewishness—about my mother being Jewish, about my family being in a Warsaw ghetto, about the loss, about the humiliation, about all those horrible parts of me and my identity, people called me brave. I didn’t feel that way—but I have to say that I’m no longer afraid as I was in Poland, feeling like my mother felt—being constantly in this weird state of fear. When I decided to write this book, it was a liberation for me.
Guernica: I’d like to hear about the process of making that decision, of deciding to write something in which you revealed a family secret, or a personal secret, or you decided to tell the world you’re broke. What do you think about? What are you weighing when you make those choices?
Agata Tuszynska: It’s not a decision decision—you just have to do it. Family History of Fear was a necessity for me as a person and as a writer. I wrote a lot of biographies before that and was trying to think about different people, but here I said, “Well, I treat those people like memoirs.” I was trying to answer the questions that arose for myself by telling the stories of others.
Guernica: Is that true for the rest of you? That it feels necessary, rather than being a choice?
Anthony Swofford: I’ll talk about my last book, for which I took three RV trips with my father. I was writing in real time, and I didn’t know what this book would be, but I was nearing forty, and life was kind of falling apart, and I’d had what I call a reverse midlife crisis. I blew a bunch of money, I was a philanderer, and I wrecked a car. But I was single when I did all that, and I was about to turn forty, so I thought, “Well, I want to get married and have a kid.” My father had done the opposite. My father had the classic midlife crisis, and the thing that I knew was that my father had been a philandering jerk throughout his marriage to my mother. So I had this information, and I took some videos of my father as I struggled around this chapter. I knew it had to be a chapter. In the end, I just essentially transcribed this video with my father in his RV, talking through all of the cities in the world where he had cheated on my mother, asking me if it counted if he cheated on my mother in Copenhagen. And I said “Yeah, it does.” “Does it count in Barcelona?” I said, “Yeah, Barcelona counts, I think.” “Does it count in Saigon?” “I don’t know, maybe Saigon doesn’t count, because I know you were in Vietnam at war.” And he says, “Well, does Tokyo count?” “Well, it depends. Was it in ’69 or ’76?” I had to put that in the book, and I was afraid of putting that in the book, but it became a necessity. I had what I thought was a complete manuscript, and that chapter was missing.
A confession of who you are, what you care about, what your concerns are—that’s always going to be kind of dangerous.
Trisha Low: I guess my answer would be that you don’t know if I’m lying. There’s this impulse when one talks about confessional writing that one has to write a true story to assert some kind of identity as more authentic than any other kind of fiction.
Sometimes I think it’s dangerous that we think about confessional writing as being brave. I’m interested in thinking about the confessional as more manipulative—if you think about the confessional as a feminine mode of writing, that’s the way it has been characterized over the years—then it’s the only way that I’m allowed to write because I’m a person who identifies necessarily as feminine. But then within that is there a point of manipulation that I can carry out? That’s the way that I would like to think about it.
I’m more interested in thinking about the confessional as a formal space, as a genre. I’m about to get really nerdy for a second, but I guess when I think about confessional writing, I think back to the eighteenth century. That’s the moment I think it arose because what happened is that living space became really complicated and people had these spaces just for writing. They were called cabinets, and they were typically inhabited by women. It was a domestic space, and they would go in here and write their diaries and things like that. Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded, which is a novel written by [Samuel] Richardson, is based on the idea of this servant girl going into this small space and writing this confessional story of what happened to her. So maybe a way to think about the confessional would be for it to be more of a fantasy of what a private life should be or maybe even a fantasy of what a feminine private life would be. That’s a very interesting tension for me to think about. What’s real and what’s not? Is it important that I say what’s real and what’s confessional if it’s treated like a fiction anyway?
Benjamin Anastas: I think that’s interesting. I think that’s one kind of confessional writing, but the truth to me is that the whole idea of confession is intimately bound with autobiography. Period. If you look back to the first model we have for autobiography in the West, I would call it confessional. There are confessions from the year 398. And I think most of what we understand or assume we’re going to get when we pick up an autobiography or memoir or a confessional work follows the formula that Augustine set out, which is: here we are writing from a later place, looking back at an earlier time. What we said, what we did wrong, where we were weak, where we didn’t understand everything that we know now.
If you write about yourself, it’s very hot writing. It’s full of feelings and passion… then you let it be for a while and put ice on it.
Augustine was writing after a conversion experience, literally. Like, he was a sinner before and now he’s not. But I think for those of us who are secular writers, it’s that we’re trying to reach a place of understanding, often through writing, as opposed to through having understanding come to us as we hear a child’s voice in a tree. I think we expect confession in most of our autobiography and certainly from our memoir. It’s intimately bound up with the whole thing. I’ve been reading Walden again for a course I’m teaching and I find a chapter like the “Bean Fields” to be incredible—to me it’s a work of confession. Here Thoreau is talking about his intimate connection with these beans, with these rows of beans. Like, who am I to feel this strongly about their beans? And he asks elsewhere in the book, “If I am not I, who will be?” To me, that’s the ultimate confession. A confession of who you are, what you care about, what your concerns are—that’s always going to be kind of dangerous.
Guernica: When you’re writing yourself as a character, how do you balance the necessity to tell a true story, and if the story is ugly, is there also an urge to make yourself look good? If you want to be likable, how does that inform the writing process?
Anthony Swofford: I think every new writer wants to be loved and admired, and that’s part of the disease and part of the problem, whether you’re writing a poem or a novel or a memoir. If you’re going to write a book that is going to be interesting to people outside your small circle, you’re going to have to tell some unvarnished truths, and expose yourself as the small, petty person that we all are at times. Sometimes that’s about sex, sometimes that’s about money, sometimes that’s about family. I think that’s what makes readers respond to what we call memoir. Trisha mentioned fantasy—and isn’t that what the act of reading is about? It’s about entering this fantasy, and even if they know that it’s true, that it’s an autobiography, still, as writers, we must create and render a world that is believable, and we must put ourselves on stage with others who are real people, who live these events with us. At least the pressure today, I think, is to be as honest as one can be about oneself in order for that to reverberate.
Agata Tuszynska: I don’t have a problem with myself in my writing. I have, rather, a problem with others. Let’s say my parents, for example. I wrote this book when they were alive. They are still alive. And I had real difficulties with both of them. I had to come to America to write this book because I couldn’t stand their breath on my neck. I couldn’t write because I was seeing them checking whether they looked good or not. So I don’t correct myself, and I don’t think about what I look like in my writing for others. I’m trying to tell my story. You said “true story.” I don’t know if it’s a true story—it’s my story, my truth. My mother’s truth is different and my father’s is different.
What is important, I think, in this kind of writing, is to write the truth, my truth, and then to wait a little and make it cold. Because if you write about yourself, it’s very hot writing. It’s full of feelings and passion. Then you let it be for a while and put ice on it. It has to be cold to be good for you, good for the readers, ready to go. Only then you can move your readers. You have to make your readers cry.
Trisha Low: I guess I’ll tell an anecdote to make myself seem more likable to the audience. [laughter] I read my “Confessions” piece a year ago at a gathering of University of Pennsylvania prospective parents, and I’ve never felt the force of so much hatred come towards me. Every parent in the room seemed to project, “Please let my daughter not grow up to be this.” The piece is pretty true to the detailed transcripts of what happened. I tape recorded my conversations with the priests. I gave the same confession every time, but of course, it involves certain unattractive, un-Catholic aspects with regard to my activities and my person. It was interesting because it was the priests who didn’t know how to deal with the situation—they were the ones who started stuttering. It really threw off the structure that I was engaging with. I guess I’m interested in exaggerating the social positionality that I place myself in—the unattractive aspects of it—to engage an audience. I feel that in that setting, facing parents as someone who was a college student and who has done this work, has done well for it, really complicates their understanding and fantasies of what a successful writer should even be, let alone a successful young woman. It’s that sort of complexity that I am interested in: engaging with making people really uncomfortable with their own fantasies when they are faced with my work.
Guernica: I want to back up to what Agata said about hot and cold writing and I wonder if any of you are interested in making a case for hot writing, for not letting your feelings cool off before you send out a piece—or are we all in agreement?
Agata Tuszynska: I think it’s called bad writing. [laughter]
Benjamin Anastas: There’s a chapter in my memoir that’s a letter to my ex-wife’s boyfriend. He’s another writer and I call him “Nominee” because he was nominated for this literary award, but he didn’t win. [laughter] So I call him Nominee in the book. And it was very cathartic to write this thing and I kept on thinking, “I’ll take it out, I’ll just take it out when I finish the book,” but of course it became such a crucial part of the book that I never took it out. As far as reviewers were concerned, that was the chapter that was really super controversial. Some reviewers said that this should not be in the book, and another reviewer said it was the best part of the book. For me there wouldn’t be a book without it. But it was very much hot material that I think a more virtuous writer would have left out. [laughter]
Guernica: Your leaving it in, I think, tells a story itself, and the fact that it is hot material tells us more about you and tells your story more richly.
Agata Tuszynska: Yes, I want to say that this is the material. We’re using life as a material but we’re making it into writing—good writing, I think. I gave my work to my parents before publication and they read it, they felt offended, but they said “Okay, you are still our daughter.” Someone asked me what I would have done if they had said “no” to the publication. And I said of course I would publish it anyhow. So, I have a question for you—what do you think about the word betrayal in this context?
The kinds of confessional writing that I really like from dudes are the ones that are really incriminating, really overblown, really bombastic—here are all of the ugly aspects of my masculinity, and I’m admitting to them.
Anthony Swofford: Well, my betrayal of my father didn’t have the backdrop of the Nazi atrocities, but the question is probably less important for the writer’s subjects than for the writer. If you had that information and as a writer, you didn’t use it, you didn’t write it, probably the biggest betrayal is you would have been betraying yourself.
Often I hear writers—sometimes writers who write a lot of books and sometimes writers who are trying to write books—say, “Yeah, I’d love to write this book about my father, but I’m going to have to wait until he dies,” and I would say, “Why? Go write that book now. Write against that.”
Benjamin Anastas: I struggled a lot with feelings of betrayal when I was working on my book—in part because I was writing about a part of time in my parents’ lives when things were not good. My mother was suicidal and very depressed, and as a whole family we had to go to a treatment center where they hung signs around our necks. That’s where the title comes from—”Too Good To Be True”—when I was three and had to wear a sign that said “Too Good To Be True,” and my brother had to wear a sign that said “Mr. Know It All,” and my sister had to wear a sign that said “Crybaby.” It was a painful experience for us. I mean not like some horrible recovered memory thing, but it just never felt good to think about it. I know it was hard for our parents, because they knew it was painful for us. I did struggle with feelings of betrayal writing that story. I console myself with George Orwell’s words in “Why I Write.” He said writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the bottom of their motives, there lies a mystery.
Agata Tuszynska: I don’t know about lazy. [laughter]
Guernica: Any other thoughts on betrayal?
Benjamin Anastas: I’ve been reading this fantastic memoir called My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid. She is completely unsparing when she describes her family. It’s about a brother who is dying of AIDS in Antigua, who she didn’t know very well. She stopped seeing him when she was three, when she moved away. She describes her mother, who is an incredibly manipulative woman. Her mother left the brother, who ended up dying of AIDS much later, in Jamaica Kincaid’s care. And Jamaica Kincaid, as a thirteen-year old, all she wanted to do was read. She would literally steal books from the library and she really didn’t care about this younger brother because her mother kept on having these kids and had less for her. She really had to give things up, including going to school. So she ignores her brother for the whole day and she reads instead and when her mother comes home there’s this brick of feces in his diapers. In retaliation her mother goes through the house and takes every single book that Jamaica Kincaid has and takes them outside and burns them. It’s a completely unsparing book and I can’t imagine that Jamaica Kincaid spoke to her mother again after she published this book, but I feel like the writer has this responsibility—if you live through these experiences you have the responsibility to tell.
Guernica: I like that, the idea that a good enough piece of writing makes the betrayal okay. [laughter] I think it’s also interesting, Agata, that at the beginning of your book on Vera Gran, you transcribe the conversation that you had with her about this project, and so the reader gets to see your subject’s reluctance and hear her reservations. At one point she says something really wonderful like, “You think I should agree to talk to you just because you had the idea to write about me?” But you get to have that negotiation, and I think that’s sort of an advantage that writers of reported pieces have, whereas if you’re writing from your own life, you probably never sit down and say to the people around you, “Hey, you know the conversations we’ve been having for the last five years, they’re my intellectual property now, okay?” [laughter]
Anthony Swofford: Yeah, betrayal in a reported piece is much different than in a memoir. I’m always happy to betray myself, and I’m still not totally comfortable with betraying my father. To make myself feel better, I always thought of the Joan Didion quote, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” My father didn’t get that memo. [laughter]
Guernica: I want to bring us back to how gender plays into all of this. I realized, Ben and Tony, when I was reading your books, both of which deal with becoming a dad, that I don’t think that I would like to read a memoir by a woman that talks about becoming a mother with the same enthusiasm—but I liked what you two did. And so maybe I am just a sexist, but I wonder if you think there are topics that we would be more willing to hear about from writers of one gender or another, or why that might be.
Trisha Low: I think it’s true. I think there are certain topics and ways of writing that are relegated to this realm of women’s writing, and in a really segregated way. It’s a problem. Do I really have to reject this kind of writing and this aspect of my femininity in order to be recognized as a writer? That’s something that dudes have to deal less with. The kinds of confessional writing that I really like from dudes are the ones that are really incriminating, really overblown, really bombastic—here are all of the ugly aspects of my masculinity, and I’m admitting to them, rather than the sort of reappropriation of a kind of vulnerability that women are reviled for when they’re accused of being too soft, too weak, or too “This is boring, we’ve heard this from a woman before, the story’s already been told.” I think it’s really crucial to hold men to that standard and say, “Well, what is it men are hated for and why don’t you write about it?” My friend, Joseph Kaplan, wrote this piece called “How I Think it Happens,” which is really detailed, disgusting, bombastic, overblown accounts of how he thinks lesbians have sex. People hate this piece. He’s read it at several locations. People get really uncomfortable and then they start laughing as it gets more funny, and then they hate themselves for laughing. That’s the kind of confessional writing that I really want to start seeing from men, the kinds of incriminating things that women are often accused of being when they write about femininity, the feminine, or in a feminine way.
Anthony Swofford: I have two thoughts about that. My wife [Christa Parravani]’s book came out about two months ago—Her: A Memoir—but it has the same ending, or nearly the same ending, which is the birth of our daughter. She wrote it much better than I did. But people, when talking about her book, they never really talked about the birth of our daughter, and when talking about my book, did talk about that. Maybe it was because I was an observer and witness and because I was narrating a thing that was seen rather than experienced, but it may also be that people shrugged their shoulders and said, “You’re a woman, you gave birth, and we’ve read enough of that.” I’m not sure.
Benjamin Anastas: I think your discomfort, or your preemptive discomfort, about reading a memoir by a woman about how great it is to be a mom, partly has to do with gender roles, and maybe what you grew up with, and what you maybe felt was expected of you. I do think that people like Tony and myself who write about being a father now are in this period where everyone’s like “Oh, you’re thrilled to be a dad, that’s great!” And I feel like that’s going to be over soon [laughter] as fathers become more involved in their childrens’ lives. It wasn’t too long ago, you know, that the father wasn’t there in the delivery room. He was somewhere else—he was at home, or at work, or at the bar, or somewhere else—but the fathers were literally not there for the appearance of their children. This is part of the reason why I felt compelled to write about my son’s birth, being there, and maybe Tony feels the same way.
Anthony Swofford: I push a stroller around Park Slope, and I feel like everyone there is so excited about being parents and it’s amazing—but people have been doing this a long time! And not even with $1500 strollers (I don’t have one of those, I got mine on sale at Babies ‘R’ Us for eighty-nine dollars) [laughter], but maybe the celebration will come to an end soon.
Guernica: I think it has to do with, Ben, what you said about writers going for what’s not being said, and maybe the next round of books about parenting will be different, like—
Benjamin Anastas: From the baby’s point of view!