There are a few interesting articles on The Guardian website right now in relation to ‘confessional journalism’ or ‘confessional writing’. Confessional writing is basically what I do on this blog, baring my soul for anyone to read and creating an online diary that will, forevermore, be on the Internet (gulp – did I really realise that before I started?) And it’s what I’ve done in a few recent articles for The Guardian – on female hair loss – and for The Daily Mail – on my eating disorder and being single and 40 – and in a Huffington Post piece on addiction.
But Guardian readers have been debating online over the last few days whether confessional journalism is self-indulgent and potentially harmful to others, or whether it actually serves a purpose. If you’re interested in the debate, check out this Comment is Free piece that suggests confessional journalism has gone too far and this article that asks a similar question: should writers confess all in public.
The debate has been kicked off, or should I say reignited as I’m sure it’s been had before, by author Rachel Cusk’s latest book, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, a memoir of her divorce, and an article on the topic she wrote in the The Guardian. I haven’t read the book but I did read the article.
But I’m more interested in the principles of the debate than in one particular writer or confessional piece.
It won’t come as any surprise to hear that I’m in favour of confessional writing. I believe it does serve a purpose. I believe we all have experiences to share that others, if they wish to, could benefit from. I also think sharing our stories helps us to find purpose in the pain or difficulties we may have been through. At least that’s the case for me – knowing I can share my story with others and that it may help them in some small way definitely helps me to make sense of life. And my recovery from various addictive behaviours over the past nine years has in part been thanks to those who’ve shared their stories of recovery with me, either in written form or in conversation.
I’ve also found writing this blog and the other articles I’ve done to be very therapeutic. And I’ve found blogging incredibly freeing after years working as an employee of international news agencies, reporting facts but largely steering clear of feelings, particularly my own. Writing for a newspaper or a news agency is an immense privilege but it can also be confining if you are obliged to write in a particular style.
There is one caveat, however. I’ve always been careful to protect the anonymity of others in my blog. I’m happy to open my life up to public scrutiny but not everybody is and I’ve always been careful not to mention friends, family members, former boyfriends, colleagues etc unless I have their permission. I write about my own life, not anyone else’s (this is where some critics say Rachel Cusk got it wrong). Sometimes this means that I can’t tell the whole story, that questionmarks may hang over some of my writing. But it’s more important to me to protect the privacy of others than to paint the complete picture.
All in all, then, confessional writing, which I only discovered this time last year when I started the predecessor to this blog, my Lent self-acceptance challenge, has been a really positive experience. At times, though, I’ve thought I’ve gone too far. I’ve pressed the ‘publish’ button on my blog or looked at a photo of me in a newspaper wearing a sleeveless, bright red dress and wondered if I’ve exposed myself too much. And I’ve also questioned my motives in opening my heart and sharing my past and present with people I don’t know.
Mostly, though, my doubts about what I’m doing have been linked to fear – fear that nobody will want to employ me again (unless it’s as a confessional writer), fear about what fellow journalists will think about my new direction given I once reported from parliament on Tony Blair and the Iraq war, and concern that people – friends, family, strangers – will think I’m being self-indulgent or airing family or relationship secrets.
Those fears come and go but the sense of fulfilment I’ve felt when a stranger has written to me saying my story has helped them, or touched them, or supported them at a difficult time, or enabled them to make sense of what they’re going through, or made them realise they aren’t alone has been worth any niggles I have about my future career, my image or my status.
So now to another woman who believes her experience can help others in a positive way and that there’s great value in sharing our stories. An article about my friend and fellow blogger Jody Day appeared in The Guardian on Saturday: I may not be a mother – but I’m still a person. In it, Jody talks about her grief around her own realisation that she’d never fulfil her dream of giving birth, how she’s worked through those feelings to embrace a life without children and how she supports other women through her organisation Gateway Women. The childless/childfree debate is a hot topic, evident from the number of comments on the story, and the article is well worth a read, particularly if you’re in a similar boat to me (single, without children, still hoping it might happen in the future) or whether, like Jody, you’ve come to terms with the fact that you won’t give birth.
Time is a great healer
And finally, one last ‘confession’ for today. It may be a cliché but, like most clichés, it’s on the mark. Time is indeed a great healer. It’s six years tomorrow since my Dad died of cancer. I had to look twice at the date in my diary as it doesn’t seem like six years – four or five maybe, but not six. In fact, I’ve just had to double check the date on his former jazz band’s website as I still couldn’t believe it. But it has been six years.
Yes, there are moments when I think about him and the sadness and that sense of loss returns but generally, today, I feel able to celebrate him and his 79 years. But I’m pleased I have my diary from those days after his death. I was reading it yesterday. There’s plenty I can learn from it, which confirms to me that writing and confessional journalism definitely has a place – even if we’re only writing for ourselves or for a tiny audience.
Reading it, I learned that it would have been better for me to have more time off work rather than force myself to go back after two weeks (the diary is filled with comments about ‘I wish I could have more time off’) and I learned how much I needed someone to hug me and hold me while I cried during those early weeks after he died. I have amazing friends and I had amazing friends back then, but I didn’t know how to ask for a hug and was embarrassed to cry on anyone’s shoulder.
I’m pleased to say I’m a lot better at that today.
Great article Katherine, and yes I agree there’s plenty to be said about confessional journalism, both for and against.
Whilst writing about our painful life can be seen as self-indulgent dumping, if that’s the way you want to view it, reading about other peoples pain sometimes makes ours feel more bearable. There are many people out there who have found inspiration, and courage to go on living, simply by reading an account written by a survivor (of anything). That’s what has helped increase the sales of self-help books isn’t it! Where people share how they overcame their challenges, in order to inspire others facing a similar dilemma.
My own view on life is that we need all the help we can get. And if there’s someone who can help us clarify what we need to get or do, to make our life better, then we owe it to ourselves to take that opportunity. And if we are writing about our stuff, to help others, as long as it demonstrates the positive as well as the negative, how can it be wrong?
Mind you, I am currently writing my book of how to survive life, in order to help others, so I’m probably biased. I’m also beginning to think I’ve got the self-indulgent, career-developing malady, which makes me confess my secrets, because now, unbelievably, I’m starting to enjoy writing about my pain!
Keep up the good work and good luck,
Chrissie B x
I wholeheartedly agree that we all need as much help as we can get – I definitely do – and that stories of inspiration – of how people overcame illness, grief, depression, despair etc – can help others do the same.
I’m really pleased you’re writing down your experiences and I’m sure many others will benefit from them.