Thursday, April 20, 2017

TRUE CONFESSIONS


I have never admired the confessional model. From conventional Catholicism to traditional psychotherapy to contemporary memoir writing and “creative nonfiction,” the confession is seen as the ultimate gateway to some sort of exalted self-purification. I think, in contemporary times, it’s become something more akin to an off-ramp for basking in one’s own troubled past. When I was looking into grad school for writing more than a decade ago, I mostly looked at creative writing programs. But when I visited them, I met a lot of people who were into writing memoirs, and who seemed quite fascinated by their own tragedies, great and small. This mirrored the market, where a heavy influx of confessional abuse- and addiction-centric memoir stories written by women were being published. I think Elizabeth Wurtzel probably started this trend, and it was really in high gear ten years ago. I think that kind of literature is still common, though I don’t really read much contemporary literature so I wouldn’t know. When I met with these people, I thought: I really can’t see spending two years workshopping my writing with these writers. My baseline creative and intellectual interest has been, since teenagehood, in uniting text and image (which is why I’ve always written for magazines). So, I decided to go study at an art criticism and writing program, which ended up being sort of the right decision (I did email Dave Hickey and ask him for advice as to where to study. He told me to go study with George Saunders at Syracuse. I didn’t want to move there, but I still regard this as a sort of missed opportunity).

This is just to say that I really do not favor a confessional creative style, nor do I find a confessional culture very interesting. Why? Because I don’t think people are often (or ever) confessing to things they are actually ashamed of. If you write a book telling me how awful it was to be an alcoholic, and I feel nothing when I read it—you either aren’t going deep enough, or, more likely, you aren’t that ashamed of being an alcoholic. Again I think of Elizabeth Wurtzel, who made her name as a writer by glamorizing her addictions and mental illness. I have no idea what these things meant to her personally, but her work around them just feels like a narcissistic girl who was really into flaunting her identity as a beautiful, fucked-up, smart-in-a-certain-way, ivy league mess. Contrary to popular believe, you can self-aggrandize dysfunction, and make your “survival story” nothing more than a marketing tool showcasing how dangerously great you are—all that and brains too. And I think the culture of young American memoir writers really capitalized on this. Another aspect of this is the exaltation of victimhood via abusive childhoods. There were a lot of memoirs about abuse that came out, and this is such a tricky area. You can’t necessarily blame the writers. I just think about the publishers, and how they were able to calculate sales from these books. It’s sort of like offering a pay-per-view seat to a car crash, and charging extra for front row seats. I don’t think the production of these types of memoirs really heralded a golden age for publishing.


However, I think there is a new type of “confession” floating around in the zeitgeist, and I feel myself and others diving into it. It is the confession of something that you are truly ashamed of—something that doesn’t glamorize you or make people feel sorry for you. It’s about something that goes beyond you. I have a neutral feeling toward the actress Anne Hathaway, as I haven’t seen too many of her movies. My taste in movies—like my taste in music—is either so brilliant or so stupid that it’s not worth me trying to explain it. I don’t like most movies, and the movies I do like run the gamut from masterpieces to trash. But her performance here is something new. The spiritual teacher Teal Swan talks a lot about the ego’s need to see itself as good. I myself have this intense need to be seen as good, because I derive my worth from people viewing me as a good person. I think if people see my badness, they won’t love me. I think most people hold this belief. Here we see, firsthand, a woman (Anne Hathaway) allowing her viewers to honestly see her as something “not good.” I’m telling you guys: this is it. Authenticity—true authenticity that makes you feel momentarily awful, and turns your neck red with shame—is the wave of the future. Not because it makes you feel bad or because it leaves you open to attack. Because it’s all we have—it's all that's real. We’ve had seven or more years of pretty, phony Instagram lives. The pendulum needs to swing. Get on board.