To paraphrase Mary Reufle’s incredible book on poetics, Madness, Rack and Honey: To be sad is to feel apart, whereas happiness generally results from a sense of belonging or connection.
Well-written confessional essays facilitate a sense of belonging and connection for both the reader and writer. They involve the unveiling and exploration of a personal truth the author has previously concealed. For instance I’ve written about having a sexual fetish, being transmasculine, and a whole parade of shit about my childhood no one wants to hear. Confessional essays provide catharsis by eroding the harmful misconception that any human is “normal,” thereby freeing them to go about their strange mammalian business without shame or discomfort.
I deeply admire the French writer Jean Genet, who, as a young, incarcerated homosexual in 1940’s France, was given so many reasons by his own culture to feel apart he turned the social mores of the time and place upside down, imbedding a philosophy in all of his memoirs and novels that glorified everything reviled by his community.
It interests me (though it’s completely unsurprising) that confessional writing usually addresses fairly grandiose subjects. There are a variety of things about myself I feel ashamed of or tell no one about that I’ve come to realize I actively avoid mentioning my own writing. They lack the grandiosity of big, dark secrets or triumphs over personal obstacles, and their omission from my writing raises questions for me about how writing relates to vanity.
For instance, no one gets to see the “Most Played” list on my computer or iPod, which is peppered with misogynistic rap and songs from the Night at the Roxbury soundtrack. It’s fine to like Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade.” Though the quality of his lyrics is more hit-or-miss than a drunk baby at a firing range, he’s written an impressive volume of well-made pop songs, “Lemonade” certainly being one of them. When my iPod tells me I’ve listened to the song 47 times, though, I worry something’s wrong with my brain.
I’m superstitious in the weirdest ways—I do the standard salt over the shoulder and picking up pennies for luck, but I also leave pennies for other people to find, and eat every piece of pizza backwards so I can make a wish on the point. The wish is usually the same, but I can’t say what it is or it won’t come true. I try to avoid the number four—if I have four slices of cheese for a sandwich, I cut one in half, because I read at some point that in Chinese mythology the number four signifies death. I read this decades ago, I think in middle school, before I understood the importance of supplementary research, yet I continue to let this possibly incorrect bit of information affect my behavior.
Stronger than my desire to conceal my obsessive superstition and repetition (I actually realized while writing this that perhaps I’m private about it because I’m concerned I have something like OCD) I hate to be seen failing. Once a new skill is explained to me, I prefer to practice it in private until I’m good enough at it to avoid embarrassment. Once my friend Kristen generously paid for me to go snowboarding, out of a simple desire to share an activity she likes with a friend, and the mortification of my failure to stay on the fucking thing was such that it turned into the fury of a foul-mouthed, violent Donald Duck.
I think about these tics frequently, which can be intensely embarrassing, though I’m sure everyone has some variation of them. In darker moments I worry about the dearth of these details in confessional writing—if the writer omits these intersections of the shameful and mundane to protect their own vanity, that’s one thing, but what if they are somehow protecting the reader, or the health of a culturally constructed reality? “Humanity is embarrassing and boring? God, perhaps we should all just die.”
However, feeling better having simply voiced this thought, I’m more inclined to believe that the best topics to be explored via essay are any a person dwells on without knowing why, and that if it weren’t for writers like Genet reveling on a grand scale in culturally repressed aspects of humanity, not only would I never mention that I eat pizza backwards, but I might actually feel bad about it.