Part of what endears us so to certain writers and thinkers is the transparency with which they reveal their deepest, innermost selves- however veiled in fiction sometimes. The 1950’s and 1960’s confessional poetry movement, grandfathered by Robert Lowell and carried on by Anne Sexton and of course Sylvia Plath, extinguished the very capable words: “What should I write about?” as effective scapegoats to write nothing at all. A democratic and diplomatic subject emerged as a full-time answer: “The Self.”
When the sky and the trees and squirrels in the grass proved uninspiring, when a love was unavailable or unrequited, when a muse was decrystallized with eventual disillusionment, a writer could always look into the mirror for a formidable topic: Me.
I remember reading The Bell Jar as a teenager. Plath’s openness about and personification of her period and raging moods is second only to Judy Blume’s forward narrative of a young woman’s discovery of orgasm in Deenie as both haunting similarity and empowering curiosity to my creative bildungsroman as the writer I could be.
Then, on the heels of confessional writing and poetry’s burgeoned popularity came the “self-help” literary movement, spearheaded by its grandmother Louise Hay’s publishing of such New Thought classics as You Can Heal Your Life. Well, in order to tell others how to help their lives you must first be candid and widely open about what went wrong in your own. Suddenly, just going to the bookstore or library became the equivalent of an AA meeting: raw revelations, spoken secrets, buried memories and mask shattering.
All writing, of course, originates with The Self. Yet the truth of most writers emerges from the details they choose to embellish their story with, and not the exact circumstances or characters they depict. I have had strangers pick up on the fact I must be a vegetarian just by the usually unpleasurable contexts in which I feature a description of or focus on a piece of meat. I have had loved ones point out words one of my characters said as their own words or words we heard from someone else together, in totally different situations and reasons than they appear for in the story. You can’t write what you never knew.
But, how much is too much? And, when is transparency and openness and revelation of The Self a legitimate expression of your creative spirit others can learn from—such as the works of Lowell’s and Hay’s countless spawns? When does it tilt into attention-seeking shock value evident in the majority of entertainment programming today?
In my writing, I have a tendency to shield my private life and the people in it. I have taken pause at small gestures such as posting a rare selfie I might take or uploading the endless pictures I take of my cats, just because. However I will devour the seminal and later works of writers like Joan Didion and Dani Shapiro and bell hooks: in-depth examinations of their personal worlds, experiences, hurts, triumphs and milestones.
I am daily inspired and renewed by many writers and essayists tearing open the annals of their experiences for readers to pass by, see themselves, know they are not alone and share as well. And, my entire queue on Netflix is documentaries ranging from the weird to the profound to the terribly heartbreaking—artful collaborations among film crews and real humans who wanted to share a story only they could tell, a compulsive obsession any writer will recognize. I have often wondered if my own self-secrecy co-existing with my willingness and preference to devour human truth makes me a voyeur, as if I am a peeping Tom who lies and steals and doppelgangers via fiction I love to write.
But, then, just writing these words and asking these questions is a revelation of my Self, naturally sprung forth from the gnawing tap on my mind to keep writing no matter what. Without anything else on my mind to say or write but wanting to do so anyway, my go-to topic is myself—always a feeling, thought, idea, memory, wish, regret, knot, dream or nightmare there. Confession is always a failsafe writing prompt.