I was having a run-of-the-mill conversation with my laptop. This happens more often than you think.
The Internet: Hello, friend. How’s it hanging?
Tara: Ah, not too bad, thanks. I’d like to go online, please.
The Internet: Lovely. What about?
Tara: Well, I thought I might just mess about for a while. Maybe make a terribly sweeping statement. Alert people to a piece of information. Crack a joke. That sort of thing.
The Internet: Oh, no. That won’t do at all. What was your first sad memory?
Tara: Why do you want to know that?
The Internet: Never mind. What are you wearing?
Tara: A yellow tea cosy and a pair of…. Hang on a second. What’s this all about?
The Internet: So would you rather talk about an ugly sexual experience in your 20s; depression, or a time you hurt someone close to you?
Tara: No way. You’re not going to catch me out. You tricked me into posting a mindful conversation with my arse once. That was enough.
The Internet: Why? What’s wrong with putting your life online?
Tara: Absolutely nothing, if you really want to do it. Everything, if you don’t.
The Internet: Hmmm. Interesting. So tell me, what happened to make you think this way?
Tara: I’m not falling for that either.
The Internet: It’s all about confessional writing now, you know. Everyone’s doing it. If it’s not a true life story, it’s not worth doing.
Tara: Really? Mystery seemed to work just fine for Prince (may he rest in joyful purpleness). Or look at Adele, or Leonardo DiCaprio. They flat refuse to get personal. And Elena Ferrante, for God’s sake. Top of the bestseller lists and we still don’t know who she (or he) even is.
The Internet: But musicians and actors put themselves into their work. Their songs and performances are raw versions of themselves.
Tara: No, they’re not. They’re raw versions of a persona more exciting than themselves.
The Internet: It’s not the same for writers. You don’t perform in the same way. There’s no immediacy. Writers have to let people in, or else nobody will bother reading your stuff, let alone talk about it.
Tara: Why? It’s just setting everyone up for a disappointment. Nobody is as fascinating as they think they are. Look at the Kardashians.
The Internet: There you go, now. Blaming it all on the Kardashians. That’s , like, so 5 years ago.
Tara: I’m an old-fashioned girl. I like private lives, and public merriment.
The Internet: You’ll never get anywhere with that attitude.
Tara: In that case I’m grand where I am, thanks.
The Internet: That’s a lie, and you know it.
Tara: Maybe. But right now, nobody else does.
The Internet: You think you’re so smart.
Tara: Smart enough to keep one hand on your plug. *click*
Magazines have been doing it for years. True confessions were popular long before the Internet was invented. But with the internet came a sea of voices, people shouting ever louder in the pitching and tossing, until someone cleverly spotted that the best way to be heard, was to shock: and is anything more shocking, than a confession?
Got a book out? Write a story for a magazine or journal about how envy of a friend ruined your life. Want more hits on your blog? Pen an account of an arse-clenchingly embarrassing sexual encounter. Need more followers? Tell us about the time you said that unforgiveable thing to a person who’s dead now. It’s all up for grabs, as long as you’re willing to chip bits off yourself and flog them online.
Of course, some people are better at it than others. Some can strike a balance between the personal and the general, speaking to each reader individually in different ways, a bit like a truly great song, or a poem. But some can make you feel like a trenchcoated voyeur, staring at a sad and wounded deer through red-lit windows.
My most very favourite essayist in the world is David Sedaris. One of his standout pieces, in Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim, is called “Repeat After Me”, about his sister, a parrot, and a dog. But it’s really about how he betrays his sister in the actual telling of the story about his sister and the parrot and the dog.
I had a strong emotional reaction when I read it, and I wondered if this was because it was so personal. Did the mere fact that it was supposed to be true make me care more about the people involved? It seemed I was as susceptible as anyone else to the draw of confessional journalism.
Now I’m wondering: does everything have to be true for us to care, nowadays? It’s quite possible that Sedaris’ writing is just so bloody brilliant that if he’d made the whole thing up I would have reacted much the same. I’ll never know. But personal blogs that adopt a confessional tone do get more hits. We seem to be wired that way.
Yeah, Well I’m Still Not Doing It
Personally, (see what I did there? Haha, etc), I’ve indicated before that I’ve no plans to find out if it’s better to blog about the personal than the absurd (even though for some people, granted, it’s one and the same). I even went so far as to invent blogging personae in order to avoid all that. And I know you all think I live in Tark and Mara Towers, picking off passers-by with pun guns and rolling my eyes at celebrity friend requests on Facebook. But – well. Just don’t believe everything you read, is all I’m saying.
Non-fiction shows how a writer sees society. Confessional journalism shows how a writer sees themselves. The best confessional journalism shows how a writer sees society through the prism of their own very small corner of it. But I’m not sure how this is achieved through click-bait like “I went to the doctor with a sore toenail and was given three weeks to live” or “He took off his trousers and I threw up”.
The Always End A Post With A Question Question
Do you prefer personal writing? What does confessional journalism mean to you? Do you do it yourself? Or have you read other people’s personal writing… and wished you hadn’t?