New Years Eve, 1997 found me hunched over a kitchen table in a tiny apartment, scribbling passionately. I was writing letters to seven women I had not laid eyes on in ages; one of them in nearly twenty years. They were all ex-wives and girlfriends and I was desperately seeking answers. More poetic than mere correspondence and certainly not intended for delivery, one ‘letter’ in particular ran from one page into two and then more. Over fifty-thousand words later and some demons had been released and some ghosts sent packing. As writers have done for centuries before me, I was confessing. I was seeking absolution through writing.
Writing as confession is not a new concept. Confession and the release it gives -- with or without accompanying forgiveness -- seems to be an inherent quality of humanity. In his New Testament paraphrase The Message, Professor of Spiritual Theology Eugene Peterson puts the ancient writings of St. James to the early church into contemporary speech: “Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so you can live together whole and healed.” James 5:16a (485). Confessing admitting our guilt, or just what is bugging us somehow allows us to function normally. Perhaps one of the earliest and more famous instances of taking “confessing your sins” to the next level and bringing it to the page is the aptly named Confessions by the fourth century Christian saint, Augustine of Hippo. In it, he recounts his life, both the good and the bad. “I fell in with a set of sensualists,” he tells us, “men with glib tongues who ranted and raved and had the snares of the devil in their mouths” (60). Though a dull read by today’s standards, Augustine’s writing was the prototype for the autobiographical and confessional spiritual genre. In more recent times, spiritual classics such as Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain, and Frederick Buechner’s The Sacred Journey show the authors’ struggle with the real and perceived sins of their pasts. While there are certainly authors of a confessional bent who are mere sensationalists, Augustine, Merton, Buechner and others are not among them. Rather, they are among a band that seem to write, not just for the purpose of encouraging others, but to release the inner demons within themselves and, quite possibly, their readers. Confession to one another seems not to have been enough for them. They felt the need to confess to humanity. Merton especially was known for the peace he carried with him; due in part to the time he spent writing out his life.
Two months prior to my own foray into confessional writing, my second marriage had come to a clattering halt and I’d been asked to leave -- no concrete reason had been given. Desperate to find answers, I set out to write letters to all the women I’d run off or been dumped by throughout the years. Through twenty-some-odd years and six major relationships. I apologized to each one in turn, confessing my multitude sins, while balancing the admissions of guilt with memories of good times spent. As I finished each one I experienced a sense of forgiveness; what Mark Twain referred to as “The fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
Most people report similar - if not quite as poetically stated - results. Therapists often prescribe journaling as an effective way to help patients work through issues in a non-threatening way. In an article written for WebMD, Chris Woolsten gives account of a range of benefits resulting from therapeutic writing. Trauma survivors report that the act of writing out their stories on paper helps return them to a sense of normalcy. People feel “happier and healthier after writing about deeply traumatic memories” (Woolston). In fact, reports by polygraphers indicate that the heart and breathing rates of criminals will drop markedly after confessing a crime. Woolston also mentions other studies which suggest benefits ranging from increased immune system stimulation to better psychological well-being to reduction in asthma and rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. He quotes Joshua Smyth, Ph.D., a professor at North Dakota State as saying, “Writing gives you a sense of control and a sense of understanding. To write about a stressful event, you have to break it down into little pieces, and suddenly it seems more manageable” (Woolston).
Dr. Melanie Robinson, D.O.M., an Albuquerque practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine encourages healing in her patients in a not-so-Chinese way. A basket of blank composition books and pens in her office are dispensed to patients she feels will benefit in releasing pent-up anger, guilt and other issues. But, mainly she uses journaling “when people can’t describe what their feelings are, or perhaps when they say they are experiencing one emotion, but displaying another” (Robinson). While journaling itself is not a Chinese treatment, the concept of emotions as indicators of physical problems is based on ancient practices. When a patient journals, Dr. Robinson is able to get a clearer idea of the true emotion being felt. The treatment for anxiety will be quite different from the treatment for grief, so the distinction is an important one. More often than not, journaling will lead to -- or help confirm -- a diagnosis.
On a grander scale than journaling are the confessions of the essayist, diarist and novelist. The person for whom journaling is therapy surely never writes with the intent of sharing with the public at large. For the essayist and memoirist, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the novelist, confessional writing is their bread and butter. It is possible that the professional writer may act as a surrogate for the reader, perfectly expressing that which the reader has need of confessing. Those seeking forgiveness or release will often find it through the words of the skilled writer; reading and rereading an author’s words in a book -- not because of some clever turn of phrase, but because the reader finds their thoughts and feelings regarding a transgression flawlessly articulated. Frederick Buechner, in an article in Christianity Today, is quoted as saying, “One thing that enormously moved me was coming back from vacation once and finding a message on the answering machine. It was a young man's voice saying, ‘I thought of suicide three times, and because of something you wrote, I didn't do it.’ If only that, I've saved a human life” (Jones). It seems that even when the writer has not experienced a thing, his ability to express it dynamically can offer release.
Author and sexual abuse survivor Sue William Silverman has been both healed and healer with her writing. A published - though not overly successful - novelist, she entered into the genre of memoirs at the urging of her therapist. In a 2002 article for The Writer's Chronicle, she describes her initial foray into this writing style. She admits, with some surprise that “…the moment I began to write I heard my real voice. I felt as if I’d just learned to speak” (Silverman). In three months, she had written her first autobiographical book on the subject of sexual abuse. Her second book, this time on sexual addiction, took longer to write, though it was still resulted in a healing experience. It also opened her eyes to the fact that she had found her calling. “I was finally writing what I knew, telling the stories I most needed to tell.” Her own healing transformation begun, the confirmation of the calling arrived in the form of readers’ responses. Women who until reading Silverman‘s work had not been able to cleanse themselves of their own sexual abuse memories. Relating an encounter with one of her readers at a speaking engagement, she says “She confided that I was the first person she'd told that her father had molested her.” With obvious satisfaction she adds, “If this is what it means to be a confessional writer, I'm proud to be one. For to be a confessional writer means to write both from and to the human heart” (Silverman.)
In the first few months after writing my letters, I reread them frequently. Partially because I enjoyed the reminders of better times, partially out of a narcissistic thrill of reading stories about me. But mainly because I felt that in these words, dredged up from my deeper consciousness, there was an answer to it all. Of the lot, there was one letter the first where I did not apologize because I did not feel I had wronged the individual. It was a reminiscence of my first major love. At twenty-two, Becky was an older, married woman whom I met while stationed in Germany. After a year-and-a-half long affair, she broke my heart. Though I had not thought of her for several years, the letter began to develop into an outline for a greater story. Each sentence brought fresh memories of a time that had occurred nearly twenty years earlier. It was as if a pleasure center was being stimulated in my brain. Setting the search for my personal errors aside, I began writing a short story about this, my first great love.
While my intent in the writing was ostensibly to tell the story of a young man away from home, it became therapy for me. Parts of my life that I would never have considered a part of that story began to worm their way into it. The therapy began with a public admission of extreme drug and alcohol abuse, an illicit love affair with a married woman, attempted sex with an underage girl, suicidal thoughts and extreme depression. Though based mainly on true events, I was writing fiction. I found that the more truth I wrote, the more I had to fictionalize. When I had finished the first draft, I had a decent account of this time of my life. It was a complete story but horrible writing, and so I undertook rewriting it. In doing so, I began to see a pattern emerge. A thought occurred to me. I began to fabricate scenes in which the main character representing me analyzes his life issues in the form of conversations with the love interest. What began as a confession became a love story and, in the end, the key to my failed relationships.
Not to say that even in fiction I confessed all. Some things in my life will stay hidden for now because neither I, nor the general public, need to know. To write a confession, no matter how skilled a writer may be, is a difficult task. In her essay Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity, Adrienne Rich lays bare how she dealt with anti-Semitism from within her own family, including from her Jewish father. Ultimately she confesses her own anti-Semitic feelings. Her explanation of the confession of how she sat down to write about it shows us how writing can be a personally cathartic act, albeit an emotionally perilous one. Even the sitting down to write is a struggle for her. “For about fifteen minutes I have been sitting chin in hand in front of the typewriter, staring out at the snow. Trying to be honest with myself, trying to figure out why writing this seems to be so dangerous an act, filled with fear and shame, and why it seems so necessary” (206). Writing for oneself as a therapeutic tool is one thing. Writing to share with the world at large even if it is how you make a living is quite another.
Confessional writing is as often as not a mode of resolving issues, or of professing ideas and beliefs from a safe distance. These are generally thoughts that we feel may cause others to look at us in a negative light. In The Black Notebook: An Interior Journey African American poet Toi Derricotte tells of the out of control feelings that came as a result of her first panic attack. “Some part of me doesn’t give a fuck about boundaries in fact, sees the boundaries and is determined to dance over them,” she writes, “no matter what the consequences are” (14). Obviously, the fact of the feelings has frightened her; yet confessing them in these pages somehow helps. Later, following an episode of racism, she discusses how in the past she might have reacted in anger. In her writing, she brings her conclusions to the light of day. While she enjoys the initial feeling the rush of adrenaline that anger brings she now realizes that other feelings such as sadness and fear will follow. And finally, she concedes that perhaps her anger is not, as she first thought, brought on by racism, but is “a way of dulling the edge of feelings that lie even deeper” (15). Such a brave admission. Perhaps only one who has gone to the ink and paper confessional and spilled it can appreciate this.
While writing my own letters and stories, I found that the confessions, while liberating, did not completely serve their purpose. Rather, they raised entirely new questions. I had confessed my sins, and for this I felt better. Nevertheless, what was the real cause of the failure of these relationships? What was it that caused me to commit my sins most of which were sins of omission and apathy against my various mates? The answer was not contained there. Similarly, Frederick Buechner, in his first memoir The Sacred Journey, describes the last half hour before his father committed suicide. Buechner was still quite young, and obviously this was something that haunted him for years. For whatever reason, writing of the self-inflicted death as fact did not seem to release him from the torment he felt. It may even be that it stirred emotions that had been suppressed. The story of the father’s suicide is repeated in a later novel, The Wizard’s Tide. Writing this fictionalized account seems to have had a greater effect on him. Perhaps it removed the mystery of what his father was thinking, or at least gave Buechner an answer he could live with. To write out the details and dialogue in different ways allows us to get to the meat of it. For me, working out the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of my failed relationships was a matter of doing a little one-sided role-playing. Initially, when my second marriage ended, I tended to yo-yo, going back and forth between blaming myself and blaming my ex. Writing it out as a story and comparing it to the other stories of my other relationships helped me to see true causes of the failures. I was able to see where I had erred, and where the fault lay with the former lover.
While in general, confessional writing may be therapeutic, the final results are not always so. It can be that for a mind already beset by depression, the writing merely acts as a catalyst or at least a confirmation towards a more drastic action. In a 1940 diary entry, British author Virginia Woolf describes her reflections on death and dying in the face of Nazi bombing raids on her home in Sussex. She depicts, rather to great effect, how she imagines the physical mechanics of a death inflicted by a bomb. Almost as though she has resolved in her mind the actual transition from this world, she describes it as “a swoon; a drain; two or three gulps attempting consciousness -- and then dot dot dot” (58). Woolf committed suicide six months later. She had suffered from doubt and depression for quite a while and it may be that her writing had helped to resolve any apprehensions regarding the sensation of death and what would come after.
Fortunately, my writings have not led me down Woolf’s path to “dot dot dot.” Rather they have brought me healing of mind and spirit. It might not have been. In one of the least fictionalized passages in my story, the epilogue, I recount a time of despair that occurred on a trip to visit relatives in Canada.
“One cool summer night he sat in their basement, a bottle of rum in hand, a .32 caliber handgun to his temple. Trying to cry, but too numb to the pain. After an hour he put down the gun and the bottle and packed his things. He left the next day, catching a bus across the border to Sault-Ste. Marie, Michigan, where he reenlisted in the Army. Life had to go on.”
What is not mentioned here is that part of the reason I didn’t pull that trigger was that I had been keeping a journal of my trip. Despite what I was going through emotionally, I was working it out daily on paper.
The story continues. As I typed out the epilogue, rather in a hurry the first time through—not concerning myself with blurring the lines of reality to satisfy the liable lawyers—the following words poured onto the page.
“And although he had thought he’d gotten over Becky, he dragged her ghost into—and through—twenty years and five more failed relationships, always looking for her in each of them. Never finding her. Never knowing what it was he was looking for. Always packing up and moving, mentally if not physically” (Robb).
I stopped my writing and looked at the page.
Oh. My. God. That was it.
That was what my problem had been all those year since. I was looking for that first perfect love ideal in every other woman.
Later, I wrote a scene of total fiction regarding a conversation I had had with Becky. It was not really a conversation between my character and hers, but between my soul and me. In it, I worked through the very painful process of discovering why I had not stopped looking for her in the mates to follow. In the story, my character discovers a truth at twenty-one that the real me would not really find until I was nearly forty. For most of my life, I have felt at the outside of society. As a five-year-old German-Canadian boy in a heavily Jewish neighborhood in Rochester, New York. Having a father who didn’t know or care about how to play football or baseball. A ‘Kraut’ in a time when many of the neighborhood kids’ fathers had fought the Germans in WWII. That kid with the funny last name who called his mother ’Mum’ and his butt a ‘bum.’ Who said ‘zed’ instead of ‘zee.’ Who, upon visiting relatives in Canada was mocked for being a ’bloody Yank’ who couldn’t stand up on ice skates, let alone play hockey. Nevertheless, eventually I started fitting in, started making friends. Shortly thereafter we would move to a new neighborhood and it would start all over again. The issue, my character realizes, is that “…for all my life, whenever things got comfortable and I started to fit in, we moved. I’ve never learned how to deal with a relationship — friendship or otherwise — all the way through… Never learned how to progress” (Robb). Finally, after having been moved against my will for so long, I began to move myself. When things got comfortable in my life I did not know how to deal with it. If not a physical move, there would at least be, a mental one.
At the end of the story, I was able to apply this to my adult life as well. In the epilogue of my novel I write:
“It was as if he was in these movies where the script was only half-written. When he would get to the end of this half-script, the other actors wanted him to ad lib. But he had never been too good at that. That’s why these movies were always box-office failures. Six of them in the past twenty years. He always blew the lines” (Robb).
In the time since I last worked on the novel, I have progressed quite a bit. I’ve learned how to continue a relationship in a healthy way. It still can be a struggle and it still seems odd to me at times. When it does, I drag out the pen and paper and work through the issues.
Derricotte, Toi. “The Black Notebooks.” The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings. 4th ed. Ed Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan. Boston: Bedford, 2003. 13-15
Jones, Timothy. “Frederick Buechner's Sacred Journey: How one writer and minister has made a career of telling others about moments of holy insight.” 27 Mar. 2003. Christianity Today.com 21 Nov. 2004 http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/109/51.0.html
Peterson, Eugene. The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary English. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993. 485
Rich, Adrienne. “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity.” The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings. 4th ed. Ed Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan. Boston: Bedford, 2003. 205-216
Robb, Will (pseudonym of Richard W. Raab-Faber). Learn How to Pretend. Unpublished Novel. 2001
Robinson, Melanie. Personal interview. 16 Nov. 2004
Saint Augustine. Confessions. Trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin. Middlesex: Penguin, 1961. 60
Silverman, Sue William. Confessional & (Finally) Proud Of It. 11 Nov. 2004.Sue William Silverman. 21 Nov. 2004 <http://www.suewilliamsilverman.com/work3.htm>
Woolf, Virginia. “A Writer’s Diary.” The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings. 4th ed. Ed Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan. Boston: Bedford, 2003. 55-58
Woolston, Chris “Writing for therapy helps erase effects of trauma” 16 Mar. 2000. WebMD. 16 Nov. 2004 <http://archives.cnn.com/2000/HEALTH/03/16/health.writing.wmd/>