by Diana Raab, Ph.D.
“Confession is good for the soul in the sense that a tweed coat is good for dandruff—it is a palliative rather than a remedy.” — Peter De Vries
A few years back, I presented a workshop at the West Hollywood Book Festival called “Confessional Writing.” It was very well attended; in fact, by the time we closed the classroom doors, there was standing room only. For me, this was very telling, as it shows that people want to share their deepest secrets. For readers, the term confessional writing is an attention-grabber, but for the writer, it can be a healing form of writing used to unearth deep hidden feelings.
Those who are avid readers of my blogs already know that I’m a huge advocate of writing for healing when used in conjunction with talk therapy. Confessional writing isn’t always healing, but it’s a way of expressing sentiments on the page. In general, writing can help us make sense of certain events and circumstances in our lives. When it comes to confessional writing, it can provide a respite from hiding behind a veil of secrets.
If you write and end up publishing your confessional writing, you can also help others who may have gone through similar life experiences. One of my favorite reference books on the subject is Fearless Confessions by Sue William Silverman, who says that confessional writers serve as emotional guides for others.
Honesty is particularly important in confessional writing, as it is in any type of personal writing. In my friend Phillip Lopate’s classic anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, he says, “The struggle for honesty is central to the ethos of the personal essay,” and I would say that this is also relevant to confessional writing. Many examples of such are included in this wonderful collection. Lopate continues by saying that the “personal essayist [and I add the confessional writer] must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his or her core of sincerity.” He continues to say that part of this trust is connected with the writer’s personal exposure of betrayals, uncertainties, and self-mistrust.
For the most part, confessional writing can take many forms—journal writing, letters, essays, books, or poems. Many people consider memoir the main form of confessional writing, but really, any personal writing that uses “I” could be a form of it, as confessional writing is written in the first person and shares a secret or revelation.
Oftentimes, confessions touch on the darker or more repressed parts of our lives. St. Augustine’s Confessions are among the first published confessions, written in the fourth and fifth centuries. It consists of 13 volumes where he discusses his conversion to Christianity as a result of sins committed as a child, such as theft and lust.
If you decide to engage in confessional writing, ask yourself: “What am I carrying?” Some of the most powerful writing is done when, for example, you write about what you hold on to and connect it to a universal theme that others can relate to. In this way, writers are prompted to dive deep, surface, and then look beyond themselves.
Confessional writing shouldn’t be confused with writing about trauma, although sometimes the subjects overlap. Confessions are secrets that aren’t necessarily connected to trauma; they could be secrets, passions, or dreams. For example, some confessions that students of mine have made in the past include:
- I forged a legal letter.
- I am bisexual.
- I cannot stop thinking about sex.
- I want to kill my mother.
- I fantasize about running away with my professor.
- I only hire sexy personal assistants.
- I never answer the phone when it rings.
- I secretly love my job, but just to fit in, I tell everyone I hate it.
- I am 50 and have no idea what I want to do when I grow up.
Before beginning your confessional writing, write or type the word BREATHE across the top of the page. Then take some deep breaths in and out. Like journal writing, you can incorporate some of your ritualistic activities prior to writing, such as meditating, lighting a candle, having a cup of tea, or stretching.
Here are some possible writing prompts:
- Write for a few minutes about what is often on your mind or what obsesses you—is it sex, books, clothes, cars, or nature? Write a little about the history of this obsession and where you think it originated. Is it connected to an event or a particular person?
- Begin with the statement “Before I leave, I want to tell you . . .” Sometimes it’s good to direct your writing toward one person.
- Think of someone you’d like to give thanks to—perhaps a relative, a friend, a mentor, or a loved one. Write a letter to this person expressing your gratitude, how you feel, and how important he or she is (or was) in your life.
- Think of someone who makes you angry. Write a letter to this person expressing how you feel. It doesn’t matter if you decide to send it or not; the important thing is that you’re writing down your feelings.
- Write a poem starting with “I’m sorry.”
- Think back to your childhood, and remember a room in your home. Write one paragraph where you describe the room as if you were a child sitting in it. Write a second paragraph from your current viewpoint.
- Think about something you did in the past that you perceive as a mistake. Write down how you’d deal with the situation differently today.