Thursday, August 27, 2009


Joni Mitchell is often thought of as a “confessional” songwriter, one who reveals details of her emotional life and experience through her music. Likewise, many poets are considered “confessional” – Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell.

I realize as I’m reading this Joni Mitchell book, “Will You Take Me As I Am” by Michelle Mercer, that I enjoy confessional writers. I’m sure that’s what appealed to me about Mitchell when I first heard her music years ago; likewise, it’s what I enjoy about Plath, who is one of my favorite poets. (And who is unfairly considered dreary and morbid because of her untimely end.)

But the term puzzles me a bit. I wonder what distinguishes “confessional” writing from any kind of first-person writing. It seems to me that whenever you write about yourself, you draw on the material of your life. Even fiction writers, working with imaginary characters, do that. What’s the line between confessing and not?

I enjoy reading about people’s inner lives, and the ways they confront the difficulties of daily experience. I think many of us do – hence the explosion in the popularity of memoirs. (And as we’ve seen in recent years, with books like James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” and Augusten Burroughs’ “Running with Scissors,” the line between fiction and memoir can also be somewhat vague.)

I’m impressed with writers who take on life’s issues honestly, and maintain a truthful tone. Mercer, in her book, points to Dan Fogelberg as an example of a songwriter who deals dishonestly with such issues, and uses his song “The Leader of the Band” as an example. She’s right – that song is pure sentimental pablum. I never liked it, and I never really thought about why I didn’t, but Mercer hit the nail on the head. It just isn’t truthful.

A lack of truthfulness is one of the flaws I detect in my own writing. I have a deeply ingrained need to maintain a façade of happiness and equilibrium, an “everything’s OK” perspective. It’s so deeply ingrained that I often don’t recognize when things aren’t OK in my own life. My writing often reflects that sort of shallow happiness that comes of not examining life too closely.

I certainly have confessional tendencies, which isn’t surprising, since it’s the type of writing I enjoy. (And what blogger doesn’t, after all?) But I think I need to work on exposing more of myself, being more brave, being more truthful. Not sure how to go about it. Perhaps Joni will inspire!

(Photo: IHOP parking lot, Elizabeth, N.J., August 2009)


  1. I too enjoy artists of all kinds who give me a window to their soul free of the walls and prisms that some construct.

    The same with Bloggers -- I like to think what I read is the real person. That's one of the things that most attracts me to Blogs like yours and Aileen's.

  2. Steve, this from someone who had to go through a huge battles with depression before acknowledging a smile isn't always the healthiest thing available:

    Apart from the fact feeling lousy is not fun so we try to avoid it (how's that for Headline News?), a lot of the denial comes from wanting to fit in, no matter what the cost - sometimes to the point of forgetting who we are in the first place.

    It's a delicate balancing act - being respectful of one's own emotions and history and of other people's as well. But who ever said living was simple?

    Sorry. A long one. Taking a break from writing for a bit of a browse around blogland.

    Best to you.

  3. (that's not 'a huge battles', by the way but 'huge battles', period.)

  4. I find it very difficult to balance what looks okay to others and how I feel sometimes and I also worry a bout being too self revealing to others. Writing, particularly in the narrative, is always a bit risky but usually yields much in the way of awareness of others and myself in the end.