A note to subscribers and other readers:  This is a post from April 8, 2009 that’s since gone offline.   I’m reactivating it in online archive today, January 24, 2011.  I do this from time to time, depending on what I’m working on or what I sort of just find in the archive.  If you’re a subscriber to this blog, you’ll probably get a notification that I’ve posted something new, but I’m really posting something old.  I’m not sure that I’d agree with everything I said in this post now.  One big difference is that my gut is with short stories and novels alike.  And memoir.  So, in addition to commenting on the original questions on this post, feel free to comment on the whole phenomenon of learning as you go.  best, Chris.  ps – It’s good to read good things?  Brilliant comment, Christopher.  But still true.

When I was young and so was Brevity (or “In 2006”), Dinty W. Moore was the first web editor to accept my work for publication. I’d been published in print before but the web journals were new to me.  Cooper Renner of elimae published what became my first web story (“Evensong”) in January of 2007 and the following month “Last Stand in the Closing Country” was featured in Brevity 23.  Around that time, I began blogging here sporadically about these and other early triumphs.

In the last two years, Brevity has grown in reputation and exposure.  The excellently maintained Brevity blog is one reason for this.  There’s an interesting post there today adapted from a presentation by John Bresland about memoir as confession and the need for confession to be shared and received in spoken rather than written/read form.

This past Friday, I read Darcey Steinke’s memoir Easter Everywhere in one sitting.  The last time I read an entire book without stopping was 1990 and the book was Superfudge.  I found Steinke’s recounting of her childhood and the tense nuances in her familiar relationships tender, anxious, and compelling, and my experience as a reader following her comings of age was cathartic, empathetic…good.  I really like this book and am recommending it widely.

I don’t know that all memoirists (or writers of personal, creative nonfiction) understand the craft in confessional terms.  Maybe so.  I don’t know that confession is the germ of Steinke’s project the way it is for Bresland’s, but it could be that confession lies at the heart of everything any of us write: confessions that there’s one undertaking, at least, that hasn’t lost all meaning, that there are human reasons to share these parts of ourselves, to tell our stories, the true ones and the ones we make true in our prose and by our choices.  Confessions that we hope for something (because why else would we share?) and that we can understand something about each other against so much noise.

I confess that I’m grateful to Dinty and Coop and Robin from Boston Literary Magazine and Will at Geez for running my first pieces, to Darcey Steinke for Easter Everywhere, to each of you for reading this blog and the pieces I run here and elsewhere.  I confess that one of the problems I’m having in my longer fiction is this mannish, moody distance I insist on putting between the narrators and the reader.  I think reading more memoirs will help my fictive voice and tone.  These people should sound real even if they’re not.  And, of course, they are.  Not like in a memoir exactly, but still like the way our memories work.  My fictive pocket universe with its confessors and confessing and the lot they have to learn from the flesh and blood types they’d love to be.

I don’t meant to say these characters are flat or unbelievable.  They’re not.  But they’re fighting for incarnation and I suppose that’s what I’m resisting on one side of the equation.  Attachments.  Confession.  Narration is so much easier.  Telling doesn’t hurt but it’s hardly ever honest.  On the other side is the overwrought bullshit that looks like me at 2 AM when everything is beautiful.  That’s not honest, either.

Short writing doesn’t have the same existential needs.  Its characters are born fully grown and armored and for very specific missions.  Joe from Bookish Us and I were talking last week about the ways long and short forms might appeal to men for different reasons.  Short stories for their barbarous terseness, their long-shadow effect, the damage they can do or the presumptions they can upend in brief attacks.  Their left hook jab hook combo.  Novels, as Joe pointed out, for their space, for all the places we have in them to run and hide from definition.  For our meanderings.  For the growth (or not) you’re supposed to enter into.  Short story characters make lousy novel heroes.  They’re too all-growed up.

The novel is balancing act for me.  My gut is with brevity.  My gut is with detachment and people that don’t change and the idea that the feeling you get when you’re done with the raid is precisely the point of reading or writing.  My gut is not with learning or teaching but with observing and reacting.  My gut is with the combo.

A.O. Scott has an interesting recent piece at the New York Times about some of this that I came across today.  He proposes, for reasons not unfamiliar to readers of Brevity or Six Sentences:

The new, post-print literary media are certainly amenable to brevity. The blog post and the tweet may be ephemeral rather than lapidary, but the culture in which they thrive is fed by a craving for more narrative and a demand for pith. And just as the iPod has killed the album, so the Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?

I don’t quote this to denigrate the longer forms of our craft.  I’m convinced that Scott and others who take the death of the novel for granted are wrong.  Great novels and memoirs are still being written and they matter, and no short story, no matter how great, renders them superflous.  (Another confession: I also don’t believe the album is dead or that video killed the radio star.  Maybe SoundScan did.) That said, there’s something about all of this brevity that seems very natural.  I hope he’s right that our culture is ripe for the rebirth of short fiction, not because it’s better, but because it’s good and important and (confession) rather particularly American.  Not like the Statue of Liberty.  More like Graceland.  (Confession:  I stole that, in a way, from Easter Everywhere).  There’s something mysterious about the short story, not quite poem, not quite long-form prose.  There’s something subversive about its purpose, something audacious about its claims.  Something kind of haunting.  Ballsy.

What do you think?  Is all memoir confession?  Is all writing?

Are short stories poised for a return to prominence as Scott suggests?

How do you intepreret the differences between short and long form writing?  As a reader and a writer, do you have a preference?

11 thoughts on “Confessions

  1. Hey Christopher,

    I enjoyed reading these musings this morning. I think most memoir (and lots of writing) has many elements of confession. I think there’s also another element that’s quite common: yearning. Robert Olen Butler writes of yearning being the key to successful literary fiction, but I’ve noticed that many of the finest memoirs I’ve read in the last year are also full of, and deeply animated by: yearning. A yearning to understand or to come to terms with or to know the unknowable. In my own memoir-in-progress, there is deep yearning to know my natural father (who left my brother and me when I was three) and to find some way to process, to understand, to accept that abandonment and others.

    Glad to have encountered your blog. All best,


  2. Really enjoyed your write-up, Christopher, and much appreciate your questions. My own sense is that confession, the word, when applied to memoir, is often (but not always) meant to cut it down a bit. If you look at the reviews of certain memoirs — Kathryn Harrison’s “The Kiss” comes to mind — critics went after it hammer and tong. Certain keywords kept coming up in the reviews: “confessional” and “navel-gazing” and “slimy”. Perhaps critics felt her confession — her incestuous relationship with her father — was too central to the work, too lurid, that there was a Jerry Springer quality to it. But I’m not so sure about that. Maybe certain types of confession are more palatable to readers. Maybe the nearly all-male slate of reviewers was made uncomfortable by Harrisons’s story. Or maybe no confession is satisfying unless, as Brian notes above, the confessor yearns for redemption.

  3. Great post, Christopher. I’m new to the memoir genre (and am still clueless as to what separates a memoir from an autobiography), but I just finished one by Gordon Parks, the legendary photographer/writer/director/composer, “A Hungry Heart.”

    Reading his account of his 90+ years of life and adventure was one of the most enthralling experiences I’ve ever had via the printed word. The apparent ease with which he approached the events in the last century that he was able to document in some fashion while also struggling to maintain some semblance of a family life (3 wives, affairs, and several kids) was fascinating and made me desire that all memoirs be confessions if they aren’t already. But I might need more exposure to the genre before I pass my ultimate judgment.

    I currently work in mass media (cable TV) and am always fascinated by the various predictions people make on how our technophilia will manifest in the future. I’d be interested to see a rebirth of short fiction, but it’s all about the platform and how it’s distributed. I have imaginings about short stories being distributed in public places and via other non-traditional means. Maybe my time at The New School (Congrats to you as well!) will give me some time and space to experiment and collaborate with other like-minded folks.

    Again, great post. I’ll be checking out your blog regularly, as I need new sites to stoke my own creativity.

    PS – I’m also a Yalie. I finished undergrad in ’06.

  4. “I think reading more memoirs will help my fictive voice and tone.”

    I’m not so sure you will find your voice in the crowd. There is a good deal of subtext here about the complexity of honesty.

  5. I think the more you read the more you know what you don’t want to sound like. I’ve never been one who thinks that to be a good writer you have to have read all the classics, but for me, reading helps me think in broader terms about language and what language can do or what it shouldn’t do. It also helps me with perspective. The last thing I want to do is mimic, but I also think it’s easy to mimic bad things without even knowing it. So it’s good to read good things.

  6. Today that comment of mine smells like trite Zen.

    I bought a drum set in high school and formed The Virgins with some friends (the bassist was soon disqualified). I didn’t take lessons in an effort to avoid influence; I wanted to access that primitive ORIGINAL beat inside. I became a very average and quaint percussionist.

    When I started playing street chess I was dominant over my entire peer group. I avoided study and sought original openings. I was decimated. Every game left me fighting for air after only a few moves. It was impossible to synthesize 500 years of grand-master theory. I booked-up and started winning, and discovered the original paths didn’t begin diverging until the middle game.

    I don’t want my writing to be interrupted by literary self-consciousness and embarrassed preconceptions and rules. But I also want to WIN. I’m pretty sure I’m quoting Ginsberg (whom I despise).

    A book bad enough to throw can be a catalyst.
    I think I threw Uncle Tom’s Cabin..

  7. “I don’t want my writing to be interrupted by literary self-consciousness and embarrassed preconceptions and rules. But I also want to WIN”

    Yes. Have you seen Joe’s comments on the “New Lost Generation” on the Irony and Devotion post? I think that comes into play here, too.

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