There’s been a lot written about ‘confessional writing’ recently (which usually involves yet more confessing as well as referencing previous confessions). There were Yvonne Roberts and Lucy Cavendish in the Guardian last Saturday, and then in its sister paper, the Observer, the following day a similar piece in which the topic was discussed by Christa D’Souza and Tim Lott.
This was all in response to Rachel Cusk’s book Aftermath in which she discusses her separation from her husband, an extract of which was published in both the Sunday Telegraph magazine and the Guardian (yes, them again). Cue much groaning on all fronts, judging by the online comments.
I’ve done a few first-person pieces myself and these are questions I ask myself. I’ve written one for this week’s Guardian Family section in fact, here. I evidently think that this level of ‘confession’ is acceptable, while at the same time occasionally balking at that of others. There’s a valid argument that I’m making a false distinction, that any exposure of your family is wrong in whatever context. I’m aware that it’s like putting on fake tan – a little bit is a good thing, but lots of us are unable to find the line where it goes orangely wrong. I have the same problem with judging how blonde to go and I daresay I’d have issues about knowing when I’d lost too much weight if such had a thing had even nearly happened to me. From the inside, your perspective can become skewed. There is, as any reality star can tell you, an addictive element to publicity that people who make a living out of such a solitary profession, do well to be wary of.
I read Lucy Cavendish in the Standard recently on that fact that her sex life with her husband had dried to nothingness, illustrated with a picture of the author looking, well, rather sexy in a fitted dress. That’s an example of something I wouldn’t do because the very act of writing it would have repercussions on my behaviour and even my life choices. I suppose that’s one useful precept – does the writing and publication of this change the outcome of my or somebody else’s life?*
I’m not judging Lucy nor myself for having read it. What I am wondering is how I can make a proper division between that topic and some that I’ve written about. I once wrote a piece about the tyranny of National Childbirth Trust antenatal groups. I thought it was pretty light-hearted and not to be taken seriously, but it caused a terrible furore, not least among the NCT group obliquely referenced. There were meetings to discuss the 600 words and letters sent out in response. I was naively shocked, expecting them to somehow know that there is a different sort of reality in these published reminiscences. Not that what I wrote was untrue, but that aspects of truth are exaggerated for comic effect, while the many good things about an experience are ignored.
Tim Lott points out that with the Internet, these pieces have a far longer life than they once would have done. ‘It’s inhibitory,’ he writes, ‘because you know that your kid is five now, but when they’re 17 they can Google my article and read it’. The piece I mention above was published in the Telegraph and it was extremely unlikely that anyone connected to a Stoke Newington NCT group would have ever taken that paper, but of course it had its own permanence and url, creating this longevity and fuelling the row. I remember reading an editor in the Guardian explaining that they almost never take down pieces from the site, but that they made an exception for a story in which a journalist wrote of how her son, who must have been around 4 or 5, liked cross dressing. Now that he was at school and older, his friends had discovered the piece and were teasing him for his now neglected hobby. Pre-internet, this (as I recall) charming piece would have been a lovely yellowing news clipping for the family to chuckle over, but had become something very different, which the paper was quite right to remove.
I’m trying to force myself into making a conclusion about this in order to apply it to my own work, but can’t. I’m going to instead treat each piece individually and always to stop to examine the dangers and repercussions of what I write, both now and in its long lifetime on the Internet. That and to never, ever, read the comments at the bottom of the online edition…
*Subsequent to writing this post, Lucy Cavendish has written a piece in the Times about having separated from her husband. Which means that either she was writing about her lack of sex life having already decided to separate or it contributed. Either way, shows how messy these things can get.