This is not a memoir: the c-word in women’s writing

I was reading Adrienne Rich when I fell in love with women’s stories.

I don’t come from a family where women’s stories and roles are cherished. I don’t know much about my grandmother and, when growing up, I largely recoiled from my mother’s domestic inclinations and love of cooking and gardening. Yet when I read this passage by Rich: ‘When women can stop being haunted, not only by “convention and propriety”, but by internalised fears of being and saying themselves, then it is an extraordinary moment for the woman writer – and reader’, it was then that I decided to celebrate women and their stories.

Part memoir, part therapy and part revelation, much confessional writing by women often gives you the impression you are being let in on a secret world. Even though the digital sphere means we are oversaturated with personal essays and public tweets, it may serve to recall that life used to be a lot more private. Marriage, or what was deemed to be social impropriety, separated women from one another: ‘I have a sense that women didn’t talk to each other much in the fifties – not about their secret emptiness, their frustrations’, writes Rich. There is a reason why books such as Fifty Shades of Grey became so popular amongst women in their 50s and 60s.

Where fiction talks about female experiences of life, like sisterhood or female friendship, such as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels or Emily Bitto’s The Strays, it does shine light through windows within readers into understanding their own experience with their past. When nonfiction does it, it allows us to share our experiences with each other.

Women have been chronicling their stories for centuries. Historically, confessional writing was ‘identified’ as a genre in the cases proceeding the Second World War. The poetry of Sylvia Path and Anne Sexton concerned their vivid and personal experiences with conflict, depression, and traumatic family life. It is believed to have been a reaction against the academic poetry of male writers in the 1920s and 1930s.

Despite this, the ‘c-word’ is a terrain that still remains uncharted entirely by women. I think there’s still a stigma around being labelled a ‘women’s writer’, of writing stories that overshare or speak too personally from experience. There’s a fear that those stories will define you as a storyteller, and confine you to the realm of exploitative stories, of self-absorption, or being accused of seeking attention.

Recent ‘think pieces’ on women confessing to traumas and horrid experiences, alleging that they are means to ‘jolt an increasingly jaded Internet to attention’. In Australia, there were livid responses to a writer’s suggestion that female writers used their personal trauma as means of getting notoriety and becoming well-known writers. Writers posit contrasting views: Laura Bennett wrote, ‘for writers looking to break in, offering up grim, personal dispatches may be the surest ways to get your pitches read’, yet Amy Gray made the point that those female writers ‘aren’t building a brand – they’re demanding representation for their life experiences and activism’.

So they don’t seek validation – but if they do seek catharsis, a process of expelling internal demons – especially on the topic of formerly taboo subjects, then exploring these personal experiences in a public domain is a way to confess.

Whether the confessional can render experience into redemption, though, is relative. The usual structure of a confessional story is a pattern of ‘sin-suffer-and-repent’, suggesting that the woman in question has undergone a transformation after resolving her issue, depending on whatever societal ‘sin’ she committed – whether it be anorexia, immoral amour, masturbation, etc. – and is thus free.

The term ‘confessional’ with its religious connotations has moved from this understanding and is now about the harrowing and reflective experience of women – yet still confessional because these stories have not been heard before.

I believe women write such stories for two reasons – firstly, to stop feeling alone and find women like them and, secondly, to stop the past from defining them. We write stories to break out of traditional definitions out of the necessity of surviving emotionally. Women want to understand their past and we want other women to know we have shared a cumulative experience, whether positive or negative. As such, confessional writing has moved from this seeking redemption basis.

Not all nonfiction is confessional but much of the confessional writing comes from a place or an experience that women want to confess to, and also to share with other women.

In an article for the New Yorker, Svetlana Alexievich says women tell stories and events in different ways, as ‘they live with more feelings’ and ‘they observe themselves and their lives’. Setting aside the simplistic understanding of duality of gender, it does note the expectation that women writers cannot help but write emotional experience into storytelling.

One favourite anecdote about Virginia Woolf is that she never distanced herself from her work, but was every ‘she’ and ‘her’ in her writing. But it doesn’t mean it overrides her truths about the human experience.

As seen in a recent piece by Suki Kim, author of Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, a book about visiting and researching North Korea for over a decade undercover, Kim wrote about the way her journalism was marketed – facing a bias due to her gender, her culture and her race – as a memoir: ‘I wasn’t simply trying to convey how I saw the world; I was reporting how it was seen and lived by others’. If anything, Kim makes the argument that ‘society’s perception on a person’s writing is dependent on the writer’s gender’. In her case, her book as investigative journalism was later marketed as a ‘memoir’, with the genre rendering her work more lacklustre than that of ‘investigative journalism’ and thus undermining the severity of her work and time spent in North Korea.

Kim disagrees with Alexievich’s sentiment, saying ‘we are all writers, and our gender should be a separate matter; however, who we are does affect our writing, and our gender may or may not affect who we are. It is an entirely individual thing’. As Kim wrote to me recently:

Many literary writers have written many first-person reported investigative nonfiction, where they often inserted themselves into the story in order to bring out humanity of the subject, and were hailed for it: Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, David Foster Wallace (in his essay) etc. Hunter Thompson smoked dope for a weekend and wrote about it in first person and was hailed for his ‘journalism’ and ‘documentation’. Recently, Shane Bauer got a job at a prison for four months and wrote about it in first person and got hailed for real in-depth journalism.

Often it is the case that men and the general public want to categorise work for public consumption, and as a result, simplify the nature of the work. By marketing something as ‘confessional’ or as a ‘memoir’ could destroy the way the writer wants to portray themselves. In Kim’s case, the miscategorisation of her work meant she wasn’t credited duly for the work: for her professionalism of researching the topic for a decade, for visiting North Korea on many separate occasions, for figuring out the method of immensely dangerous immersive journalism and executing it, or for safeguarding her sources.

Having your work of journalism sidelined into a memoir – a genre, nonetheless, worthy of good writing – still demonstrates that women’s personal writing cannot be commercially seen as journalism or ‘serious’ documentation. When women writers seek to share ‘truth’ – not confessions – it shouldn’t be sold off as memoir when those stories are about collective human experiences.

Whether journalism or confessional writing – experiences by women are worthy of storytelling. Some are a way to connect as much as they are a way to confess. As Adrienne Rich says, ‘when a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her’.


Image: Angela Schlamütze/Flickr

Marta Skrabacz

Marta Skrabacz is a writer and journalist based in Melbourne. She is currently working on a book examining confessional writing and memoirs in the twenty-first century.

More by Marta Skrabacz ›

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  1. I enjoyed your article because of its relationship with my own writing goals and I am always pleased to read that writers are wishing to communicate the many truths about women that have been smothered for so long. I look forward to seeing in print your current authoring of “confessional writing and memoirs in the twenty-first century”.

    I would be sorry to have my words classed within the realms of confessional writing but perhaps I do not have any choice and perhaps it is of no matter. I am now at a stage where I have no wish to apologise for my earlier life as if it were full of negatives. Although I am sure there are many who would still wish to throw rocks, despite their ignorance of my journey.

    As you mention, “convention and propriety” clung to many women of my era and I did experience much of its attempt at personality destruction. I cannot say that it was a “haunting” but more of severely closed and for some never opened opportunity to live. It was exceedingly hard to find answers to my questions and my need to understand myself and why I am here.

    Yes, as Svetlana Alexievich says women do tell stories in different ways. I am forced to say, I should hope so too, being that we are different. Our emotions are part of our life, why would we ignore them in a memoir? That would be simply continuing the limiting process. Life’s emotions are rightfully part of a life story.

    Life was very different many years ago and you are right, women did not talk to each other much in the fifties or sixties. And probably before and after these dates. The world could have entered their emptiness with room to spare. Do they talk now?

    My story, I don’t believe to be exploitative nor self-absorbed but I will accept the seeking of attention because what I want to say needs to be reinforced and spread as wide as we can spread it. The closed doors of yesterday can still be found where life’s sweet nectar has not had a chance to be understood or tasted. Wherever possible, we all need the opportunity to have a full and satisfying life.

    The memoir is a wonderful way for woman to express many thoughts and happenings about their lives. It is empowering not only because they may find great therapy and release from old “baggage” whether it be canvas or pink with diamond clasps, but as an individual they have the confidence to look anyone in the eye and be strong in their new understanding of self and their unique position in life. And, as you say, they can share which gives us all the opportunity to learn.

    Thank you once again for your article.
    A fascinating subject.

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