Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Our lives of no interest: The compulsion to confess

Share |
The Journals of John Cheever
In middle age there is a mystery, there is mystification. The most I can make out of this hour is a kind of loneliness. Even the beauty of the visible world seems to crumble, yes even love. I feel that there has been some miscarriage, some wrong turn, but I do not know when it took place and I have no hope of finding it.
—John Cheever, The Journals of John Cheever

Rod Moody-Corbett came over for drinks the other night and brought The Journals of John Cheever—a gift he’d picked up from a free bookstand in New Haven. Thus continues a tradition we have of discussing memoirs and journals, genres of confession and slant confession, the composition of personal narrative. If writers are compelled to confess—and I have shelves of books by memoirists and poets who’ve embedded themselves into their work that would lead me to believe that some of us are, indeed, driven to write about our lives, our experiences—then what good comes of it?

I grappled with this question in a recent essay for 17 seconds (: a journal of poetry and poetics), where I discussed confession as an impetus for my collection of poems, Broom Broom. Since writing that essay and embracing confession as part of my compositional process, I’ve become interested in continuing the conversation about personal narrative outside of the work itself. Like Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story, I want to be attentive to what works and what doesn’t work in the realm of writing the self: “It’s like lying down on the couch in public—and while a writer may be willing to do just that, it is a strategy that most often simply doesn’t work…. The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader” (Gornick).

Perhaps it is confession’s propensity to fail that leads many to disavow it. I’ve listened to writers on more than one festival panel who either explicitly deny that their work has anything to do with their actual lives, their actual selves, or apologize for their appearance as a character in their own work. But I find myself drawn back to memoir again and again—and when I considered how I might spend my time as Writer in Residence for Open Book, confession seemed to offer itself as an organizing force.

Over the next month I hope to engage with scraps of memoirs, journals, letters, and non-fiction of various sorts by writers who have inspired me to elevate confession to the status of worthy pursuit. The fear that my compulsion to record my life is selfish, is meaningless, drives me to find ways to contextualize my work among its betters. I was interested to see this fear reflected somewhat in John Cheever, as he considered what it would mean to publish the twenty-nine looseleaf journals he’d been secreting away for four decades. In his introduction to his father’s journals, Benjamin Cheever discusses both his father’s desire to have his journals published posthumously and his fear that the journals would not be of interest. The first time John Cheever presents his son with one of his notebooks, they discuss their possible reception. Benjamin writes,

At one point I looked up, and I could see that he was crying. He was not sobbing, but tears were running down his cheeks. I didn’t say anything. I went back to reading. I looked up again, he seemed composed.
  I told him I liked it.
  He said he thought the journals could not be published until after his death.
  I agreed.
  Then he said that their publication might be difficult for the rest of the family.
  I said that I thought that we could take it.
  He wanted to know if I really thought there would be interest.

Those of us who confess are often afraid that our lives will be of no interest.

Do we publish personal narrative to combat some of the loneliness Cheever describes in the epigraph above?

I don’t mean to answer this question—or even attempt to answer this question. In fact, I have no idea where a month of musing might lead. Some of my posts will directly engage with the writers I cite, some will offer responses, texts that echo or converse with their influences. Let’s see how this sort of flânerie might occupy us for a while—meandering, peeking into the lit windows of other writers’ lives.

Next Post: "Tending toward liquid"
Farewell Post: "Few permanent wounds"
Brecken Hancock WIR Main Page

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Brecken Hancock

Brecken Hancock's poetry, essays, interviews and reviews have appeared in Event, CV2, Grain, The Fiddlehead and Studies in Canadian Literature. She is Reviews Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine and Interviews Editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Her first book of poems, Broom Broom, was published by Coach House Books in 2014. She lives in Ottawa. Visit for more information.

Send your questions and comments for Brecken to

Go to Brecken Hancock’s Author Page