The Power of Storytelling international conference in Bucharest just concluded its fifth edition this month, and thanks to conference founder Cristian Lupșa, editor of the non-fiction journal Decât o Revistă and a 2014 Nieman fellow, and his colleagues, Storyboard will bring you transcripts from some of the conference’s sessions.
This October’s two-day event boasted a stellar line up of 11 speakers, mostly from North America: Pulitzer Prize-winner Jacqui Banaszynski, two time National Magazine Award winner and Esquire writer Chris Jones, bestselling author and GQ contributor Michael Paterniti, Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich, bestselling author of The Empathy Exams Leslie Jamison, San Francisco illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, Instagram superstar and Berkley School of Journalism teacher Richard Koci Hernandez, writer and book critic John Freeman, visual artist Dan Perjovschi, Romanian-born writer Carmen Bugan and German-Romanian film producer and director Alexander Nanau. You can read more about each speaker on the official The Power of Storytelling website, as well as in the News section.
This year’s event had a theme guiding each keynote and panel: a sense of place. The speakers tackled the idea of place in a story and the way it is conveyed, depicted, researched and understood. They shared stories of places visited for research and work (Paterniti, Banaszynski, MacNaughton), but also places they grew up in and places that changed their perspective on life (Jones, Perjovschi, Bugan). Outside the conference hall, audience members were challenged to debate the idea of space through photo exhibits, but also by drawing, illustrating or writing about important places in their lives.
First up is Leslie Jamison, author of the New York Times best-selling essay collection The Empathy Exams.
When people ask what kind of nonfiction I write, I say “all kinds,” but really I mean I don’t write any kind at all. What I write is often more like memoir and journalism and criticism woven together. I write about deeply personal experiences (getting hit in the face, getting an abortion) but I also write about reality television and Bolivian silver mines and the history of artificial sweeteners. The inside of my mind doesn’t feel like a series of fenced enclosures—with public history and private experience segregated past all hope of contact—so I don’t write that way either. Hybridity doesn’t feel like intention so much as acknowledgment. Everything feels connected; I let it stay that way.
Everything exterior to me is metabolized by my particular interiority—how can I represent that process of digestion? I don’t show up for any encounter—as a journalist or a critic or a mother or a traveler—without the baggage of myself. I bring my private “I” into other modes of writing—reportage or criticism—because I’m already there, because I’m fascinated by the ways personal experience connects to larger histories, and because I want my writing to matter to the people who read it—people who are, by definition, not me. Which raises one of the crucial questions of autobiographical writing: How can the confession of personal experience create something that resonates beyond itself?
When I talk about writing essays that resonate beyond the personal, I don’t mean that personal material isn’t sufficient. Of course it is. Or, it can be. If you honor the complexity of your own life—if you grant us entry into moments that hold shame or hurt or heat, and if you’re willing to follow that heat, to feel out where all the small fires burn, then your readers will trust you. They’ll find flashes of themselves. “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles,” Emerson wrote. “Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related.”
I believe that personal experience is infinite, but I also believe in different kinds of infinity: as mathematician Georg Cantor proved in the 1800s, there are many different infinities—there’s an infinity between zero and one, and another one that counts everything beyond. Both ranges are endless, but they map different terrains.
I’m interested in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience. I’m wary of seeking this resonance by extracting some easy moral from the grit and complication of personal particularity: love hurts, time heals, always look on the bright side. Instead, I’m drawn to essays that allow the messy threads of grief or incomprehension to remain ragged, to direct our gazes outward.
In “The White Album,” Joan Didion connects her own nervous breakdown to the cultural disorder around her: the arrest of Huey Newton, the unfolding of the Manson murder trials, what she calls an “authentically senseless chain of correspondences.” She makes links but she refuses to flatten these links into an easy moral; she wants them to remain provocative but “senseless.” In “Upon This Rock,” John Jeremiah Sullivan confesses his own religious background partway through an ostensibly journalistic account of a Christian rock concert. In “No Man’s Land,” Eula Biss positions a personal account of her own Chicago neighborhood inside several larger contexts: the history of the American frontier and the troubled racial politics of urban spaces. I was on a panel with Eula last year and she offered a beautiful account of why her writing brought private experience into dialogue with more public topics. “Haven’t I lived in history?” she asked. “And hasn’t history lived in me?”
In my own essay, “The Empathy Exams,” I tell several personal stories—an abortion, a failed heart surgery—inside a broader inquiry into the terms of empathy itself: What does it consist of? Can it be taught? I write about my work as a medical actor—following diagnostic scripts to act out various disorders—and I write about falling in love and drinking too much wine and crying on the phone, these “personal” things, but I also write about a neuroscientist who uses fMRI scans to figure out which parts of our brains light up when we feel for other people. I quote scientific studies and an 18th-century moral philosopher; I don’t offer them as intellectual accessories so much as I deploy them as tools: How can these other sources of light illuminate my own story better? How can my own story specify these abstract inquiries?
This is one of the central imperatives of combining personal material with history or criticism or reportage: Each thread must do some work that isn’t being done by another; that can’t be done by another. Scientific studies show the magnetic signature of empathy; my own life shows the perpetual mess of how it plays out. Sometimes I imagine history and science and memory are puppets, and I’m pushing them onto the stage of my questions and asking them to have a conversation—to share their knowledge, to argue with each other. It’s a lab experiment: What explosions are uniquely possible in combination?
We live in an era of increasing self-exposure: We parade our babies on Facebook; we flaunt our witticisms on Twitter; we turn our pancake brunches into still lifes on Instagram. At this point, the indignant backlash has become as familiar as the exposure itself: We parade our babies on Facebook! We flaunt our witticisms on Twitter! We spare no sepia filter for our syrup!
Now that amateur autobiography and its detractors are everywhere, autobiographical writers are increasingly invested in defining and defending the value of their work. How can it escape the gravitational pull of solipsism? For a growing number of essayists, memoirists, and other wielders of the unwieldy “I,” confessional has become an unwelcome label—an implicit accusation of excessive self-absorption, of writing not just about oneself but for oneself.
“What might seem ‘confessional’ from the outside is just an arrangement of facts,” the writer Charles D’Ambrosio says of his essays about—among other things—the suicide of one brother and the attempted suicide of another. “ ‘Confessional’ is not a good descriptor of my work,” insists Chris Kraus, best known for a book, I Love Dick, about the unrequited obsession of a character named Chris Kraus. “ ‘Confessional’ of what? Personal confessions? There’s a great line from … [Gilles] Deleuze: Life is not personal.” The essayist Meghan Daum, known for her unapologetic candor, resists the term as well. “I don’t confess in my work,” she says, “because to me that implies that you’re dumping all your guilt and sins on the page and asking the reader to forgive you.” The label can also imply a failure of craft. “Confessions are not processed or analysed,” she continues, “they’re told in a moment of desperation.” Instead, Daum calls her personal revelations “events recounted in the service of ideas.”
Alissa Wilkinson proposes that we consider the word “confessional” as we think about the value of personal writing:
When we say “confession,” the word can imply guilt—but personal experience isn’t something we’re guilty of—or guilty for sharing
“In writing workshops, students … always bring up the same questions first: ‘Why should anyone care about my story? What gives me the right to write it down for someone else to read?’ In the midst of helping them find the answers, I’ve come to believe the ‘confession’ terminology, borrowed as it is from religious practice, is problematic. What is confession for, really? Why do we read it? Why do we write it? And is there a word that better captures what we’re doing?
When we say “confession,” the word can imply guilt—but personal experience isn’t something we’re guilty of—or guilty for sharing. I still remember the day my cousin—a sixth-grade teacher—taught me the sign for overshare: arms in an “O” above her head. All her students were doing it, she said. That sense of shame stuck with me—the embarrassment of exposing too much. Is it embarrassing to overshare because you are making yourself too vulnerable? Asking for too much? Too much of what? Sympathy? Attention? Forgiveness? Are you necessarily asking for anything at all?
Wilkinson writes: “Perhaps it’s not just that ‘confessional’ has taken on a bad timbre; maybe it was never the right metaphor to draw from religion at all. We sometimes receive absolution from our personal writing, but we are doing more than that.”
What are we doing, then, when we share ourselves in our work? What’s it good for?
Five years ago, in a book called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, the writer David Shields articulated an anti-confessional notion of self-disclosure as a means of pursuing conceptual insight: “What I believe about memoir is that you just happen to be using the nuts and bolts of your own life to illustrate your vision.” His recent book—I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, co-authored with a former student, Caleb Powell—experiments with the machinery these “nuts and bolts” might build. It’s an edited transcript of an intimate argument spanning a long weekend that the pair spent together in a cabin in the woods in Washington State. As they wrestle over balancing life and work—the choice W. B. Yeats framed as “perfection of the life, or of the work”—their conversation is full of self-disclosure that feels less like confession and more like trial evidence. The dialogue is strategically literary; their plan is “to come out of this with a book.” In their project, they offer a vision of personal experience as something intellectually constructed rather than nakedly exposed; in their pages, revelation is a mode of self-scrutiny rather than a plea for absolution or attention.
Shields and Powell don’t take themselves too seriously. They constantly interrupt each other’s epiphanies: “By focusing so much on art,” Shields wonders, “have I closed myself off so completely from—” But Powell stops him before he can finish his question. Their fractured back-and-forth implies that fruitful inquiry is provisional and open-ended, that epiphanies are most useful when challenged. At the same time, the rawness of their conversation—its friction, its banter, its splay—has been carefully sculpted. Its shagginess is calculated: “We’ll cut from live moment to live moment,” Shields declares, and after confronting Powell about his drinking, he acknowledges, “I’m doing this partly to get ‘a moment.’ ” The production of such “moments” is an effect Shields anticipated in Reality Hunger. “At once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice, I know all the moments are ‘moments’: staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized.” In calling attention to its process, their conversation offers itself as unprocessed; admitting that it’s been constructed guarantees another sort of authenticity. “It’s staged,” Powell says, “but it can’t be fake.”
The premise of the book could easily play as straight farce: two self-involved and argumentative men argue with each other about … themselves. Often in a hot tub. But what unfolds is actually quite gripping, and they’re well aware of the farcical qualities. They approach Yeats’s “forced” choice as if they are characters in a morality play: Shields, a tenured professor whose six-figure salary comes up more than once, is “Work”; Powell, a stay-at-home dad whose writing career has never gotten off the ground, is “Life.” All along, their discussion of lofty questions (What is the purpose of writing? Can art make the world better?) is punctuated by the banalities of two men on vacation. They watch My Dinner With Andre, and Powell “snore[s] through all the major epiphanies.” On a hike through the woods, they’re talking about a weeping widow in Kabul when suddenly the scenery intervenes: “Hey,” Powell says, “this is a nice waterfall.”
There’s a blunt insistence to these juxtapositions—we live in a world of widows and waterfalls, deal with it—that’s echoed by the unsentimental delivery of material that might feel decidedly confessional in another book. When these men offer personal disclosures, they aren’t atoning, or looking for pity from each other—or from us. What they’re up to is something more like D’Ambrosio’s “arrangement of facts.” They’re sniffing around for clues as they pursue their larger questions. Powell tells Shields about one of his wife’s miscarriages and her gay ex-husband; Shields discusses his daughter’s body-image issues and describes fighting with his wife about whether to have a second child. These aren’t sob stories milked for emotional impact; they’re exhibits in service of debates: What aspects of life (a bigger family, marital stability) does the artist sacrifice for his work?
Not only do we witness personal experiences conscripted into intellectual work; we witness these disclosures getting heard and processed. In the end, the form of the book is more illuminating than any resolution the authors find to their central conflict. Shields and Powell offer a different vision of how the confessional might play out: Rather than baring their psychic flesh for the sake of exposure and intimacy, they are excavating complexities inside their experiences.
This notion of investigation offers an alternative to confession. Its goal isn’t sympathy or forgiveness. Life is not personal. Life is evidence. It’s fodder for argument
“Art can serve people,” Shields declares. “Basically, the royal road to salvation, for me, lies through an artist saying very uncompromising things about himself. And through reading that relentless investigation, the reader will understand something surprising about himself.” This notion of investigation offers an alternative to confession. Its goal isn’t sympathy or forgiveness. Life is not personal. Life is evidence. It’s fodder for argument. To put the “I” to work this way invites a different intimacy—not voyeuristic communion but collaborative inquiry, author and reader facing the same questions from inside their inevitably messy lives.
When I published a collection of “confessional” essays last year, full of personal material (an abortion, heart surgery, getting punched in the face by a stranger)—my confessions elicited responses. They coaxed chorus like a brushfire. I started to feel like confession could be the opposite of solipsism. Indeed, I found myself becoming an unwitting confessor to countless strangers: I heard from a woman with chronic headaches, a man struggling with the aftermath of being circumcised at 18, a woman dealing with the death of her pet chicken, a high school senior trying to process her best friend’s eating disorder, a homeless substitute teacher in Minneapolis, a neurologist trying to stay on the career track after multiple medical leaves of absence. I heard from doctors who’d given the book to their medical students; medical students who’d given it to their professors. I heard from a preacher who’d used it in his Good Friday sermon. I heard from a girl who’d just moved her whole life out of her boyfriend’s apartment, another girl who’d decided—after reading one of my essays about gender and pain—not to sleep with a guy who didn’t love her. It secretly pleased me, imagining an army of angry men rising to accuse me of emptying their beds: You’ve got to stop writing these essays!
I loved seeing the way my words travelled beyond the pages and became about so much more than what I’d lived, or what I’d felt. My writing was like a grown up child suddenly taking up residence in all sorts of strange places and sending back photos.
If the definition of solipsism is “a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing,” then—it seemed—little could push back against solipsism more forcefully than personal writing gone public.
I’ve felt this as a reader as well, encountering personal narratives whose revelations felt more like forking paths than private cloisters. In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit places a deeply personal narrative—reckoning with her mother’s dementia, with the longer arc of their tumultuous relationship—inside a broader constellation of stories, Inuit myths, scientific inquiries, tales of heroes, and monsters and ice. She did this in order to think about how we make sense of ourselves by turning our lives into narratives—how we think about recovering from trauma, how we damage each other and how we console that damage. When I read Solnit’s book—deeply personal, in so many ways—I didn’t feel as if it was the product of a self that didn’t know anything beyond itself—I felt as if it was the product of a self that somehow, miraculously, knew me as well, or at least knew about things that included me.
I first read Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face—a memoir about her childhood illness and subsequent disfigurement—when I was recovering from major jaw surgery, and I felt the urge to shout “Amen!” on nearly every page. Her willingness to linger inside trauma—to excavate more meaning rather than yielding to the sense that she had dwelled too long—felt less like self-involvement and more like a gift. I didn’t feel excluded; I felt my whole life summoned into the narrative. And as an author, in turn, I was summoned into the lives of those who had read me.
“The beautiful thing about testimonies at their best,” Alissa Wilkinson writes in her piece on the so-called confessional form, “is they’re not meant to establish the speaker in a power relationship with the listener. Rather, they’re an act of humility. Here is my life, the testimony-giver says. Please find in it your own path toward assurance. And please know that after today, I will go on living; this is not the end of the story.
“Writers of personal narrative do the same thing. As I tell my skeptical students, you’re here to write down what happened to you in a way that helps your reader put some words to their lives.”
I often think of the subject of an essay as something like a courtyard full of questions—questions about grief, or longing, or memory, or empathy. Writing means walking a furious labyrinthine path in order to peer at them from every possible direction. Every mode of inquiry—history, memoir, criticism—is a doorway that opens onto this courtyard from a different angle. Each glance offers some gift: the pages of a medical acting script, or the humming heart of an fMRI scanner; the grainy resolution of old photographs or the tiny time-machines of old text messages. You can gaze down on the past from the obstructed aerial view of retrospection, or you can gaze up from a hospital table, the folds of a paper gown crinkling underneath the goose bumps on your arms. That’s the thrill of pushing the personal essay beyond itself: The electricity created between erudition and flesh is something fierce. You can move from the rigors of scientific inquiry to the pale vulnerability of an IV piercing a vein. You can travel that distance in a sentence—if curiosity demands it, if the sentiment can hold it.
When you’re lying on a hospital gurney, it can feel like there is nothing else in the world—nothing but your fear, or your chill, or the promise of anesthesia, or the shadows of the surgeons who are about to cut you open. It can feel that way—and that feeling is a truth, but what it believes isn’t true at all: because you’re not the only thing in the world—the only person who has ever hurt, the only person who has ever worn a paper gown. In truth, there is a whole world beyond you, in that moment and always—a whole world of other hurting bodies, of surgeons and their training; there’s a whole world of hearts, heart anatomies and heart myths, hearts transplanted and broken. There is so much outside the false cloister of private experience; and when you write, you do the work of connecting that terrible privacy to everything beyond it.
Parts of this speech were adapted from the following pieces: