There’s something intriguing about hearing other people’s secrets and untold stories. A confession is simply a formal acknowledgment of guilt. It is not always connected to a crime or a particular religious doctrine, but it can have other meanings.
What Is Confessional Writing?
Confessional writing is typically done in the first person and shares either a secret or revelation. The Confessions of St. Augustine, who was an early Christian theologian, are among the first published confessions. Written in Latin during the 4th and 5th centuries, it consists of 13 volumes in which St. Augustine discusses his conversion to Christianity as a result of sins such as theft and lust that he committed as a child. His confessions involve writing about his regret for having lived what he considers a sinful and immoral life.
One of my favorite reference books on the subject of confessional writing is Fearless Confessions by Sue William Silverman, who says that confessional writers serve as emotional guides for others. Honesty is of particular importance in confessional writing.
Many famous poets such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman are considered confessional poets. “Confessional poets address the collective human order by submerging the individual’s evil in the deeper more impermeable cause of universal evil and its implication” (Harris, 2001, p. 255). Some poets might connect the personal confession with the universal confession, which gives the poetry a greater appeal.
If you decide to do some confessional writing, you might start by asking yourself, “What am I carrying?” Some of the most powerful writing is done, for example, when you write about what you hold on to and connect it to a universal theme that others can relate to. In this way, the writer is prompted to dive deep, surface, and look beyond themselves.
The Healing Power of Writing
Writing about our confessions can be healing. If we decide to publish, it can help others on their journey as well. However, not all confessional writing needs to be shared or published in order to have a purpose. Your confessions may be in the form of a letter that you write to someone but never send, or maybe even a poem dedicated to someone. For the most part, personal confessional writing can help us make sense of events and circumstances in our lives. It can also provide relief from the pain or the discomfort of hiding behind a veil of secrets.
In the Introduction to Phillip Lopate’s classic anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay (1997), he writes, “The struggle for honesty is central to the ethos of the personal essay,” and I would say this is also relevant to confessional writing. Many examples of this profound writing are included in this wonderful collection. Lopate says that the “personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his or her core of sincerity.” This is also true for the confessional writer. He believes that part of this trust is connected with the writer’s personal exposure of betrayals, uncertainties, and self-mistrust.
According to Susan Krauss Whitbourne, in her post on PsychologyToday, “When you’ve been caught in the act of indiscretion, it will take both confession plus guilt for you to turn that experience into one that will promote future growth.” Sometimes writing about the confession can actually mitigate some of the guilt that you may be feeling.
Confessional writing should not be confused with writing about trauma, although sometimes these can overlap. Confessions could simply be intimate secrets, passions, or dreams. Years ago, I taught a workshop on confessional writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and Antioch’s Summer Writing Institute. Here are some confessions that my students made:
- I forged a legal letter.
- I am bisexual.
- I cannot stop thinking about sex.
- I want to kill my mother.
- I fantasize about running away with my professor.
- I hire only sexy personal assistants.
- I never answer the phone when it rings.
- I secretly love my job but just to fit in, tell everyone I hate it.
- I am 50 and have no idea what I want to do when I grow up.
How to Start Writing
Before starting, write the word BREATHE across the top of your page. As a gentle reminder of what sustains you, take some deep breaths in through your nose and release through your mouth.
Here are some possible writing prompts to get you started:
- Write for a few minutes about what is often in your mind. Is it connected to a confession you’d like to write about?
- Sometimes it’s good to direct your writing at one person. If you’re having trouble starting, try writing this: “Before I leave, I want to tell you…”
- Think of someone to whom you are grateful. Write a letter expressing your gratitude, and why they are important in your life.
- Think of something or someone that makes you angry. Write a letter expressing your feelings. You can choose to send it or not; the important thing is that you’re writing.
- Write a poem starting with “I am sorry…”
- Think about a mistake you made. Write about how you would deal with the situation differently now.