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On women and confessional writing

June 15, 2012

So this happened:

I’m always on drugs … Look, I couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends and writing a book, which is what I’m doing next … Drug addicts undeniably bring editorial black magic to the table like nobody else, but obviously we make the worst staffers.

That is lovely writing, but the content. If it was fiction, it would be great, but it isn’t: Cat has now left xojane.com, and is definitely not heading back to rehab. She is walking away from a writing job to take drugs and write a book.

Cat Marnell’s columns for xojane.com exist at the sharp, scary end of women’s confessional writing, along with Liz Jones‘s for the Daily Mail (read those last two in succession; feel your heart break), where the reader actually becomes concerned that the writing is a continuing call for help that no one is answering. I always found Cat’s columns hard to read for that reason.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have Lena Dunham‘s work and Candace Bushnell‘s dating columns that led to you-know-what.  In these columns and TV shows, the material for the written confessionals comes from Candace/Carrie and Lena/Hannah Horvath’s lives, but is fictionalised lightly, and transformed into something fun, or at least wry, no matter how many disasters happened.

In between, there’s every other female writer who’s worked in the confessional mode (which is most columnists you can think of). Men rarely work in this genre; it isn’t really expected of them. Why is that?

Let’s start at the obvious place: Liz Jones. This is confession as profession, and of course it would be in the Daily Mail. It was probably her article about her breast reduction that first got me. Bear in mind that Liz has anorexia. Here are a few excerpts:

As far as I was concerned, my breasts were interlopers; they were not my fault. An anorexic from the age of 11, I had never had breasts before.

The reason my breasts sprouted was because, aged 22 and dangerously thin, I sought medical help at St Barts hospital and was prescribed steroids to make me put on weight…

My breasts swelled like marrows after a rainstorm.

Blood had seeped through my white T-shirt from the incisions under the breasts that snaked into my armpits and from around each replanted nipple, but I was thrilled.

But the scars (mental, physical) meant I missed out on a lot in life. About eight years after the operation, I went back to the same surgeon to see if he could excise the scar tissue.

‘I can’t get a boyfriend until you do,’ I told him.

‘What, you mean you haven’t let a man see you since the op, which was when you were turning 30?’

‘No.’

‘You mean you have let your 30s pass you by? What about children and sex and happiness?’

I shook my head.

Now I have quoted a lot, and the reason is because it is good writing. I haven’t been through any of these things that Liz has suffered, but I can really imagine it, thanks to the “marrows after a rainstorm,” “snaked into my armpits from around each replanted nipple” and the magnificently sad, concise conversation with her surgeon, the emptiness of time wasted lurking just underneath the simple words.

The pain and sadness have clearly not abated with time, and Liz Jones continues to struggle with anorexia. This, and the underlying issues causing the anorexia, clearly affects other area of her life (as it would for any of us).

Does writing the columns act as therapy? It doesn’t seem like it, and it doesn’t seem like it, as themes are revisited without happy breakthroughs or new insights.

… TBC…

Update 10/10/12: Confession – I don’t think I’ll ever finish this…

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