Modern times: Don't tell me everything

When great women writers bare the details of their personal lives, the result can be meaningful. But when idiots do it, we all suffer

I have never met Liz Jones, but I feel as though I have a little hammock set up inside her brain, from where I observe every one of her thoughts as they breeze past, each more salacious and horrific than the last. And so I know that she is a lifelong anorexic who regards “women who are fat…as somehow lazy.” I know that she suffers OCD so severely that she has vacuumed her garden. I know that her (now ex-) husband, 14 years her junior, was an extracurricular fornicator and also emitted a cabbagy smell at night.

All of this arises from Jones’s writing, not from her (hypothetical) therapist’s phonebook-sized file. For years, Jones has rendered permanent each of her most personal experiences and thoughts, even those that most of us might describe as shameful or fleeting. She is a former editor of British Marie Claire and a columnist for the Mail on Sunday. Her life’s work is her life. In 2005, she published Liz Jones’s Diary: How One Single Girl Got Married. The sequel was subtitled How I Lost a Husband and Found Rural Bliss; so much for that permanence-of-the-written-word thing.

With the launch of the latter book this year, an anti-Liz tempest brewed in the British press, then sprayed into the blogosphere. A profile of Jones in the Guardian began with “Is Liz Jones mad? I’m not sure. She certainly looks a bit mad.”

Admitting to morbid fascination, the pop-feminist blog Jezebel began regularly picking apart her columns, like the one where she tried to eat like a “normal” person for three weeks, or the one where, as Jezebel put it, “Liz Jones dons burka, understands all.” Even less Cosmo, more literary writers have been chastised for narcissism lately, like Ayelet Waldman (motherhood confessions) and Daphne Merkin (depression confessions). Meanwhile, a writer at defended “female confessional journalism,” that first-person formula of testimony and catharsis, which is often about one’s inadequacy. But louder critics complained that all this self-exposure must be bad for women — a form of porn and a professional ghetto.

Absolutely, Jones makes me queasy. And yet, I like confession, if confession is intimate and fearless, and explores the emotional core of the self. (Male writers partake also; it’s called memoir when Hemingway does it.) Here, then, am I: a woman writing a piece of first-person confessional journalism about women and first-person confessional journalism. Try not to hurt yourself in this hall of mirrors.

Years ago, I was a youngish arts reporter at a newspaper where youngish female columnists were trendy. I remember running into an editor in an elevator, and in a moment of scintillating conversation, I recounted my minor misadventures buying a mattress over the weekend. “You should write about that,” he said. All week, I fumed, praying he’d forget. (He did.) I was convinced at the time that male editors encouraged young women to write about the trivia of their lives because having the bulk of one’s female writing staff off penning columns about what amusing items their dogs ate assured the editors that there was no threat from below. If women writers were busy toiling in the muck of their own minutiae, they would never elbow the “real” journalists off the masthead.

And now I’m in the muck myself. In my two years occupying this space, I’ve drawn, from time to time, from my own life, colouring the spaces between an abstract argument about maternity leave or environmental righteousness with concrete images of daily existence. But every month, I struggle with the question How much should I give away? Staring down the barrel of a deadline, it would be easy to fill that dreaded white space with my kids’ wackiness or my own neuroses. My husband alone is a tome (and he refuses to let me write about him; he won’t even like that I mentioned his refusal). Some of my personal life seeps in anyway but the real work is in the withholding. Merkin calls the best confessional writing “artful truth-telling,” balanced between serving honesty and knowing exactly what to leave out.

But not much is left out these days. The editors of Webster’s New World Dictionary declared the 2008 word of the year to be overshare: to divulge excessive personal information. In Canada, 12 million people use Facebook, one-third of the population. Facebook and Twitter have shaved thin the boundaries of intimacy that we never dared cross before. People update their mood every few hours: “Sue is bummed that the Bachelorette didn’t pick Reid!” On reality TV and YouTube, confession is currency. Tori and Candy Spelling forsook a phone call or mediator in favour of simultaneously publishing books that made their private battles entirely public, bottled and sold.

The appeal of confession — beyond prurience — is that it claims to be true. A staged movie about a cat falling off a counter isn’t interesting, but if it really happens — hilarity. Yet what is true? In the act of writing, one is always embellishing, fictionalizing; just putting a real-life moment on paper makes it unreal, the way a photograph of a thing isn’t actually the thing.

When the journalist writes about herself, that moment is one of creation; the writer becomes a character, too. She may be able to live with that, but what of the people closest to her? Jones’s ex-husband said, “I hated being written about. It caused a great deal of tension between us, and filled me with bitterness.”

Even with an aversion to self-exposure, I know I’ve made a few mistakes in this column. I’ve been too casual on at least one occasion, finding the perfect illustration for a point by lazily invoking a friend’s folly. (Well, folly is how I saw it.) The person whose identity I feebly attempted to mask hasn’t forgiven me — a lasting reminder of the inherent power imbalance in confession: The writer always gets the last word.

When shaky I return to Anna Quindlen, who, for decades in the New York Times, used pieces of her private life as a way of elucidating the political. (And her 800 words on Anita Hill, written in 1991, remains the definitive take on sexual harassment.) Jones infuriates because she starts and ends with the self; the personal isn’t the political, it’s solely the personal.

Wrote Quindlen about columnizing: “Standard operating procedure has been to bring the mind, but not the heart, to the table of public discourse. I had to wonder why. Is thought always more telling than emotion? Is the territory of the heart always secondary to that of the mind?” The best confessional writing is a merging of these territories, a flag planted in two places, declaring self-knowledge above self-indulgence.