Confessional writing often gets a bad rap. People call it self-absorbed, solipsistic, self-indulgent. Who wants to hear another 30-year-old going on and on about her damage? But when I published a collection of "confessional" essays this spring, The Empathy Exams, full of personal material (an abortion, heart surgery, getting punched in the face by a stranger) – I started to feel like confession could be the opposite of solipsism. My confessions elicited responses. They coaxed chorus like a brushfire.
After my book came out, 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 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.
There are many ways to confess and many ways confession can reach beyond itself. 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 little pushes back against solipsism more forcefully than confession gone public. This kind of confession inevitably creates dialogue.
I've felt this as a reader as well, encountering confessional narratives whose revelations felt more like forking paths than private cloisters: Eula Biss's Notes from No Man's Land shares private moments of bodily experience – collisions, exhaustion, sensory wonder – in a way that feels deeply committed to exploring what it means to be part of a collective public body, fraught with issues of race and class and guilt; and Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby 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.
When I read each of these deeply personal books, 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.
Confession doesn't just allow – it incites. Someone tweeted about my essays: "After reading this book, I want to write about my hidden pain until my fingers bleed, and then I want to write about my bleeding fingers." One woman wrote to me to say that as she was writing, her mother was collecting her things from her ex-boyfriend's house: "I don't know how to hold this hurt inside," she said. "But I'm mortified at the thought of talking about it or writing about it or painting it – somehow that seems so much more embarrassing than drunk-dialling him, or falling off a bar stool and breaking my wrist, or whatever ways used to seem like options."
Another woman wrote to say that one of my essays had made her turn down sex with a guy who didn't love her. "As low as that sounds," she said, as if it didn't matter much. But it mattered to me. It didn't sound low at all. It sounded like something I might have needed – at several points in my life – to hear. She told me she was writing drunk. She'd needed to get drunk to find the courage to write at all.
As I got more notes from strangers, I started to wonder what desires motivated them. What do readers want from the writers they read? What sorts of responses do they imagine? Sometimes a reader offers his own life; sometimes he only offers praise. Every offering suggests itself as a mixture of gift and request – a desire to show the author what her words have meant, and a desire to be seen: "Let me know I'm visible to you, as you've been visible to me."
When I published fiction, I'd also receive notes from strangers – an estate agent in Hawaii who said my short story gave him a better understanding of why his younger sister slept with so many men, a rowdy frat boy who said my writing inspired him to treat women better. A few years after my first novel was published, I got an email from a woman who'd read it and hated it and regretted spending a dime on it in a thrift store. (She swore to this; it had only cost 10 cents.) She said it had made her lose all hope of staying sober. She said I should be ashamed of sending that much hopelessness into the world. She said she'd put a lot of drugs into her body that morning. She said she hoped she didn't last through the day. Her resentment and disappointment held such clear notes of yearning – the hunger for deliverance, the hope that a novel or an essay or a single sentence might offer it. I could understand this impulse to get in touch: if it felt like an author had already come into your life, already seen some aspect of your experience then it would be natural to want to extend this intimacy into conversation.
The impulse to contact a confessional writer – whose writing has already revealed something private – is something else. Perhaps it is still a desire to translate one kind of intimacy into another, but the terms are different. With confessional writing, the disclosure has already happened – now the reader wants to confess something back, make a reciprocal exchange. So whenever people talk about confessional writing as navel-gazing or self-involved, I think about those voices, and their offerings.
When they confessed things to me, these strangers were offering something but they were also asking for something. They were asking for the subject of the book itself: empathy. They wanted an enactment of its central principle, its primary call: to pay attention. Even when they didn't say they wanted this, I felt I owed it to them. The professor struggling with chronic headaches wasn't asking for anything, she was just offering a response: "I find the thing that wears you down the most is pain. To wake up and as you gain consciousness to feel the pain again, and wanting it to not be so, but yet it is, and having to face that reality hundreds, in my case thousands, of days in a row. It transforms you and disconnects you from everyone, even those who want to understand."
Notes from strangers were gifts and burdens at once. They made me think about what I'd written near the end of my collection: "I don't believe in a finite economy of empathy." Someone on Instagram had even turned this into a hashtag: #idontbelieveinafinite economyofempathy. But, I started to wonder, was it true?
An artist from Los Angeles sent a note about how strange he felt about sending a note: "So many of your readers will feel exactly this way, and think, 'Wow, I feel the same things too! We should be friends, like for real!' … imagine that they can suspend the adult world and just reach, shoulder against the screen, an arm into the computer and have it somehow emerge out of your screen, into your life, in a manner that is not reaching or grasping, but rather extending and giving, not freakish and bizarre, but surprising and wonderful. At best, even a welcoming, non-flailing arm, coming from out of your screen, waving hello, or offering a pistachio, or book, will still seem, at best, unnatural.
He was right: there were arms coming out of my screen, asking for something even when they weren't. There were too many of them. I couldn't respond to all of them. At a certain point I stopped responding to any of them. I didn't respond to the one who wrote to me drunk, the one who wrote to me after her relationship had ended, to the man in the shelter or the man in the retirement home. An abiding sense of guilt and hypocrisy began to fester: I was peddling empathy everywhere, and getting so much from it – absorbing the affirmation of every charged emotional response to what I'd written. I'd made everyone feel, and now I was ignoring those feelings. I was empathetic in the abstract and stingy everywhere else.
Every stop on the book tour pushed me up against the limits of myself, forced me to confront the finitude of the economy I'd once called infinite. Every city offered questions that felt full of invisible emotional baggage: Washington DC was a woman getting irritated about the notion that faking empathy could ever do anyone any good. SoHo, in New York, was a girl with the seismograph of an electrocardiogram tattooed across her chest. San Francisco was a friend hopping up the stairs on crutches, a doctor saying she wanted more room for her heart in the medicine she practised. Kalamazoo was homemade chocolate-covered pretzels and a woman with chronic lupus. The city of Ann Arbor was a girl in black eyeliner and high-top sneakers telling me that she'd never believed her stories were worth telling, all those drunken nights and regrets, but that now she thought her life might be worth narrating after all.
Through all this, I was gathering signatures and messages in a tour copy of the book. This was my attempt at reciprocity: whenever someone asked me to sign her book, I would ask her to sign mine. It was a way to create, for a moment, the kind of symmetry that felt impossible in the letters I received. Someone wrote: "Your words have opened me, flayed me, improved me." Someone else: "It's so nice to meet another 'wound-dweller'." Another: "I'm sorry I laughed during the soul-nailed-to-the-cross part of the reading." Next to a section headed "OB GYN" (for obstetrics and gynaecology), one woman wrote: "Just went yesterday! Scaling menopause mountain." And next to a section about my experience with supraventricular tachycardia, another wrote: "SVT is the fucking worst." Or: "We are kindred spirits." Or: "This gave me solace." Or: "I carry your heart."
I remember looking into the eyes of a woman in Kalamazoo – who had been ill for years with chronic fatigue – and she was telling me about her illness, but the whole time she was talking I was picturing the bath tub in the old wooden B&B where I was staying. I was picturing that bathtub, or wondering if I was confusing it with the bathroom in the university guest house by the river in Iowa City, or the glass-walled shrine in my sleek modern hotel in Minneapolis. This woman was telling me it felt like there wouldn't ever be an end to how she hurt – and I knew the truth, which is that for me there would be: the ending had taken the shape of a bathtub in my mind.
Readings also held moments of doubt and resistance. One night in Boise, Idaho, after I'd finished reading an essay about James Agee – how I'd read his account of sharecropper families one autumn, after being punched in the face in Nicaragua, and how his guilt had resonated with the guilt I felt about visiting a country whose poverty I'd never faced myself. I'd written about a little boy named Luis, who'd slept one night outside the house where I was staying, and how I hadn't invited him to sleep inside, and how guilty I'd felt – and how that guilt had made me feel closer to Agee, closer to his overblown version of self-doubt and anguish. I was pretty sure I'd spun my own guilt into something beautiful. I often read the essay out loud because I felt proud of the cadences in its closing paragraph. After I was done, a boy stood up and asked: "Why didn't you let that boy into the house?" I felt like saying: that's what the whole essay is about. But his question seemed to be suggesting that my self-awareness hadn't answered the question: it hadn't dissolved any problems, only illuminated them more fully.
What lies behind this feeling of being owed something by the authors we read? It was the sense of being called on for instructions – for hope, for a plan – that started to feel daunting; its futility no longer catalysing (my words can change something) so much as dispiriting (but they can't change much). Increasingly, I found myself called on to offer some kind of blueprint for what empathy itself might look like. I did a radio show with a famous psychologist who talked about his decades of research while I talked about my feelings, or thoughts I'd had in the shower. It felt false to be labelled an empathy expert. I felt more like a salesman. I felt distinctly unqualified.
There was a particular hypocrisy that attached to the fact that it was always empathy I was talking about. Empathy is all about otherness, but my relationship to empathy was largely about me – my book, my career. I usually passed the homeless man who stood near my subway stop without giving him anything, because I was always in a rush: heading to the airport, or a photo shoot, or some radio studio downtown; I needed to get somewhere and talk to someone about caring for everyone. At Newark airport, in New Jersey, snapping a photo of my book I'd found in the airport bookstore, I kept backing up to get a better crop and I nearly knocked over a woman with a cane. What would I have said? Excuse me while I injure you, I'm just trying to get a better angle on my empathy book vanity shot.
The unanswered notes in my inbox stopped feeling like affirmation and started feeling like proof of a certain abiding hypocrisy: all the people I wasn't engaging with as I went around singing the praises of engagement.
"Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession," Milan Kundera writes. "The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!" We love to feel ourselves loving strangers – or, at the very least, considering the ways we might love them more. But in the end, it's not about the stars in my inbox, reminding me to respond, or even my guilt about those stars, or my guilt about the money I didn't give, or the advice I couldn't offer. It's about the people who looked me in the eye – in Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Kalamazoo – and said: this gave me permission to talk about what hurt. To them, I say: thank you for making my confession larger than itself.
• Leslie Jamison discusses The Empathy Exams (Granta) with Olivia Laing on Tuesday at 7pm, London Review Bookshop, London W1A.
I chatted with a former professional essay writer and I shared most of her views. These are her confessions and I hope you enjoy the read.
I considered myself to be great in writing essays, so maybe I could finally benefit from that talent. I applied for a position as an essay writer for Best Essays and a few days after I got it, I decided to quit my office job for a marketing firm.
With time, the enthusiasm dropped and I realized that professional writing services had an undermining effect on today’s educational system. I read a publication in The Atlantic once and the article made a huge impact: now I’m out of that industry and I’m already an ESL teacher, I thought to share a few of my findings.
Initial Impressions: It Was Great To Be An Essay Writer.
At first, I believed I was helping students become better writers. They were going to use my content as foundation for their own research, and they would develop the ideas further. Truthfully, some went ahead to become better writers themselves, improving on their content and research abilities, but some just made seeking professional writing a habit.
I have to say the company I worked for did not convince students to buy papers there. It was strictly their own decision, and we were providing the products they asked for.
Why Students Need Essay Services
Maria, one of the first customers I worked for, needed a review of The Count of Monte Cristo. She told me she liked reading, but the volume of work the professor imposed was too much. I remember what she said: “If I read and analyze all these books, when will I find time for the other papers? When will I study for the exams?” That was a genuine concern.
Robert, another student I remember, liked the work I delivered, so he specifically requested my assistance for several other projects. As he explained, he didn’t want to go to college in the first place, but he had to deal with the great expectations of his successful parents.
Students have many reasons for using an essay writing service. Some of them are lazy; others are too busy or have poor time-management skills; some are parents; others have a part-time job; and most of them have no idea how to write academic papers. Most of the students who buy papers online are non-native English speakers from Eastern Europe and Asian countries, but Americans and Australians also place many orders. The percentages of males and females in the base of customers are almost the same (52% are male and 48% are female). Interestingly, 65% of the first-time users returned to buy more papers.
College students are not the only ones who need essays as 40% of the customers are between 25 and 34 years old. MA and PhD candidates also need assistance with writing a dissertation or a thesis paper and that in itself, isn’t a bad thing.
The Problems With The Academic Writing Industry
I noticed a few glitches in the system. Now the work for a writing agency is very flexible. A writer can take as much work as they can handle. The pay is never a problem; as long as you work well, you get good money.
One day, as I logged into my profile, I noticed there were no orders delegated to me. I contacted the superior to ask if there were any available projects, and I got an answer I didn’t expect. The website’s positions in Google search results dropped. The competition built links to our website under misleading anchor text, such as “porn essay” or “payday loan.” Since Google can ban sites from niches like payday loans, gambling, and porn, black hat marketers are often building such links with the goal to get competitive websites banned.
The company managed to take those bad backlinks down, and the website was back in business. After some time, there was another incident that showed how corrupt online marketers could get. I got a request for revisions. I had been working with the student before and he was happy with the work I delivered. This time, he was furious about the bad quality he received. We exchanged a few messages before I realized; that paper was not written by me. The competitors had created an identical website with a very similar domain name, and tricked our loyal customers to order papers there. They got plagiarized content and no refunds. That was a shame.
During the high seasons (fall and spring), there are almost 7,000 people looking to buy papers online, monthly. The keyword planner marks the competition for this keyword as “low” because these services don’t have access to advertising campaigns. Google banned such adverts back in 2007. Regardless of that action, the essay writing niche is still very competitive and growing stronger than ever. Its little wonder competitors are using whatever means necessary to gain mileage.
The situation with the scamming service presenting a plagiarized paper as something I wrote was the drop that spilled the cup. I realized I could help students do better with their tasks through other means, hence the career change. Now, I’m working as an ESL teacher.
Many would say that the essay writing niche is unethical and I would agree. But I believe these essay providers can devise a means to help students actually become better at writing and carrying out their academic goals or assignments. It may seem as a bad business strategy, but it is value added.
It was an interesting experience, to say the least. I enjoyed researching and writing, and I focused on the fact that I was learning something new every single day. However, I can help students become better professionals in a different way.