One question comes up time and again about my personal writing: “Aren’t you embarrassed?”

A few years ago brash, sensationalist personal essays were booming, but good first-person writing has much to teach us about suffering, forgiveness and redemption.

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I think a lot about a question people have asked me many times in different ways  throughout the past ten years. It’s an inherently rude question really, but rarely intended to be. Some people even seem to mean it as a kind of compliment. The question is, “Aren’t you embarrassed?”

They ask this after reading something personal I’ve written, about things that were at one time secrets. “You’ll regret this,” a male colleague once commented ominously beneath an essay I wrote about abortion. An ex-boyfriend advised me against publishing a piece that explored how experiencing rape had shaped my sexual proclivities. Though it was well written, he said, I might one day meet a man I wanted to marry, and he or his parents could read the essay and be upset by it. I wouldn’t want to marry anyone like that, I thought.

I hate the term “confessional”, as do most writers the term is used to describe. Who’s to say that what I write about are sins, and to whom am I assumed to be confessing? I have struggled with my place in the culture of first-person essay writing, as I emerged at the same time as the “first-person industrial complex” – when brash personal essays were a booming new currency in online writing. Sites including Jezebel and xoJane were pumping out stories revealing their authors’ worst tendencies or most private unresolved traumas, with headlines such as “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” and “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad”.

They were very often poorly written by inexperienced writers who hadn’t had time to develop any taste. I didn’t think of myself as one of them, but the whole conversation made me feel weary and bored. I didn’t want to waste time arguing with myself or others about the value of exposing one’s private and inner life to a reader. I began to think instead that there was simply good and bad writing no matter the form, a conclusion I still agree with.

This week, though, I had cause to think again about the intrinsic value of self-revelation as I read the remarkable 2018 essay collection Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. Edited by Roxane Gay, it is full of astonishing and artful candour, tragedies without redemption but somehow not without hope. Days later I came across a moment of great grace in the journalist and actor Rhik Samadder’s funny, acerbic, sad memoir I Never Said I Loved You. In a letter addressed to his childhood abuser, Samadder writes, “I learned some things about you and they didn’t make me feel better. That’s been hard to make peace with, the fact that not all of this story is about me. The brutality that brought you to that place… If there is a light in me, there is one in you too, and I have to believe that about myself.”

These books remind me that there is a certain generosity particular to first- person non-fiction. This kind of writing has the power not only to resonate with those who have experienced similar traumas, but also to help us understand the universality of suffering.

In a way, the knowledge that we are surrounded by the suffering of others is so trite as to be rendered little more than a fridge magnet motto. “Hurt people hurt people,” talk show hosts tell us plaintively. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” said Plato, apparently (in fact it was the Scottish preacher Ian Maclaren in 1897): this wisdom is available to buy in the form of gaudy graphic posters, as part of a living-room decor theme I can’t conceive of.

We may pay lip service to this concept, but we do not live as though it’s true, and understandably so. Who has the time, mental space or unlimited compassion constantly and truly to realise that everyone you encounter has probably endured great pain? It’s even more difficult to be perennially aware that those who cause you pain have themselves suffered too, and more difficult still to forgive them.

We often understand forgiveness as an absence of anger, or a feeling of goodwill, towards the person who has harmed us. But if forgiveness is to mean anything, it must be extended to those who have harmed us beyond any possible reparation. As the Spanish philosopher Manuel Cruz wrote in “The Past as a Territory of a Conflict”: “When we begin to practise forgiveness, one of the first things that often surprises us is that others do not understand. ‘But how could you forgive that?’ we often hear. At such moments we begin to see the difference in perspectives: those third parties view reproach from a point of view (ie that of a legitimate right we held and are now giving up) that has little or nothing to do with the nature of forgiveness.”

Forgiveness doesn’t mean befriending someone who has hurt us, and nor does it mean justifying their wrongdoing by imagining what suffering is hidden in their unknowable past. The state of generalised sensitivity to suffering, which I felt being brought out of me when I read Not That Bad and I Never Said I Loved You, means something more like forgiveness of the world.

Cruz wrote in the same article: “Maybe the times we live in don’t really allow us to have high hopes. But for precisely this reason, hope floods our minds with an intensity, with a force, even with a drama, that should drive us to commit to the future.”

The world we live in, when we can bear to look at it, is made up of suffering of every imaginable kind, stacking and spreading like cells. It may seem harder, at first, to live in the world when it is seen in this way – but then it becomes easier. Forgiving that world for existing, for allowing the person who has hurt you to come into being, is the kind of forgiveness that first-person writing can suggest, an attempt towards something better than we truly are.

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 06 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war