July 24, 2016

When Does Confessional Writing Cross the Line?

A conversation with several other writers sparked an interesting question: “if you write an essay about committing illegal acts, could you face criminal charges?”

I’m no lawyer, but I’m definitely a rule-follower, and my first thought was, “why the heck would you own up to something illegal and make that confession public?”
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that there are plenty examples of authors do this, both in memoir and essay form, and as far as I know, none of them been arrested as a result of what they wrote.
I’m sure this depends on the severity of the crime and how long ago it was. I can certainly see someone getting busted for over-sharing on a blog or Twitter if it was recent and really egregious. Plus, bloggers don’t have the benefit of a publisher’s legal team to advise on what details may cross the line. I can also see this happening in other parts of the world where someone’s political views or sexual orientation could endanger them.
I’m not encouraging anyone to commit a crime so they can write a tell-all essay or memoir, but I can certainly see why it would make deliciously readable material and why authors might want to ‘fess up as a form of therapy, a way to unburden themselves of guilt and painful secrets.
Here are a few examples:
All of these pieces have a raw poignancy to them (in fact, the first one made me cry), and I admire the authors for their honesty, even when it makes me uncomfortable. Still, I wonder about the answer to original question, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you read other confessional pieces like these? Have you heard of any authors or essayists facing charges for their writing? Do tell!


  1. NoPotCooking says:

    I think people feel an urge to talk about what they've done and writing provides an outlet. Seems to me you ought to post as Anon or just keep it to yourself if you're going to this though!

  2. MyKidsEatSquid says:

    I've wondered about this too. It seems like essays are becoming more and more intimate and revelatory and as they do revealing information–even on illegal actions is more common. Interesting question.

  3. Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi says:

    I've wondered as well, but couldn't imagine being so confessional myself even if I had something to be confessional about!

  4. The Writer's [Inner] Journey says:

    I believe there is a difference between intimate and boundary-less. I prefer the former, though it seems like the two are incorrectly viewed as the same.

  5. Alexandra says:

    This is such an interesting post! I have to think about it some more and come back with a response. I look forward to reading these essays. That first title is a douzy.

  6. Casey@Good. Food. Stories. says:

    That first linked piece was so heart-wrenching – the emotions it stirs up, thoughts of right and wrong and what we do for love, a story both thoughtful and thought-provoking – are why pieces like that SHOULD be written, damn the consequences.

  7. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart says:

    For me, I think it's different if it's part of a bigger narrative structure and story. The fear (for me as a blogger) is perhaps haphazardly revealing something to meet publishing demands, without really looking at possible consequences (mostly emotional ones) for those around me.

  8. Krissy Brady, Writer says:

    I appreciate those who have the courage to share such raw details of their lives, and I'm sure that discussing what happens via their writing brings a great deal of closure to them as well. My concern, if I were in their position, would be those who I include in those stories, and how telling the story might effect their lives, and how they're viewed. I'm sure, if done tactfully but with enough shock value to entice people to read, doing so could influence a lot of people.

  9. Living Large says:

    I've heard of people being charged with crimes based on what they've written on social media outlets. As someone who is writing a memoir in my blog, Living Large in our Little House, I can related to not sharing too much information (although we're not doing anything illegal). My life involves my husband, so I have to be careful to be sensitive to his privacy as well.

  10. Jennifer Margulis says:

    I read a painful essay in More by Joyce Maynard about how she cheated on her husband with his friend when their child was just an infant. She never told her husband but he had an affair with their eighteen yr old babysitter while Joyce was attending to her dying mother. The essay was an almost voyeuristic read and I felt sad and dirty and despairing after I read it. I guess I think writing worth reading must go beyond voyeurism, which confessional writing often does not. To this day I'm sorry I read that essay. It saddens me to think of her infant in a dresser drawer while she is making love to another man while her husband is taking advantage of the babysitter. Oy.

  11. ruth pennebaker says:

    Fascinating discussion here. I strongly agree with the concerns of other commenters about involving other people's stories in your free-for-all confessionals; don't they have a right to privacy? Also, when I feel the need to take a shower after reading something, I wonder what, exactly, was its point. Simply to shock?

  12. Kara Kelso says:

    I honestly believe how much you share of your personal life depends on the blog post, the blog, and the message you are trying to get across.

    For example, I've shared pieces of the struggle surrounding my Autism Spectrum son on my family blog. I get so passionate about some of the stories I tell, that some posts come out sounding like rants where you can almost see my tears. That's okay, though, because the post wouldn't mean as much if I didn't share our darkest moments and how we triumphed.

    I think if there is a purpose to the confession and it will benefit others in some way, then go for it. I also understand public confessions aren't for everyone, and that's okay, too.

  13. Jane Boursaw says:

    It's a tough one, for sure. I have some things I'd like to write about, but a few people are going to have to die first. No, that's not a threat – I just don't want to incriminate anyone!

  14. jcreaturetravel says:

    A very thought-provoking post. I have to admit that I wear my heart on my sleeve and would be one to confess in essays but I'd change all the names to not incriminate others.

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