Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 20, Lawrence Lenhart, Toward an Unregulated Confessionalism: Prolegomenon to The Calling Party

Toward an Unregulated Confessionalism: 
Prolegomenon to The Calling Party

Lawrence Lenhart


With this sentence, I start a new essay.       Its concept is twelve years in the making.


Starting January 1, 2023, I will begin calling everyone in my phonebook. That's 431 calls total, or 1.18 per day for a year.

I am wary of this text [already] because it isn't mine. (Replace "text" with "life.")


How to begin writing a text for which I won't be the author? I stall by calling forth this prolegomenon.


My first false start was at a bonfire in 2015. I swiped through the digital rolodex as if it was a roulette wheel, and it landed on RM. I sputtered a bit before he hung up. Where I meant to break the seal, instead I soldered it shut.

"Each act of reading the 'text' is a preface to the next. The reading of a self-professed preface is no exception to this rule" (Spivak xii). Might someone, somewhere already be rereading the book I have not even begun writing?


The database is especially full of area codes in PA, OH, DE, AZ, and CA. My main milieus, strange avenues.  

This essay is no one's. Instead, "the text belongs to language, not to the sovereign and generating author" (Spivak, lxxiv).


I will call everyone, no exceptions: my best friend from the old neighborhood in Southwestern Pennsylvania; my old boss/lifeguard captain in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware; whoever picks up at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Akron, Ohio; my ex-fiancée's mom in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; my estranged and incarcerated cousin in Huntsville, Alabama; my son's best friend's mom's best friend in Flagstaff, Arizona.

    I will likely call you too.


In communication theory, the Johari window is a “self-awareness tool that helps us understand the differences between how people see us and how we see ourselves” (Kesgin).

Fig. 1. The Johari Window

Epistemologically, the blind spot is where I wonder what you know about the frequency of my voice or the swirl of hair on the back of my head. It is what you whisper about me when I leave the room, the state, this relationship.


How about a new slur for millennials? Now they call us Generation Mute. An article by Alex Jeffries begins, “Ring, ring! Who’s there? If you’re a millennial, you have no idea.” Studies report that seventy-five percent of millennials screen their calls due to apprehension anxiety.        Most contacts in my phonebook are millennials, meaning perhaps I’ll only reach 153 of you 

—at least initially. I will call back. I will get through.


Starting January 1, 2023, I will begin calling everyone in my phonebook. That's 431 calls total, or 1.18 per day for a year.

I probably have “telephonophobia” too but have irreversibly committed myself to this dare

, a self-administered immersion therapy.  

“I do not care so much what I am to others as I care what I am to myself” (Montaigne). But what if we are made through others?


I am calling…

  • because I miss you and thus, I miss myself.
  • because I’ve forgotten you and thus, I have forgotten myself.
  • because I fear you and thus, I fear myself.
  • because I’ve neglected you and thus, I have neglected myself.
  • because I love to hate you.

In “Son,” Forrest Gander writes, “I gave my life to strangers; I kept it from the ones I love.” 



The Johari window idealizes the open arena as a site of public self-awareness. Think autobiography or personal essay. To get to the arena, one should strive to eliminate the hidden self through disclosure; reduce their blind spots by soliciting feedback from others; and mitigate against the unknown through self-discovery. 

Fig. 2. Essay Genres in the Johari Window

I believe each panel of the Johari window corresponds to its own unique epistemic domain of life writing. Self-awareness can be likened to autobiography or the personal essay; disclosure to regulated confessionalism; and self-discovery to meditation/revelation á la speculative nonfiction. But what kind of essay can be written from within the so-called blind spot? 

To clarify, most confessionalism is regulated. An author carefully selects sensitive information from their personal history and discloses it in the essay. However, this process of selection belies the artifice of the confessional genre. Selective disclosure has as much to do with the disclosive tendency as it does the concealing one. 

The personal essay says, “Our engagement ended because we were much too young.” The confessional essay says, “I called off the engagement because I was a shithead.” The speculative essay says, “In another possible world, are we still together in a loving relationship?”

Within the blind spot, though, I must admit the ways in which I cannot see me. Instead, I solicit feedback, ask others for their testimonials. The essential difference between biography and heterobiography is the emphasis on alterity. Crowdsourced heterobiography represents a kind of unregulated confessionalism. It is conveyed through a valve from which I cannot stop the flow. Here in the blind spot, my secrets are unsafe with you.

The heterobiography says whatever it wants about me, directly to me. 


Other Crowdsourced Heterobiographies

1. Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present (MoMA; 2010) was a three-month performance in which the seated artist engaged in a mutual gaze with an audience of one thousand, most of whom were strangers, but also included friends, colleagues, and even a former lover (MoMa par. 3). 

My method—of reaching out to an audience of 431 people—addresses my writerly desire to be recognized as a writer by those who primarily exist outside of my artistic network. By inciting this encounter, I will momentarily, bureaucratically exist as an artist to each respondent. The consenting statement at the beginning of each call will include the following words: “this is for a new book project I’m working on.” This phrase will serve as a loose reminder that I am a writer. However, I will immediately cede that role as I coax my audience into the text-making. 

Q: Is it the public backdrop of MoMa that renders the seated artist as art? Is Abramović, later seated in her private apartment, inherently artless? A: Heterobiography begins at the turnstile, with the breach, in the gaze returned to sender. Only when the audience is present is her alterity ensured.

2. Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers employs structured interview to elicit responses to a set of twelve questions. The questions are posed to woman of Indian descent living in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. She then re-arranges the responses in docu-poetic collage. In her own prolegomenon, she writes:
—The project as I thought it would be:
an anthology of the voices of Indian women.
                              . . .
—The project as I wrote it: a tilted plane.
I have routinely referred to this as my favorite book.

3. Joseph Bradshaw calls Noah Eli Gordon’s Inbox a “reverse memoir, an autobiography composed using only others’ words.” Inbox is avowedly “uncreative writing” (Goldsmith), a copy-paste job that literally re-presents every email in the “author’s” inbox on September 11, 2004, arranged in reverse-chronological order. 

Gordon is nowhere and everywhere to be found in the manuscript. “Nowhere” as in this book was “written” with a mouse and not a keyboard. “Everywhere” as in Gordon is the book’s sole addressee. It is, above all, a heterobiography of the writer in thrall to “dinky pobiz stuff.” 

4. For The Last Interview, David Shields transcribed the 2,700 interview questions asked of him over the past forty years. Through a regimen of rewriting, editing, and remixing the questions, he arrives at an anti-memoir of sorts. According to the jacket copy, “the result is a lacerating self-demolition in which the author—in this case, a late-middle-aged white man—is strangely, thrillingly absent.” This is at least a conceptual solution to the existential question posed in the advice column, “Should White Men Stop Writing?” (The Blunt Instrument).    


I have made myself a slim deck of cards…

… to shuffle as the phone rings.


You think; therefore, I am.        I am building a new kind of answering machine. (This is not about posterity.) 

What then to do with the data of 431 phone calls? 

I will use a call recorder (Rev), transcription service (otter.ai), data analytics software (Dedoose), word processor (MS Word), and digital sound workstation (GarageBand) to create an audio-biography, a composite anti-memoir in the second-person comprised of my concatenated acquaintances. 

Derrida’s différance indicates both difference in and deferral of meaning.


Through différance, “meaning is disseminated across the text and can be found only in traces, in the unending chain of signification” (Mambrol).


The Calling Party is a collective heterobiography that signals the death of compartmentalization. A fuzzy feedback arena. 


One may choose to listen by area code/milieu. Or filter by theme. To hear all responses to, “What would be a fitting way for me to die?”  in succession, by toggling to Q13. There’s a randomizer too that produces a new text each time it is refreshed, resulting in a collage of sound bites. When I press that button on January 1, 2024, the resulting text will be the basis for the official codex for The Calling Party.  


If I’m being honest, parts therapy proved I was ready to write this book. Of course, it was never about the fear of confronting 431 others, but instead the fear of confronting 431 selves. 

Here I am, trying to reintegrate.

To survive the daily force field of complex PTSD, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, alcoholism, dyshidrotic eczema, insomnia, sleep paralysis, and auditory processing disorder.    

Internal Family Systems (IFS) says there is a family of sub-personalities within me, that I am my own psychic ecology. I am an only child; and yet I know how to brother and sister as I parent my kids. I mother even as I father. 

I am Lawrence and Larebear, professor and “dude,” normie and edgelord, Hilfiger and Hot Topic, devoted family guy and chronic bachelor, homebody and wanderer, etc.

The premise of IFS is that the sub-personalities are internally conflicted with the “core Self,” a phrase that makes me blush.   

The core Self smacks of personal essaying. If I am skeptical of the personal essay, it’s because I am equally skeptical (read: jealous) of the spectacle of the “core Self” supposedly anchoring it

For now, all I have are my sub-personalities. Subterranean, they must be called forth from the blind spot—by a therapist, exorcist, or you through this crowdsourced heterobiography. Please pick up.

Lawrence Lenhart is the author of The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage (Outpost19), Backvalley Ferrets: A Rewilding of the Colorado Plateau (UGA: Crux), and Of No Ground: Small Island/Big Ocean Contingencies (WVU: In Place). With William Cordeiro, he wrote Experimental Writing: A Writer's Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury, forthcoming). His prose appears in journals like Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, Passages North, and Prairie Schooner. He is Associate Chair of English at Northern Arizona University and Executive Director of the Northern Arizona Book Festival.


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