Confessing and confiding are overlapping concepts, like envy and jealousy, often used interchangeably, but distinct at their cores. The fundamental difference between them is that a confession, in the word’s historical, nonliterary sense, is addressed to some entity—God, the court, the public, a person one has wronged. That entity or person holds the power to condemn, punish, absolve, or forgive. The receiver of a confidence, on the other hand, can comfort or chide or laugh or weep in sympathy with the confider, but has no true authority over him. Confidences are offered to equals, or at least the offering and acceptance of a confidence places the two parties involved on equal terms. Confessions can be coerced; confidences are intrinsically voluntary.

A confidence will often contain a confession at its heart, but in this context the confession loses its charge, like a deactivated bomb. What remains is poignancy. Confessions are by nature intense, sometimes disruptive of social order. Confidences are gentler, and tend to reinforce it. Even gossip, it’s often said, serves as a bonding agent.

After a memoirist completes a memoir, the past remains. Even if he somehow managed to extrude an exact replica of his past (and how could that be put into words, and who would want to read it?), the original would still be there inside him. Actually, the phrase “there inside him” concedes too much: his past constitutes him. It is him. He can’t, strictly speaking, get it out, or if he does, it can only be a version—a distortion—of the thing he wanted to get out. He can’t remove even a piece of it without threatening the integrity of the whole, because the elements of personal history are connected to one another. There’s no way to lift a portion out cleanly; it can only be torn loose, shreds of context still attached. A confiding writer is less likely to violate the truth of his own history than a confessional writer, if only because his claim on it tends to be more modest. Often, he is interested not so much in getting it out as in displaying it to illustrate some observation that the reader is invited to consider in the light of his own experience.

When we confide in a friend, we are, among other things, soliciting an outside view, a corrective to self-blindness. So too the writer depends on the internalized reader as a check against the notorious temptations of an intensely subjective genre—self-mythification, self-dramatization, self-justification, self-pity. In the process of accommodating the questions that he imagines a reader might ask, a writer may also examine his own motives, raise moral issues, explore philosophical implications, make sociological observations. Because the confiding mode is not goal directed in the way confession is, it allows great space and leisure for speculation.

This is the great distinction of the confiding writer—that in his work he recognizes himself as the stable occupant of the home of the self. Instead of getting anything out, he invites the reader in.

From Emily Fox Gordon’s “Confessing and Confiding,” The American Scholar, Spring 2015