MEMOIRIST SUE WILLIAM SILVERMAN’S GUIDE FOR MEMOIR WRITING IS HOT OFF THE PRESS THIS MONTH. FEARLESS CONFESSIONS IS IMMENSELY USEFUL AND ABSORBING. ITS TONE IS WARM, PATIENT, HELPFUL AND REASSURING, AND IT IS ITSELF AN EXAMPLE OF ITS LESSONS — IT READS LIKE A MEMOIR ABOUT WRITING MEMOIR AND IS QUITE PLAYFUL AS IT GOES ABOUT HELPING PROSPECTIVE WRITERS IN THE GENRE.I ENJOYED MY RECENT PHONE AND EMAIL INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, WHOSE WORK AND THOUGHTS ABOUT THE MEMOIR GENRE WE POSTED IN WRITING IT REAL IN 2003. IT IS A PLEASURE TO LEARN MORE FROM THIS SKILLED AND FEARLESS WRITER.
Sue, your book allows its readers to identify with the needs, longings and passions of the memoir writer and then adds in helpful exercises, resources and model memoir essays by many fine writers. And you do it all in 229 pages. It provides a very thorough background in memoir writing and details ways to increase your craft and the depth of your writing, as well as publish, market and promote it.
How do you think you accomplished all of this?
Thank you! It’s lovely to hear such a positive reaction to the book.
I think it’s possible for information to be straightforward and simple — without being simplistic. I’m not, by nature, an academic — not even close — so I try not to over-think or over-explain or get into rambling, philosophical discussions about writing.
I wrote this book the way I myself learn: by focusing on the essence of each element (plot, voice, metaphor, etc.), and then providing clear examples. The book is basically a step-by-step journey through the process of writing and publishing a memoir.
Additionally, I teach at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) so, over the years, I’ve learned, from my terrific students, what works best when teaching memoir or creative nonfiction.
How did you figure out that in addition to teaching students you wanted to write this book?
A few years ago, one of my students at VCFA suggested I write a craft book based on the lectures I presented at the residencies. Initially, however, the idea didn’t appeal to me because I worried I wouldn’t know how to make such a book interesting. Just to write a kind of academic or generic “how to” book sounded dull to me.
Subsequently, at a conference at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), I was talking to the director of the University of Georgia Press, who published my first memoir, and I asked her, very informally, what kinds of books they were currently publishing. She responded by saying something to the effect that they were interested in craft books.
So without even thinking, I simply opened my mouth and announced that I could write one on memoir. Would she be interested, I asked? Well the rest, as they say, is history.
Except for the very important fact that I did have to figure out a way that I could write such a book and make it personal! A craft book also needs a voice, and I wanted the voice to be intimate, not academic.
As you mentioned, it is, in many ways, a memoir about writing memoir. In other words, that was my goal: to personalize this book while still getting all the nuts and bolts in there, too.
I think we should all be so fortunate to have opportunity present itself. I am certainly one reader who is glad you blurted out the idea for this craft book. Your last chapter, “Confessional and (Finally) Proud of It,” offers a necessary acknowledgment we don’t often find. You provide a wonderful defense of writing personal stories and a description of their value to others.
Thank you! In many ways the book’s previous chapters build toward that defense of the memoir.
Can you tell us a little about how you structured your book?
First, I talk about how I found the courage to even begin a memoir. Next, I examine how, step by step, I learned about the various components needed to write: how to create your world through sensory imagery; how to focus the memoir with a clear theme; how to discover plot, voice, metaphor, etc. From there, I offer a chapter on publishing and marketing — or what to do after you finish writing the book.
And then, yes, I examine the ways memoir, as a genre, is viewed once it’s out in the world.
In short, the arc of Fearless Confessions moves from a very internal place in the writer’s process, before journeying toward an external or “outer” place.
It’s more helpful for readers of the book, I think, to focus on what they need to do first in terms of writing and finding the courage to write…before considering the outside world. Always better to first have the words down on paper. Worry about outside reactions later!
Let me hasten to add, however, that even as we might worry about reactions from family, friends, etc., it’s also crucial to remember that your memoir will help countless people who are, of course, total strangers!
Confessional stories have the power to help people change their lives.
I think so, too. I always tell students that you must write what you have in you to write and when the piece is finished you can begin to think about the “dangers” of publishing it and what you will do — and often, by the time a piece is done, the truth and beauty in it persuade the writer that it is in fact a good idea to publish it.
Back to your craft suggestions: you write about shaping your story and deepening your plot. What is the most basic lesson memoirists have to learn about writing their stories?
One of the biggest misconceptions about memoir is that it’s a mere “retelling” of events in one’s life. Rather, memoir is, or should be, an examination of events: what do these events mean?
In Fearless Confessions, I talk about the use of two voices in memoir: The Voice of Innocence and the Voice of Experience (to loosely borrow from the poet William Blake). The first voice does relate to the basic narrative of the story, or what happened to you: “This happened to me and then this next thing happened.”
The Voice of Experience, on the other hand, offers a more mature examination of the events by exploring the progression of thought of the memoir. It adds a deeper, more internal, and reflective voice. It tries to understand what the events mean. It is this voice that asks the important question, “What are the metaphors of the experience?”
So, it’s this second voice that elevates “just a story” about a life to an artistic examination — in keeping with the best of poetry and fiction.
And as writer’s we have to trust that that second voice, that reason for developing a piece of work and sharing it, will surface. The chapter about being proud of confessional writing offers a real boost to those who feel they don’t have the right to tell their personal story or fear the wrath of others for telling it. Can you tell us something about how one overcomes this fear?
This is so personal. No one answer fits all. It’s important for each of us to discover our own comfort level when it comes time to reveal secrets.
For me, I overcome fear with a strong belief in the fact that I own my life — we all do — so as writers our stories belong to us, and are ours to tell.
I would never, then, ask anyone to vet my essay or memoir first, give me permission, as it were. I mean, of course I feel badly if something I write ends up hurting someone’s feelings. But ultimately I’m going to tell my story anyway. I must.
Besides, the focus of a memoir is always on the author — even as, of course, spouses, siblings, parents, and friends usually play a role. But I never write about another person from a place of revenge — only understanding. In fact, in Love Sick, for example, a memoir about recovering from sexual addiction, I’m much harder on myself than on anyone else. This focus on the author/narrator’s journey gives me a fairly secure feeling that I’m not going out of bounds.
In short, I simply have to write my stories.
Is that easier said than done? Sure. I just talked about “overcoming fear.” But that might be overstating it a bit. Sometimes I don’t overcome fear! But I push myself to write anyway… always write anyway, even if you’re afraid.
If we don’t tell our truths, then we stay stuck in that dark silence which, to me, is far scarier. By writing, I feel my own power.
What else do people fear about writing memoir?
From my experience, many memoirists also worry about whether their stories are important. Will anyone care?
Yes! Readers care. As intimate as memoir is, we’re not just telling a personal story in isolation. We’re writing about the human condition, aren’t we? Even if the readers haven’t had the same exact experience, they still “feel” another’s story in that basic, emotional way. By reflecting upon ourselves, we also conjure the stories of others.
One reason for this healthy explosion of memoir is because readers want confessional stories. Readers better understand their own lives by reading how you coped with adversity, what you learned from it. I receive hundreds of e-mails from people, mainly women, thanking me for telling, in effect, their story, too.
To help us understand what a successful memoir piece is, you have included fabulous model essays and a rewarding reading list of full-length memoir. How did you decide what titles to include?
Oh, it’s always tough to make those decisions. I wish there’d been room to include many more! In terms of the essays, I mainly wanted ones that closely reflected or represented the point I was making in any given chapter. Additionally, I wanted essays that exhibited as many different voices and subjects as possible. Memoir isn’t only writing about distressed childhoods or trauma, of course! I wanted to be sure readers know that whatever their story, their voice is important.
In terms of the reading list — well — that’s one big long list, isn’t it?! It’s a composite of books I’ve read, books that are recommended to me, books I’ve heard about. It’s very much an on-going project, and you can always check for an updated version on my website at www.suewilliamsilverman.com.
How generous. I know I’ll be checking frequently to add to my reading list!
Can you share a few words how writing the personal essay and book-length memoirs are different?
Even a full-length memoir is only a slice of a life — not a whole life. A personal essay, then, is an even smaller slice of a life. A memoir can follow one theme throughout an entire life, or it can go more deeply into a theme during a shorter time frame.
A personal essay, however, narrows that focus considerably. Oh, say, nature essays are personal essays. If you’re writing about a bear habitat in the wilds of Alaska, and how that affects you, that’s your focus. You wouldn’t need to include, for example, lots of background about your childhood, or even your personal life outside the theme of the nature essay. The story here is solely about you and nature.
Among your resources, you include the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). What does someone gain as an attendee at the annual conference?
The AWP is a professional conference for writers and teachers of writing, as opposed to a technical conference that offers feedback on one’s individual writing. There are hundreds of panels on pedagogy, on publishing, on trends in the various genres. It’s also a job fair and a book fair. It’s a great place to network with thousands of writers and teachers from all over the country.
Do you think non-teachers and non-academics can benefit from membership and attending the conference?
Yes, if you’re a writer — at whatever stage — you’ll have the opportunity to meet others just like you, who share the same interests and concerns. I attend it every year.
Do you have anything else to add?
I think we’ve covered a lot here! Thank you for such great questions. I might only add that I encourage all memoir writers (or would-be memoirists) to believe in their stories, to know they’re important! While of course it’s obvious to say this, still, I do want to emphasize that there really is only one you…and no one else can tell your story. Never doubt your truths! Yours can be a part of this wide-ranging chorus of voices.
Thank you so much for your time and wonderful answers. I know WIR readers will be excited to read and re-read your book and then eagerly get back to work on their personal stories. I know I am!