Sue William Silverman’s memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton), is also a Lifetime Television original movie. Her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the AWP award in creative nonfiction. She teaches in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her most recent book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, published with the University of Georgia Press (see video book trailer at http://tinyurl.com/csekan). As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on The View, Anderson Cooper 360, and CNN Headline News. For more about Sue, please visit www.suewilliamsilverman.com.
Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir is a guidebook for people who want to take possession of their lives by putting their experiences down on paper. Enhanced with illustrative examples from many different writers as well as writing exercises, this guide helps writers navigate a range of issues from craft to ethics to marketing and will be useful to both beginners and more accomplished writers.
The rise of interest in memoir recognizes the power of the genre to move and affect not just individual readers, but society at large. Sue Silverman covers traditional writing topics such as metaphor, theme, plot, and voice, but also includes chapters on trusting memory and cultivating the courage to tell one’s truth in the face of forces–from family members to the media–who would prefer that people with inconvenient pasts and views remain silent.
Silverman draws upon her own personal and professional experience to provide an essential resource for transforming life into words that matter. Fearless Confessions is an atlas that contains maps to the remarkable places in each person’s life that have yet to be explored.
Please enjoy this exclusive interview with Sue Silverman. Feel free to post your comments and questions for Sue, as she will be popping in throughout the day to reply!
(Interview by: Mary Jo Campbell)
MJC: Obviously, a memoirist needs to recall their past from memory or recorded documentation (diaries, letters, etc.) But, how beneficial is journaling in the life of all writers: memoirist or non-memoirist?
Sue: Journaling can certainly be beneficial in terms of recalling dates, specific facts and details. However, it is not a prerequisite!
I’ve never kept a journal. I figure I’ll recall enough about the most important events. And, for me, the best way to recollect the details of these events is to submerge myself in sensory imagery.
For example, say I want to write about a birthday party in sixth grade. Maybe I remember some broad brushstrokes of the party but can’t recall as many details as I’d like. In order to do so, I begin by asking myself the following: what did the birthday party sound like, taste like, feel like, look like, smell like?
By focusing on the five senses, it’s amazing how many seemingly “lost” details we remember! In other words, by concentrating, I try to “re-enter” scenes, submerge myself in any given past experience, and see where that leads me.
MJC: When writing a memoir, beginners (as well as experienced writers) may become caught up in getting every detail correct. How important is this, especially in the aftermath of James Frey’s “memoir” becoming reclassified as fiction?
SUE: There is no way you can get every detail correct! That isn’t even the aim or goal of a memoir. A memoir is based on one’s (always faulty) memory. Readers know memory is imperfect.
In short, a memoir is not an academic treatise. It’s not journalism. It’s not supposed to be. The only requirement is not to break the contract with the reader—as James Frey did by deliberately misleading through invention. What he did is not acceptable. If, however, you’re recalling events to the best of your ability, then the reader knows this, understands this, and accepts it.
MJC: Can your book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir be a reference for non-memoirists, as well? If so, how can creative non-fiction and fiction writers benefit from the information you provide?
SUE: Yes, I think Fearless Confessions can also be helpful to fiction writers, as well as to writers of other forms of creative nonfiction—such as personal essays, etc.
In all these forms, to varying degrees, a writer implements plot, scene, sensory description, metaphor, voice, character development. My book explores all of these craft issues. And, in both fiction and creative nonfiction, the characters (or personas) need to be fully realized and something has to happen!
But the book also deals with issues mainly relevant only to creative nonfiction writers—such as the use of reflection or how to craft your everyday voice into a literary voice, even as you tell your own story.
MJC: As a teacher to young adult writing students, I’m always encouraging them to dig deeper in their narratives, as well as their fiction. What advice can you offer to teachers of creative writing and the students?
SUE: I would emphasize that writing is a process, usually a slow process. If you’re taking piano lessons, you don’t sit down the first month or even the first year and play Mozart.
Likewise, with writing, be patient with yourself. Everything I write needs a gazillion drafts. It is only through these drafts that I discover the depth of any given work. Writing is really all about revision. Here is where the depth of any given narrative is discovered. It took me five years to write Love Sick, six months to write a 16-page essay!
MJC: Teaching memoir in a classroom must be sacred. How do you as an instructor establish the safe haven needed for students to develop and share their stories with their peers?
SUE: I teach at the low-residency MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I hope I establish a level of trust more by example than anything else. Teachers need to learn to listen as well as speak. For me, I try to listen to what any given student needs from me. I also let students know that all their stories are important.
I don’t try to impose my will on a student. Art is subjective; I hardly have all the answers. We’re all writers—students and teachers—all still learning a lot about the process, the craft.
My job as a teacher is to guide—not to judge. How can I best help a student find his or her voice or story? What can I do to help a student fully realize any particular work? If students know I care, then I think they feel safe.
MJC: In a culture of personal information becoming mainstream via social medias such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Reality TV, how do you see the memoir genre growing? Do you think publicizing “all for the world to see” makes us more empathetic towards each other or just creates a Pandora’s box to be malicious?
SUE: Both! Some critics love to attack memoirists and call us, for example, navel gazers. Others fully recognize the importance of the personal narrative and understand how it can make us more empathetic.
Even though the naysayers can make me angry (and I write about this in chapter 9 of Fearless Confessions), my sense is that the public can’t get enough of memoir. Readers find our stories useful—in a really good way. I receive hundreds of emails from people thanking me for telling their stories, too.
So let’s keep writing. After all, everyone has a story to tell. And all our stories are important.
MJC: What’s next for Sue Silverman? Please tell us about your upcoming appearances and projects.
SUE: For a list of my blog tour and other events, please check out my website at www.suewilliamsilverman.com.
I am close to finishing another work of creative nonfiction—related essays—called The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White, Anglo-Saxon Jew. And that’s pretty much what it’s about!
Thank you, Sue, for a wonderful interview!