Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Author Interview: Sue William Silverman on Memoir Writing
Sue William Silverman's newest book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir, reads like a memoir about writing memoir – and that's exactly what the accomplished and respected nonfiction writer had in mind when she decided to do a book about writing craft. Silverman’s first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the AWP award in creative nonfiction, and her second, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction was made into a Lifetime Television original movie. She teaches in the low-residency MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, speaks frequently at writer's conferences – where I've had the pleasure of being in the audience, furiously scribbling notes and nodding my head -- and has appeared as a guest expert on The View, CNN and many other venues.
I'm pleased that Sue agreed to answer my questions. [Note – we are also giving away a copy of the book and Sue is also stopping by this blog several times today to answer any questions readers ask in the comments – see below.]
LR: Your book is filled with writing exercises. What role do these kind of stretching opportunities and experimentation play in your own work?
SWS: Exercises are beneficial because they focus on one specific craft issue at a time. They’re less daunting than thinking about a whole book, or even an entire essay. I can think, “okay, right now, this is all I have to tackle: this one exercise.” It’s a kind of a playful (not intimidating) way to proceed with a piece of writing. Then, what I learn in this short exercise, I can bring to bear on the larger work. In many ways, exercises are prompts to get us going.
LR: There are so many forms of nonfiction, but I've seen writers force themselves and struggle to emulate the more literary memoirs. Advice?
SWS: There are different ways to explore a life narrative. Sure, you can write about your life in journal form, or as a diary—a document meant for your eyes only. Or, say, you can write a family history, something for your children or grandkids. In these instances, of course, simply tell the story straight: this is what happened to me...let me tell you my story. Period. With these kinds of documents, metaphor and other literary devices aren’t necessary. There’s no pressure to force the manuscript into a literary form.
If, however, you want to write literary nonfiction, then it is incumbent upon the author to structure the material, deepen it with metaphor and reflection. You are shaping life into art.
But rather than feel pressured to do so, most writers, I hope, see this as a wonderful opportunity to study the craft of writing, to be able to engage in this journey of self discovery, to understand what the events in your life mean.
And I don’t mean to go off-message, but this leads me to think: why, really, do I write memoir? I write to solve “mysteries” about my life. It’s strange to think, but I don’t fully understand my life until I write it.
Which is a good thing! If we knew all the answers ahead of time, there’d be no reason to write our narratives. We write to find out what our stories mean—rather than merely state what we already know.
In short, if you are writing literary memoir, then my advice would be to stay with the material, keep peeling away those layers, like an onion, until you do discover the deeper layers of self and experience. This is a gift a writer gives herself! So, yes, my advice is to see this writing process as a gift—rather than pressure.
LR: Your book includes many published examples of exemplary nonfiction. How much of a writer's developing craft depends on reading and examination of masterful work?
SWS: Reading well-crafted literature is essential. Absolutely. I can't imagine writing without reading. One of the appendices in Fearless Confessions, by the way, has a long creative nonfiction reading list, divided into categories, by subject matter. There is a fairly extensive list of my nonfiction reading recommendations here.
LR: You've described the book as a "memoir about writing memoir". How does this work technically in the book? Why this tone and structure?
SWS: Yes, rather than write what I would consider an academic textbook (which would have put me to sleep during the writing of it—and you to sleep during the reading of it!), I invite the reader along on my own writing journey.
I teach by example: this is what I struggled with as a writer; this is what I ultimately learned; let me share it with you.
So while I address important craft issues such as theme, plot, character development, voice, metaphor, etc., the voice itself of Fearless Confessions is intimate and friendly, not dry or academic. I wanted the book to be informal and inviting. In this way, then, it could be called a memoir about what I learned through the writing and publishing of two memoirs.
LR: Regarding nonfiction I often tell writers, "readers don't care about you, they care what your story says about them," and so I was excited to see that this seems to be at the center of your discussion about how nonfiction makes a contribution to the reader, and to the world. Can you talk a bit about that and what the writer must understand about this seemingly paradoxical truth?
SWS: Yes, that's exactly right! If, say, in my first book, I just whined and complained and wanted the reader, basically, to feel sorry for me because my father sexually molested me, well, really, the reader wouldn't feel sorry for me! Sure, my therapist and best friend would care, but a general reader would not care.
If, however, through metaphor, reflection, use of sensory imagery, plot, and the development of a literary voice, you artfully bring the reader inside the experience, then they care about you; you have discovered a way for them to feel your experience in a tangible and visceral way.
When I write about recovering from incest or sexual addiction, I’m also writing about loss, alienation, identity. Aren’t these universal themes to which most anyone can relate? So by casting light on my story, I’m hopefully helping others better understand their own.
In short, the more you craft your real-life story into art, the more the reader engages in it, identifies with it. It is paradoxical, as you say, but that’s how art works!
LR: Many would-be memoirists (or personal essayists) are nearly crippled by the idea of not having "permission" or "the right" to tell stories which include others – loved ones, former friends, relatives, acquaintances. I've been puzzled at times too. Your advice?
SWS: The memoirist James McBride says, “Fear is a killer of good literature.” So, yes, I agree with you that many memoirists, or would-be writers, are afraid of committing their stories to paper. And while I understand this fear—especially since it took me many years to overcome it myself—I would still urge beginning memoirists to write anyway—regardless of the fear.
One way to overcome it, at least initially, is to pretend to write just for yourself, ignoring (as much as possible) the fact that others might one day read your story. For me, while writing, I always pretend no one else will ever see my work. And, in any event, it’s my choice whether I’ll ultimately share it with anyone or not.
I tell myself I’m writing this book, first and foremost, because I must. Which is true. The act of writing, itself, is of primary importance. This is where the spirituality of artistic endeavor resides. Focus on the words, themselves, during the creation process. Worry about the outside world later.
In order to be creative and fully engage in the process, writers must give themselves permission to set aside the fear about what the outside world might think. Remember, we own our own stories! Our stories belong to us. As writers, they are ours to write.
LR: You talk about the writer having two voices, the Innocent Voice (from the past, at the time of the remembered events) and the Voice of Experience (present day, through lens of reflection). Can you talk about being aware of which is which, how to make transitions between the two, and when each may be appropriate?
SWS: Yes, in Fearless Confessions I developed the idea of how every memoir needs two voices in order to fully explore your experience, fully capture your persona on the page.
One aspect of yourself is conveyed in what I call the Voice of Innocence. Here, using this voice, you relate the facts of the story— the surface events in the past that actually happened. It’s the voice that portrays the raw, not-yet-understood emotions associated with the story’s past action: How you felt, what you did at the time the events actually occurred.
For the Voice of Experience, on the other hand, imagine the writer “you,” now, sitting at your desk writing, trying to make sense of these events that happened to you years earlier. It’s a more mature voice that deepens the Voice of Innocence with reflection and metaphor. It’s a more complex viewpoint that interprets the surface subject.
Using these two voices you are showing, in effect: This is what happened to me in the past; this is how I now, with more wisdom, feel about it looking back.
In terms of when to use any given voice, a lot of that is trial and error, in that there are no hard-and-fast rules as to when to use one, when the other. Each memoir or essay we write will present its own challenges.
Generally speaking, however, these voices are very fluid. One page, one paragraph, even one sentence might incorporate both.
Within one brief section of Love Sick, for example, I use these two voices when describing a maroon scarf that once belonged to my married lover, but which he gave to me: “I press the scarf against my nose and mouth. I take a deep breath. The scent is of him—leaves smoldering in autumn dusk—and I believe it is a scent I have always craved, one I will always want. I don’t understand why the scent of the scarf seems more knowable, more tangible, than the rest of him.”
Here, I begin with the Voice of Innocence, providing factual and sensory details about the maroon scarf, romanticizing its scent of smoldering dusk. The raw (albeit unexplored) emotion I feel toward this man—who wraps such a magical scarf around my neck—must prove this is love. Doesn’t it?
“No,” the Voice of Experience implies, in that last sentence. Instead, the scarf embodies alienation and loneliness, as well as a need for comfort. I love the scarf because, as an addict, I don’t know how to love the man—and, more importantly, myself. This sober, authorial voice of experience guides the reader through the confusion of the addiction, depicting, over the course of the memoir, why I have self-destructive affairs with dangerous men.
In short, the Voice of Innocence conveys what happened: I press the scarf to my face, inhaling autumn dusk. The Voice of Experience examines what the author, sitting at her desk writing, understands about events now: The scarf is more knowable than the man. Ultimately, a writer’s exploration is more interesting than just the facts by themselves.
LR: Your new book includes many examples of how you solved many craft and technical challenges while shaping your memoirs. As you were writing this book and thinking back to those examples, did you learn anything new about your own writing process and craft?
SWS: Yes! That’s the thing about writing. It’s much easier for me to know what I think about something if I write about it. Certainly, too, I think it’s made me a better teacher. I teach at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, a low-residency MFA program, which is a great community of writers, by the way.
LR: Can you suggest a short writing exercise for any readers of this blog who may be stuck or struggling at the moment?
SWS: Well, you asked about that paralyzing fear would-be memoirists sometimes experience, which can actually prevent them from writing altogether. So here is a writing exercise from Fearless Confessions that might help.
“Who is the person whose potential reaction most scares you? Write him/her a letter, whether you send it or not. Tell this person all the reasons why you must write your story, why your story is important, why your voice must be heard and not forgotten…why you must write anyway.”
LR: That's a great one. Thanks for all your insights.
To be entered in the random drawing for a copy of Fearless Confessions, please leave a comment (and be sure there is a way for us to contact you) by midnight, September 1. In addition, Sue has agreed to drop by this blog several times today to answer questions – so post yours in the comment section too and check back at the end of the day for Sue's answers.
[Update: The "answers from Sue" part is now concluded, but anyone else can still leave a comment for a chance to win the book. If you don't win it - go buy it. I can't think of a better way to spend the money if you are serious about writing any kind of personal nonfiction.]