by Jerry Waxler
To help spread the word about the intimate, creative craft of memoir writing, I regularly network with other authors who are trying to do the same. Recently I found an energetic “memoir advocate” Sue William Silverman, author of an excellent how-to book for memoir writers, “Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir.” Silverman is a careful thinker, picking apart the process of memoir writing, intensely studying each part, and then not merely putting them back together but, showing the reader how to do it, too. I am impressed by the generosity with which she offers advice, insight, and enthusiasm. I love her treatment of metaphor, her thoughts about confession, and the excellent explanation of the difference between memoir and autobiography. When I finished reading “Fearless Confessions” I wanted more of her work.
Silverman has also published two award wining memoirs, and both at the leading edge of full-disclosure, gritty examples of the willingness of memoir authors to reveal their hidden worlds. One about child sexual abuse is called “Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You.” By writing about this topic, she has conquered one of the most daunting obstacles any memoir writer must face, revealing taboo parts of her life. (To see my review of the book click here.)
After reading Silverman’s how-to book for memoir writers, and her own memoir about child abuse, I spoke with her to gain further insight into her thoughts and feelings about sharing memories with strangers. Read Part 1 of this original author interview below.
To earn the right to share their stories in public, memoir writers need to write with a certain amount of style. In other words, sentences must be pleasing enough to propel a reader from page to page. I find your memoir about child-abuse, “Because I Remember Terror, Father” to be surprisingly compelling, in part because I enjoy your verbal imagery. You pour sensory information as if it were a painter’s palette.
Could you tell us about your own process of developing the writer’s art? What was your experience? What advice can you give aspiring writers so they can develop their own?
Sue William Silverman:
Thank you so much! This is high praise, indeed.
Before that first memoir was published, I read a lot of craft books, and I also received a Master of Fine Arts degree in a creative writing program. While that memoir is my first published book, I have many unpublished books (novels) lying around that will never see the light of day! But writing those books was not a waste of time. I was perfecting my craft. Paying my dues, as it were.
So my best advice is to understand that writing is a process—a slow process—which is true for all the arts. But ultimately the hard work pays off, and it’s worth it. While writing, then, be patient with yourself. But also know that your story is important! So you want to take the time and care in the writing of it, to make it the best book possible. It’s important to honor your story in this way.
I love the way you explain things in your book “Fearless Confessions.” For example, I found your explanation of the difference between an autobiography and a memoir to be one of the best I’ve seen. Your non-fiction voice is clear and helpful, and quite different from the lyrical storyteller’s voice in “Terror Father.”
Did you develop the two voices at the same time or two different parts of your life? Did you receive formal training in each of these voices?
I’m so pleased and relieved that you find the nonfiction voice in “Fearless Confessions” clear! Thank you!
And, you’re right: it is a much different voice from the one I use in my creative work. In fact, on some level, everything I write has its own voice.
That’s the interesting thing about voice! Many writing instructors tell beginning writers to “find their voice.” What I believe, however, is that each piece of writing needs its own voice. What is the sound of the voice that best fits the topic at hand?
In fact, each of my memoirs has, to some extent, a different voice as well. The voice in Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You is the voice or sound of a wounded girl. On the other hand, in Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, the voice is tougher, edgier—the voice of an addict. We all have many literary voices—just as we all have many different aspects of our personalities! The key is to discover the right voice for your subject matter.
When did you first realize you wanted to write about the disturbing experiences of child abuse?
Oh, good question! Well, for years I tried writing my true story as fiction—as novels. All those unpublished novels I mentioned are, on some level, about incest or sexual addiction.
But the novels didn’t work. For me, to fictionalize my story (trying to tell the truth—but not), made the voice sound emotionally unauthentic. After about ten or so years of this, I finally, at the urging of my therapist, switched to memoir, or creative nonfiction.
That’s not to say that other writers can’t tell their stories as novels or poetry. Many writers do just that—and do it brilliantly. For me, though, it didn’t work.
When did you first decide to share your story with the world?
Initially, I always write for myself, in that it’s easier if I “tell myself” that no one else will ever read what I’m writing. That takes some pressure off and allows me to be more emotionally authentic—not sugarcoating stuff.
That said, in the back of my mind, I also know that I will try to publish whatever I write. That’s what writers do! We send our work out into the world. Publishing is part of the process.
But that’s not to say that everyone has to try to publish. Not at all. The most important thing is the writing itself, getting the story down on paper.
Society trains us to hide certain things about ourselves, because to reveal them would be shameful. Shame is a powerful emotion that blocks many aspiring memoir writers. Your memoir of having been molested as a child offers an extreme example of revealing the type of material many victims of abuse intend to take to their grave. How were you able to overcome these silencing emotions of shame and fear, and expose your secrets?
The memoirist James McBride, author of “The Color of Water” says, “Fear is a killer of good literature.” And I think he’s right. It does take a lot to overcome it, to feel brave or courageous enough to know that it’s okay to tell your story. More than that: It’s crucial to tell your story.
For me—although of course this wouldn’t be true for everyone—I think I needed a few years of therapy to gather enough courage to speak my own truths. Then, ultimately (and ironically), it became easier to tell my truth than to use all that energy holding it back, staying silent.
Ultimately, I found that putting my story out there was rewarding and empowering! I receive many e-mails from readers, who, in effect, thank me for telling their story, too. That is a powerful message. After years of silence, I learn that I have a voice!