More Q&A with Sue William Silverman on confessions, memoirs, and the art of writing

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

This is part two of an original Interview between Jerry Waxler and author Sue William Silverman. To read the first part, click here. Silverman is author of an excellent how-to book for memoir writers, “Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir.”

Jerry Waxler:
One of the strange and wonderful things about memoir writing is that it converts haphazard, chaotic memories into a coherent, “sensible” story. How did it feel when you first tried to reach back and search amidst those disturbing memories for a story? How did it feel to see the story coming together?

Sue William Silverman:
Yes, memoir writing is giving a coherent organization to a life!  Memoir, then, isn’t so much writing a life, but writing a slice of a life.  Each memoir needs to have its own theme, its own plot, its own narrowly defined storyline, as it were.

That’s why even though, in real life, there is a close relationship between the childhood incest and the adult sexual addiction, still, when it came to writing, these two subjects wouldn’t fit in one book.  As I mentioned above, the voice, in each, is different.

It really is empowering or exhilarating, while writing, to learn what any given event really meant.

JW:
What did it feel like after you published? Did you have periods of uncertainty, vulnerability, fear?

SWS:
Always! But the important thing is to write anyway.  Publish anyway.  Believe in yourself anyway.  I guess I’ve learned to accept having contradictory feelings at the same time.

In other words, I can be full of doubt, yet know that I still have to write, still have to publish.

JW:
Is there anything you wish you could have done or said differently? (regrets, remorse, after-shock?)

SWS:
Oh, probably a ton of things.  I’d probably even like to revise everything I’ve ever written!  But, you know, what’s done is done. And there’s always another book or essay or poem to write.

JW:
Trauma researchers like Judith Herman and Sandra Bloom have written about the collective amnesia and denial that tries to suppress a public awareness of sexual abuse and other traumatic memories. I believe memoirs, such as yours are launching an assault on this denial. That puts you on the frontline, facing the counter-forces that try to stop confessions, to blame the victim, to reduce credibility and so on. What can you tell aspiring memoir writers to help prepare them for this kind of backlash?

SWS:
Write anyway!!

Yes, there are definitely naysayers out there, critics who simply are angry at memoirists for telling the truth!  They call us navel gazers—and worse.  And, especially on radio interviews, I’ve been asked some very inappropriate questions!
My advice?  Know that you don’t have to answer any question that makes you uncomfortable. You can re-direct the questions and answers around what you want to discuss—and how you want to discuss it. Stay true to your message.
Also, when writing or promoting a memoir, I think it’s a good idea to have a strong support system on hand, friends available to help you through the process.

That said, though, it’s important to know that there are others out there who fully recognize the importance of personal narrative, and understand how it can make us, as a culture, more empathetic.

And even though the naysayers can make me angry (and I write about this in chapter nine 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.

So my other bit of advice is to keep writing, regardless. Everyone has a story to tell.  And all our stories are important.

JW:
Your memoir is the first I’ve read in which the molesting continues repeatedly over a period of time. Trauma experts say that repetitive trauma creates even worse after-effects and amnesia than individual incidents. What can you share about any special problems of remembering repetitive trauma, and your process of discovering these memories, and telling them in such detail?

SWS:
Actually, I never had repressed memories or anything like that. But how to remember specific details of events that happened years earlier?  Of course, no one, off the top of her head, can simply recall everything—regardless of your history.

For me, the best way to recollect the details of past 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.

JW:
When I read a memoir, it can sometimes trigger a great deal of my own anxiety. For example, certain kinds of cruelty or violence are almost too much for me to bear. Have you had feedback from readers who have been unable to read your memoir? What advice could you give memoir readers about this issue of feeling overwhelmed or “re-traumatized” by reading explicit material of abuse and suffering?

SWS:
Oh, that’s such a personal decision.  I’ve had people tell me they can only read my books in short snippets.  A page here, a page there.

But other people tell me they read my books straight through from beginning to end.  Just because of their own anxiety, they want to know how the book ends. Of course, on an intellectual level, they know I’m all right; after all, I wrote the book.  But on an emotional level, they want to keep reading just to make sure I’m okay.  Which I find very caring and lovely.

Additionally, some people have told me that they aren’t ready to read my books at all, but they feel a sense of comfort just having the books on their bookcases, knowing the books are there, when they’re ready.

JW:

Many memoir and journaling advocates believe that writing about trauma helps heal from it. What has been your experience?

SWS:
Yes, there is that element to this, for sure.  Writing is instrumental in helping me understand the trauma, give it a context, understand the metaphors around it.

Too, while it can be painful to write about painful events, still, I reached the point that just the opposite ultimately became true: that, with each word, the pain lessened, as if I extracted it one word at a time.

Notes
This interview is part of the blog book tour for Women on Writing.  To read other entries in the blog tour, including reviews, interviews, and essays, click here to visit the Women on Writing blog.

To learn more about Sue William Silverman, visit her website by clicking here.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Author Sue William Silverman Talks About Confessions, Memoirs, and the Craft of Writing

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.

Jerry Waxler:
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.

JW:
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?

SWS:
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.

JW:
When did you first realize you wanted to write about the disturbing experiences of child abuse?

SWS:
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.

JW:

When did you first decide to share your story with the world?

SWS:
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.

JW:
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?

SWS:
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!

Notes
This is part 1 of a two part interview with Sue William Silverman. To read the second part, click here.

This interview is part of the blog book tour for Women on Writing.  To read other entries in the blog tour, including reviews, interviews, and essays, click here to visit the Women on Writing blog.

To learn more about Sue William Silverman, visit her website by clicking here.

Fearlessly Confessing the Dark Side of Memory in this Memoir of Sexual Abuse

by Jerry Waxler

For more insight into the power and importance of memoirs, read the Memoir Revolution and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.

When I talk to people about writing memoirs, sometimes they chuckle nervously and say, “Oh, I don’t want to remember all of that.” When I first heard this reaction, it puzzled me. The speaker appeared to assume that writing about their past will force them to divulge information they would rather keep quiet. It’s as if they were afraid that by merely writing their past, their secrets would fly out into the air.

As I learned more stories and dug deeper into my own, I found that some dark memories are so compelling they draw you in and frighten or upset you. When you try to seal them back in their crypt, they continue to haunt. The courageous memoirist actively faces these fears and crafts them into stories. Under the guidance of our inner storyteller we gain power over our own memories.

Recently I heard about a memoir that offers an extreme example of this challenge. Throughout her childhood, Sue William Silverman was molested repeatedly by her father, a successful banker and diplomat. The assaults took place within the walls of their home where his manipulation and rage silenced every protest before it was uttered. Silverman’s memoir “Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You” offers the tragic story of a childhood, betrayed by the adult who was supposed to care for her.

At first, the topic of this memoir horrified me. I would have given it a wide berth, like crossing the street to avoid passing a beggar. And yet such is the magic of memoirs that it has allowed me to explore situations I would rather avoid. Reading is a powerful form of empathy. Now I pressed past my reluctance to share her experience.

I found the book disturbing as expected, and yet, in a way inspiring because of its frankness. It offers another validation that memoirs can take me into the dark pockets of the human condition. Researchers have found that a staggering percentage of children are abused. (see note) And despite the widely known statistics the human story of their plight is hidden from view. Few of us know what to say about this upsetting and confusing subject, and so the topic is avoided in polite company.

The public, with its voracious appetite for sound bites and quick solutions, is occasionally exposed to pleas for harsher sentences for the few predators who are caught. Meanwhile, abuse continues unabated, most of it taking place privately and quietly within the home.

While Silverman’s memoir does not offer a political or legal solution, it does hint at a reasonable first step. By sharing the story of the psychological damage, the trauma and breach of trust, we collectively shine light into the darkness of these private hells. Without such stories, sexual abuse is just a word, a statistic, devoid of the sad terror and emotional truths of each situation.

The silence that protects victims also protects perpetrators

Victims have important reasons for hiding the things that happened to them. There is the stigma of shame, often made worse because the victim is made to feel responsible. And there is the risk of angering the perpetrator. Until the memoir age, many wounded people have never felt empowered to share their stories. Now more people are telling and more listening. In my optimistic vision, I see memoirs tearing down walls, and I feel a surge of hope like the crowds who were swinging sledge hammers in the final hours of the Berlin Wall.

A polished voice helps to earn the public’s ear

Writing in a journal allows us to turn our feelings into words, and helps us gain power over our own thoughts. However, if you want to go to the next step and tell your story to the public, you need two more things. One is the courage to publish. And the other is the willingness to craft the experience into a readable form. Every writer discovers they need to develop skills in order to earn readers, and memoir writers are no different.

In this aspect of confession, Silverman excels. Through her writing skills, she engages my reader’s mind, moving me through each scene and then on to the next. I feel protected by her authorial presence, which occasionally cools me with beautiful language, like a drizzle tickling my skin on a hot summer day.

Her terrible story written in pleasing language, transforms me from a complete stranger to an empathetic listener, learning about the strange, complex desperate love-hatred between father and daughter. I deepen my understanding of her as an individual, and also of us as a race, perceiving the vast and sometimes horrifying range of human experience.

She also wrote a book to help you write your memoir
Silverman’s memoir offers an excellent model of good writing about bad memories. After writing two memoirs, she recently published a guide that can help anyone tell their story. “Fearless Confessions, a Writers Guide to Memoir” offers a roadmap through this difficult terrain.

Statistics about Child Abuse
If you think this is an isolated problem, you are probably under that impression because of the impenetrable silence that surrounds it. For statistics, click here.

For more on Sue William Silverman:

Click here for her website.

Click here for her Women On Writing Blog Tour

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Mothers and Daughters Don’t Always Mix

by Jerry Waxler

Linda Joy Myers’ mother wanted to have fun, so she abandoned her little girl and moved from the Great Plains to the big city of Chicago. Linda Joy was raised by her grandmother, an erratic woman given to harsh rules enforced by rage. Linda Joy grew up with a heavy load of disheartening memories.

After years of therapy, trying to sort out her feelings about her self-involved and mentally abusive caregivers, she began to write it all down. That first attempt turned out to be the beginning of a long journey. She tried again and again, and with each iteration, her story became more readable and less toxic than the one before. It took fifteen years from her first attempt to the publication of her memoir, “Don’t Call Me Mother.”

This book demonstrates the power of persistence. By crafting the story until she got it right, Linda Joy Myers discovered amidst the wreckage of that little girl’s childhood an intact human being, complete with courage, confidence, and dreams. Storytelling transformed her heartbreaking childhood into one stage in a much longer saga. Her suffering and then her healing provide both a tragedy and an inspiration about the wisdom a human can achieve in one life time.

In the preface of “Don’t Call Me Mother” she says, “Wrestling with words and images, putting myself into the story as a character, in the first person, present tense, forced me to integrate the self that I was with the witness I have become. This memoir has given me a profound sense of completion with the past, and a wonderful freedom. As I healed through the writing of this book, it too has evolved into a love song… The women who had once been my curses — my eccentric, wild, emotion-wracked mother and grandmother-became my teachers.”

Click here for Linda Joy Myers’ home page:
Click here for the Amazon page for her book:

I joined the author on her healing journey
Even if she had not told me that writing the book helped her heal, I can feel it for myself. I join this little girl, cringing with her during Grandma’s rages, and feeling relieved when they go on their annual trip to visit great grandmother, her mother’s mother’s mother, the most stable figure in Linda Joy’s childhood. Looking for sighs of relief, of beauty and pride, I pour my heart into each moment of pleasure – her passion for cello playing; the encouragement of her music teacher; her first boy friend, a fellow musician; the wheat fields, like golden oceans, that offer a sense of unlimited space.

As she begins to plan for college I lean forward into the future with her, straining towards escape from her stifling childhood, and longing for the day when she will be old enough and balanced enough to write the book I hold in my hands. Imagining that day converts horror to hope, knowing that the little girl grew up to write this story.

Breaking the code of silence

In addition to rejection by her mother and erratic and often abusive behavior of her grandmother, Linda Joy also fended off inappropriate sexual advances from her father during his annual visit. The people who gave her life used their power to confuse and undermine her. And like most abused kids, she learned the code of silence.

I have heard many people in memoir workshops struggle with such memories, explaining, “I wouldn’t want to talk about my family in that way. It would be disrespectful.” Their reticence followed them into adulthood and continues to foster their shame.

Linda Joy’s mastery over her secrets, provides an inspiring example for any writer who longs to create a whole story from disturbing raw material. Such a journey towards openness takes you across treacherous internal terrain, overcoming the fears and confusion that have always protected these secrets.  Then, you face additional challenges from people who don’t want to hear about child abuse. “Who wants to know things like that?” “That can’t be true.” “You’re exaggerating.” “You’re making excuses.” Only gradually do the walls of shame and secrecy break down. Through experimentation, the stories make sense, expose wounds, let in light, and integrate the past in one continuous whole that brings you to a healthier present and increases your enthusiasm for the future.

The reader and writer look for common ground

When you pick up a book, any book, you naturally ask yourself, “Why should I share my time and energy walking in this author’s shoes on this particular journey?” Of course, all readable books contain some crucial elements. They use polished prose, create dramatic tension, and then successfully resolve that tension. “Don’t Call Me Mother” succeeds in all these standard areas. In addition to generic qualities, each book has particular virtues. For me, the virtue of “Don’t Call Me Mother” is that through the magic of storytelling she brings her childhood to life, and then transforms it in front of my eyes. I share the story of her abuse, and then as she grows, I share the triumph of her eventual self-understanding.

The writer also asks questions. “How do I find and please my audience?” Another way to ask this question is “Who will want to read my book, and why?” The writer’s questions turn out to be mirrors of the ones asked by readers. When the writer’s answer matches the reader’s, two people who have never met are ready to spend hours in each other’s company.

Writing Prompt
Discovering why someone will read your story becomes part your quest as you try to open your life to the reading public. Describe the person who will read your book, and what questions or curiosities would your book address?

Another question, perhaps less obvious but just as important is, “Who will not want to read this book?” Since most of us would like to be loved by everyone, it might be hard to admit that not everyone is going to become a fan. By working out in advance who is not going to be one of your readers, you can focus more on pleasing the people who like you and letting the others read some other book.

Out of triumph, the desire to help others
In addition to helping herself, Linda Joy’s passion for finding the story of her own life has evolved into a passion to help others do the same. She offers individual counseling in the Berkeley area, teaches workshops, and has founded The National Association of Memoir Writers, an internet organization, that brings memoir writers together, and offers instruction and programs to help people take the journey of developing their own memoir.

For many years, Linda Joy dropped the “Joy” from her name, feeling it didn’t accurately reflect her character. Recently she has reintroduced it, choosing to allow the quality of happiness back into her name. While her memoir contains many deep and painful moments, her book reminds me of John Kennedy who said, “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” According to this definition, Linda Joy’s life offers all of us cause for joyful celebration.

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Memoir author talks about writing, sharing, and healing

By Jerry Waxler

Bill Strickland’s memoir, “Ten Points,” weaves together three things: a promise he made to his daughter, a summer of cycling to fulfill that promise, and his insights into the wounds of his own childhood. To see my review of his memoir, click here. To learn more about his experience of digging so deeply into his past and then sharing it with the public, I asked Bill Strickland to answer a few questions about writing and publishing his memoir. Here is the second part of the interview I conducted with him.

Jerry: Many writers feel a concern about sharing their private lives in public. I imagine this was even more intense for you, given the very personal nature of some of your disclosures. What was it like to share these private experiences?

Bill: At first I was terrified. When I first met my agent David Black, I couldn’t even look him in the eye as I tried to describe what I thought the book might be, even without details. I also hated sending the story to my mother, but it turned out to be good; we talked like we never had before ? a conversation that made its way into the end of the book.

After I submitted the manuscript, and it made the rounds through the offices at Hyperion, I was speaking to someone about the book – of course, right? – and the experience was so bizarre that it cured me of shock. I was lucky to be able to realize that everyone was going to know the worst parts of my life. And I’m luckier, I think, that for some reason I don’t very much care.

David Black, my agent, gave me some great advice when he read my first chapters. “Get ready for everyone on earth to understand you,” he said. And that’s been true: When I lose my temper at work with friends or I’m snotty at work or something, it’s not because I’m having a bad day but because my dad stuck a gun in my mouth ? that sort of thing. Everyone else has all these potential motivations that are hidden so we assume they’re just having a crappy day or are sick or tired or justified in their actions. But for me, now, for everyone who’s read my book the temptation is to attribute everything I do to something they’ve read. I don’t hold that against them. It’s probably hard not to do.

Most people are nervous when they approach me to talk about the story. They’re not sure if mentioning some scenes will open some sort of traumatic wound that’s been scabbed over. I try to put them at ease, and also try to apologize for the graphic nature of the story.

The bizarre thing is that I’m more myself now than I ever was. Rather than being driven or affected by shame, all the mistakes I make are my own mistakes, all the anger is my own, all the stupid decisions are just me being a stupid human, which is all I ever wanted. I’m more me than ever, yet to everyone else, I’m more the character in the book than ever.

The only concession I think I make is that when I give a book reading I try to select a section based on the audience. The story about my father making me race the killer poodle works pretty well.

Jerry: What advice would you give to people about looking at their own darker memories, and how to decide whether to dig deeper, or keep them hidden, or share them with others?

Bill: I imagine that the best way to go about our lives is different in at least some measure for each of us. Mining the hole inside me worked out; it might not for someone else. For me, it worked out that to be successful in a sport I fell in love, I had to spend a lot of time immersed in suffering, turmoil, unpredictability and other conditions that evoked my memories – and that one positive trait I possess, tenacity, was the answer to the memories as well as the sport.

Jerry: How would you describe what happened to you by writing this book – for example was it healing, redemption, therapy?

Bill: It felt like I was purified in some kind of fire. I don’t think I can make up for the rotten things I’ve done, nor do I think I have to make up for the things that were done to me. I just wanted to be shed of all of them, start fresh. My idea was never that I would be perfect, or even necessarily a better person. I just wanted to be a person.

The races themselves were the vehicles of my transformation . . . the experience of trying so hard, of failing, of succeeding only to fail again, of being outmatched but not quitting, then of having to quit anyway – all of that thrust my childhood back into my life. So my introspection took place at 30 mph, 180 beats per minute, 500 feet off the back of the pack or rubbing elbows with a whirling madman. Bike racing, as it turns out, feels like being burned clean.

Jerry: Some of the humiliating experiences your dad put you through were extremely difficult for me to read. Did you ever consider damping the book down to make it more palatable?

Bill: My editor at Bicycling magazine, Steve Madden, pushed me to be honest about my life in a feature story I wrote about cardiac health back in 2003. I was recounting my family’s cardiac history, and starting writing not just about the physical heart but the emotional concept of heart, and in a draft I dropped the detail that my father had once shot my dog, and I remember Steve saying, “That goes in,” then asking for more. At that time in my life I wasn’t going to tell anyone all that had happened to me, but the incidents I sketched out in that article marked the first time I’d admitted that what went on in my past wasn’t some hilarious caper of misadventures and loveable anti-heroes; that started a change that developed as I wrote the book.

Jerry: What role did writing play in helping you come to terms with your past?

Bill: Writing, as it turned out, was a way to process it, organize it, make sense of it. There was no narrative to my quest until I made it a narrative, in other words. I mean, we all decide where the stories begin and end in our lives — plenty of incidents related to that story happened before and after the framework of the book, but I made sense of my life within those particular boundaries.

One of the oddities about my personality is that I often seem to not know, or fully understand, what I think or believe until I write it down. It’s been this way for me as long as I can remember, just the way I relate to the world, a quirk of my mental make-up. I was one of those kids, for instance, who could learn how to hit a cue ball or build a go-cart from reading about it more so than from watching it demonstrated.

Jerry: I recently met John Bradshaw, who has spent his whole life working on the topic of shame. This fascinates me, since as near as I can tell it’s one of the main deterrents to introspection. Help me understand your willingness to stare your disturbing memories in the face and keep going.

Bill: Well, I was desperate. When Natalie was born, I was actually terrified that I might turn into the kind of monster my father had been. My choices were either to leave, to destroy myself, or to destroy the monster that was in me and wanted out. (I had no idea there was another option, which I found out only at end of that long season, which was to unmask the monster and see that it was only shame.)

At the end of the last race of the season, when I failed to get the ten points and had to deal with my failure and the fact that it had happened right in front of Natalie and my wife and my friends, I realized that the monster I’d always feared was nothing but shame. And I knew that exposing shame to the world would be the best way to neutralize it ? which meant I wanted to not only write my story but publish it so I would become transparent. I also wanted to keep my promise to Natalie. I couldn’t give her ten points (the score), but I could give her Ten Points (the book).

It wasn’t that I faced shame like some brave and noble human, but rather that the racing, the failing at racing, and the succeeding at admitting I’d failed, shone a bright light on the shame that was in me. I mean, there it was: I couldn’t not see it.

Jerry: Do you speak or do any sort of advocacy for victims of child abuse?

Bill: I don’t feel qualified to speak knowledgeably about anyone’s abuse except my own, or about the causes, effects or other commonalities. I just haven’t done that much research. The one thing I feel confident saying, which is in the book, is that I believe all of us contend with our own personal demons (though the intensity and source varies) and that for each of us, our obsessions, whatever they are – bike racing for me, stamp collecting, gardening, or whatever – can teach us all we need to overcome or learn to live with those demons.

Jerry: What’s next?

Bill: I’m done writing about myself. Next summer the paperback of Ten Points comes out. There has been some interest in movie rights to the story, though that’s notoriously unpredictable and not to be counted on, and I’m not inclined to see many of the scenes from the book acted out.

Next summer is also the release of a book I co-wrote with Johan Bruyneel (Lance Armstrong’s team director), We Might as Well Win (Houghton-Mifflin). Stories from Bruyneel’s life illustrate all he’s learned about how to win, whether it’s in the Tour de France or in life.

This is the second of a two part interview. To read more of this interview, click here.
Note: Foster Winans reports a similar experience in which revealing his observations of childhood helped him deepen his relationship with his mother, rather than alienating her as is so often feared. I comment more on Foster’s experience in this review.