by Jerry Waxler
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.”
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.
What did it feel like after you published? Did you have periods of uncertainty, vulnerability, fear?
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.
Is there anything you wish you could have done or said differently? (regrets, remorse, after-shock?)
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Many memoir and journaling advocates believe that writing about trauma helps heal from it. What has been your experience?
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.
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.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.