Sue William Silverman
Sue William Silverman's memoir, Love Sick: One Woman's Journey through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton), was made into a Lifetime Television movie. Her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the AWP award in creative nonfiction. Sue has also published a poetry collection, Hieroglyphics in Neon. Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir, was published in 2009 by the University of Georgia Press. Sue is associate editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, and teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has appeared on such national TV shows as The View, Anderson Cooper-360, and CNN Headline News. For more about Sue, visit her website.
Read Linda's review of Fearless Confessions for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Linda Wisniewski
Posted on 07/16/2009
Linda Wisniewski: In your new book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir, you say that "confessional writers are emotional guides." What do you mean by this? Are confessional memoirs different from other memoirs, and if so, how?
Sue William Silverman: I would say that most memoirs, on some level, are confessional. I deliberately use the term "confessional," however, in order to redeem it, since it's been used disparagingly, mainly in terms of women's memoirs. In effect, some critics are implying that women's memoirs are nothing more than navel gazing, that they have no literary merit. I say, not so fast! Women's memoirs are just as important from a literary standpoint as memoirs written by men...and are as worthwhile as any other literary form for that matter, such as poetry and fiction.
Additionally, yes, confessional memoirs do act as guides through the complicated maze of the psyche. By casting a light in this interior way, a memoir's theme becomes universal.
In other words, when I write about recovering from incest or sexual addiction, I'm also writing about loss, alienation, identity. Aren't these themes to which most anyone can relate? Aren't these also social issues, part of what society struggles with on a daily basis? So by casting light on my story, I'm hopefully helping others better understand their own.
I was intrigued by your presentation of the vertical and horizontal plot line. Can you briefly explain these and why a writer would want to include both in her memoir?
The horizontal plot line offers the basic story of what happened to you: "first this happened, then this happened, and then this next thing happened." This part of the story follows an external chain of events that moves forward through time.
Equally important is to deepen that horizontal plot with a more interior or vertical plot line. This line travels down into the heart of the psyche, exploring the emotion and metaphor of your story. It deepens those external events of your story in order to not only understand what happened, but why it happened, and what the events mean to you now.
In your chapter on metaphors, you say they are discovered as we write. Can you tell us how this happened for you? How might we as memoirists discover our own metaphors?
When I first begin a project, I write more along that horizontal plot line: first this happened, and then this next thing happened. As I'm telling this story, I use sensory images and details to evoke events. It is in these details that I ultimately discover the metaphors.
Let me give you an example. When writing Love Sick: One Woman's Journey through Sexual Addiction, I describe, in one section, an affair I had with a married man, and how he gave me his maroon scarf, one that he always wore.
The deeper I got into the scene, however, I began to realize that this scarf was a metaphor—that it symbolically represented something.
By describing the scarf using sensory imagery (what it smelled like, what it felt like), I learned (while writing) that this physical object took on almost mythic proportions because, in the sexual addiction, it was more knowable to me than the man who gave it to me. Since I was unable to love, find comfort, or be emotionally intimate with this man, I loved his scarf—a part of him—instead.
While you probably don't have your own maroon scarf that played an important role in your life, you probably have, at one time or another, longed for comfort. The scarf, as a metaphor for comfort, therefore, is the common thread between me, the author, and you, the reader.
How is memoir different from other forms of creative nonfiction? Do authors go back and forth between them?
Memoir is one subgenre of creative nonfiction. Other subgenres are, for example, the personal essay, immersion writing, meditative and lyric essays. Of all these forms, memoir is the most intimate. It's the form associated with confessional writing—using that term in a positive light!
One of the appendices of Fearless Confessions defines and explores all these subgenres in order to assist readers better understand how memoir fits into the whole of the genre.
I love the way you include your own story as one of the examples of memoir writing in Fearless Confessions. Do you do this in class as well, and if so, how do your students react? Do you think it helps them reveal themselves?
Thank you! I'm really pleased that you found this helpful. My goal with Fearless Confessions was to make the book friendly, inviting, and personal—not some book full of academic jargon. I can.t teach like that at all!
Not that it's ever easy to reveal one's intimate secrets, but I do think that, if there's a sense that we're all in this together, then at least we don't feel as alone. So this method certainly seems to be positive for me—and I think and hope it is for my students, too.
In one chapter of Fearless Confessions, you mention a live interview about Love Sick, in which a radio host asked you about "kinky sex." How did you handle this? As women writers, we're sometimes confronted by people who don't understand the point of our stories. Do you have any advice for us?
When I was asked that question, I was really caught off guard, so my initial response was to panic!
But then I took a deep breath and realized that just because the radio host asked an inappropriate question, didn't mean I had to answer it. I simply explained that my book was about recovering from sex addiction. Period!
My advice would be to 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, other writers available to help you through the process.
You've been so brave disclosing what some would call a painful and embarrassing early life. Does writing fiction require the same kind of courage?
I published quite a few short stories before turning to creative nonfiction. On some level, even in fiction, the characters are emotionally real. You know, they come from the heart, soul, and mind of the author.
I would say that fiction writing takes another kind of courage—in that I feel all artists are courageous. To put any word down on paper is an act of courage. It is saying, "My voice is important."
In terms of writing, what are you working on next?
I'm almost finished with another creative nonfiction project tentatively called The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. It's about different ways I've sought and discovered identity. It's not as dark as my two memoirs!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the writing process with Story Circle Book Reviews. And best of luck with the new project!