Thursday, September 03, 2009

Fearless Confessions: An Interview with Sue William Silverman

Remember when I told you I'd read Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir while I was on vacation? Well, that reading helped me frame interview questions for the book's author, Sue William Silverman, who joins us on the blog today for some Q&A.

Sue is a faculty advisor at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and the associate editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Her first book, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, received the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is also the author of Love Sick: One Woman's Journey through Sexual Addiction (made into a Lifetime TV movie), and Hieroglyphics in Neon, a collection of poems.

Please welcome Sue William Silverman.

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): In this book, you offer what may be most appropriately described as a "fearless" defense of memoir, taking on several of the criticisms that have been leveled at the genre in recent years. Which criticism distresses you most, and why? Which do you think may, in fact, hold at least some validity for memoir writers to consider as they craft their work?

SUE WILLIAM SILVERMAN (SWS): What most distresses me is when memoirs, especially those written by women, are labeled “confessional.” In effect, these critics are implying that women’s memoirs are nothing more than navel gazing, that they have no literary merit. I deliberately use the word “confessional” in my title, however, in order to redeem it from the media’s disparaging use of it. 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.

In other words, 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? Aren’t these also social issues, part of what society struggles with on a daily basis—so not navel gazing at all. By casting light on my story, I’m hopefully helping others better understand their own.

But, is there some validity to this attack, you ask? Well, granted, if a memoir isn’t artistically crafted, isn’t metaphoric, yes, the book might not be universal. So that’s why Fearless Confessions focuses on how to craft your life narrative into art!

ED: In the book's first appendix, you provide a terrific overview of subgenres of creative nonfiction: biography, autobiography, immersion, memoir, personal essay, meditative essay, and lyric essay. When I was an MFA student (in fiction), it seemed that virtually all the creative nonfiction students in my program were concentrating on memoir and personal essay. Why do you think creative nonfiction courses and programs tend to be dominated by these subgenres rather than others? As a teacher, how do you ensure that creative nonfiction students attend to multiple forms of the genre in their writing (and reading)?

SWS: I’m pleased you found that article, “The Meandering River,” helpful. Thank you.

I agree that most writing programs focus on memoir and personal essay. Why? Perhaps because the faculty itself feels more comfortable with those forms.

At Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), where I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing program, we recently hired a terrific writer, Robert Vivian, who published an amazing collection of meditative essays, Cold Snap as Yearning. So now we have a faculty member well equipped to teach the less narrative-driven—more image-drive—form of creative nonfiction. In short, when seeking out a writing program, it helps to look for one that has an aesthetically diverse faculty, one able to teach a range of creative nonfiction.

I also assign my students books that are representative of the various subgenres. Fearless Confessions, by the way, has a long creative nonfiction reading list. This list is also available on my Web site.

ED: Writing exercises appear often in this book. Please tell us about any other resources--books, Web sites, etc.--that you would recommend specifically for the exercises they offer memoir writers.

SWS: Sure, some Web sites that I think are particularly helpful are;;;;;; (ed. note: according to a note on its Web site, ByLine is ceasing publication). Another book that I find helpful is Tell it Slant, by Suzanne Paola and Brenda Miller.

ED: Your book takes the perspective that everyone has a story to tell. But we all know that publishing one's told story can prove to be challenging. Your chapter on "Marketing Your Memoir" provides some wonderful overall advice and resources for those seeking publication. But you must also have some very specific insights grounded in your editorial responsibilities for the journal Fourth Genre. Could you please share with us a bit about how work is ultimately chosen for publication in Fourth Genre?

SWS: What I specifically like about Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction is the wide range of voices that we publish. We like to publish all the subgenres of creative nonfiction (mentioned above), and include as many different voices as possible.

But before you send out your work, be sure it’s really finished. Ask yourself: does every sentence sing? Is every sentence as beautifully written as possible? Have I developed my work metaphorically? Am I doing more than “merely” telling the story of what happened to me; am I also reflecting upon the past, so that, as a writer, I am now seeing the past in a new light? Proofread, of course, before submitting, and be sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors. It is difficult to get published. That’s why you want to submit your best possible work, a piece that has undergone multiple revisions.

But if you get rejected, keep trying! Don’t get discouraged. I still get rejection letters. Art is incredibly subjective. I’ve had an essay rejected by one journal, only to have it win a contest in another one! So never stop trying! Believe in yourself as a writer, as an artist.

ED: Anything else you'd like us to know?

SWS: I teach, as I mentioned, at the low-residency MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). In addition to this two-year writing program, every summer, VCFA has a Postgraduate Writers’ Conference that lasts five days—and it’s five days of very intensive study in all the genres: creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and young adult literature. Just something to keep in mind. The conference is also a lot of fun! I wish all of you the very best as you pursue the writing of your own life narrative. Remember: all our voices are important!

For more information about Fearless Confessions, please visit the author's Web site and/or view the video book trailer.


Sue Silverman said...

Thanks so much, Erika, for the opportunity to participate on your blog! I'll be checking back to see if anyone has some questions for me! Sue

Erika D. said...

Thanks you, Sue. Questions? Anyone?

lamb said...

Sue and Erika,

Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful interview. It's been a while since I last checked in to your blog - and I'm so thankful I did today! I am in the process of developing several nonfiction pieces, one in particular has a special significance.

My best friend's father is dying from cancer and he has a very limited window of time with us. Based on reading one of my pieces in development, my friend asked if I would fly out to spend a few days with him, record our conversations, and write about his life. I am so honored that she would ask me, and of course I said yes.

Although from what I can tell so far, Sue's book deals more with writing one's personal story, I can already see how her techniques and encouragement will vastly improve how I articulate the voice and experiences of my friend's dad. This piece is something that will last in my friend's family for years; it's tangible, they'll always have it to go back to as they grieve and for years to come.

I will enjoy reading your book, Sue, and Erika, thank you for posting this on your site. Please don't underestimate the far-reaching impact you are having in the world - it's magnificent!

Erika D. said...

Lamb--thank you so much for your comment.

deonne kahler said...

Thank you, Erika and Sue, for sharing your conversation!

I'm late to the party, but if Sue is still willing to answer a question, here's mine: what are your thoughts on structuring a memoir?

I'm writing a book-length work, and in this first draft I'm opening with a scene I think epitomizes the book's theme, and from that launch point I plan to go back in time and build the story that led up to it. Do you have any tips on what to watch out for or think about in terms of structure?

Sue Silverman said...

HI, Lamb--first, let me apologize for this SLOW response. I had an emergency appendectomy Friday night. Wasn't expecting that! Oh, well, something else to write about!

To return to your comment, Lamb, I think that's such a powerful gift you are giving to your friend's family. To have a story about the father will be incredibly meaningful to all of them. And, you're right: whether you're writing your own story or conveying the experiences of others, there are still many similar techniques one would use--just structuring and conveying a story that will resonate. While aspects of this will be sad, since her father is dying, still, I wonder if other pieces will be joyful, to know that you are recording history. Personal history, to me, is as important as "political" history, or the history of the times. After all, the stories of all our lives really comprise a whole. I wish you all the best with this.

Sue Silverman said...

Hi, Deonne, thank you so much for the question--and, again, sorry to be slow to respond--but I had an emergency appendix surgery Friday night! I'm home now and feeling better.

To me, it sounds as if your instincts are absolutely right! Yes, one of the most forceful ways to structure a memoir IS to begin with a scene that best epitomizes the book's theme. Sounds perfect to me.

And then, yes, another effective way is to then go back in time and build, scene by scene, the events that led up to that point of impact (or your beginning).

One trap memoirists sometimes make is to stick too close to a chronological structure. ("This happened, and then this happened...") A more effective way is to follow events thematically, which it sounds as if you are doing.

In other words, once you set up your opening, which establishes the theme, just stay on that track and follow the story to its conclusion.

Be open to interrupting the chronology as much as possible. That way, you'll be able to follow your story thematically.

Please let me know if this doesn't make sense! I'm still a little out of it. So if you need more iformation, please don't hesitate to write back! Thanks for the question...and for your patience!

deonne kahler said...

Oh my gosh, Sue, I hope you're okay! You're a trooper for responding to questions despite your illness, and I appreciate the feedback. Can't wait to read your book.

Get well soon!

Sue Silverman said...

Thanks, Deonne--I appreciate the good wishes! And I'm delighted the feedback was helpful. I am on the heal...just a little time. Thanks so much.