SPECIAL GUEST: AUTHOR SUE WILLIAM SILVERMAN

August 10, 2009 at 12:01 am | Posted in Special Guests | 23 Comments
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Fearless Confessions, for webI’d like to welcome memoir author Sue William Silverman to Annette’s Paper Trail. Sue is on a blog tour for her latest book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir.

Everyone has a story to tell.

Fearless Confessions is a guidebook for people who want to take possession of their lives by putting their experiences down on paper. Sue covers traditional writing topics such as metaphor, theme, plot, and voice and also includes chapters on trusting memory and cultivating the courage to tell one’s truth in the face of forces—from family members to the media—who would prefer that people with inconvenient pasts and views remain silent.

Silverman, an award-winning memoirist, draws upon her own personal and professional experience to provide an essential resource for transforming life into words that matter. Fearless Confessions is an atlas that contains maps to the remarkable places in each person’s life that have yet to be explored.

Today, Sue offers some great advice about plot, point of view, authenticity, and memory truths.

Of the writing craft books I’ve read lately, few have resonated enough to cause me to underline passages and make notes in the margin. Fearless Confessions had so many sections where techniques and concepts jumped off the page, begging to be highlighted for future reference.

I’ve chosen four of my favorites to have Sue share with my info-hungry Paper Trail readers.

1. I’ll dive right into the craft pool. Sue, please explain the difference between horizontal and vertical plots and the reason writers should create a story that has both.

In Fearless Confessions, I developed the concept of two plot lines in order to help memoir writers better understand how to examine the entirety of their narrative.

The horizontal plot line reflects the external events of your story. Imagine texting a friend and telling her what just happened to you: As soon as I sat down on the airplane, this stranger started to talk to me. He was handsome. A great smile. But he wore a wedding ring.

It’s the action in your story.

The vertical plot, on the other hand, reflects your emotions, thoughts, and insights. But what should I do about this man, this married man? He seems like just the kind of man I’ve always been looking for, but…

It’s the internal response to the action.

In short, by weaving these two plot lines together, throughout, you are able to reveal the external action as well as, emotionally, show how you respond to it.

2. I’m intrigued by your concept of using “depths of view” rather than points of view. I’d love to have you explain how “The Voice of Experience” and “The Voice of Innocence” affect the story.

Unlike a novel, which can have several different points of view in it, a memoir, instead, explores various aspects of you. You’re exploring the depth or core of yourself.

One aspect of yourself, then, is conveyed in what I call the Voice of Innocence. Here, using this voice, you relate the facts of the story— the surface events in the past that actually happened. It’s the voice that portrays the raw, not-yet-understood emotions associated with the story’s past action: How you felt, what you did at the time the events actually occurred.

For the Voice of Experience, on the other hand, imagine the writer “you,” now, sitting at your desk writing, trying to make sense of these events that happened to you years earlier. It’s a more mature voice that deepens the Voice of Innocence narrative with reflection and metaphor. It’s a more complex viewpoint that interprets the surface subject.

You need both voices in any given memoir in order to bring the whole of the experience fully alive. You need, of course, to convey the story of what actually happened in the past while, at the same time, you need to bring a more adult perspective to bear.

Using these two voices you are showing, in effect: This is what happened to me in the past; this is how I now, with more wisdom, feel about it looking back.

3. Those who know me know I live my life authentically. In your chapter “One Secret, One Word, at a Time” you talk about how telling your secrets allows you to be an authentic woman and an authentic writer. Why do you think this is important for writing memoir?

When I write a memoir, I’m spending an enormous amount of time with myself, delving deep inside, to fully understand any given experience. If I’m going to hold back or sugarcoat experiences, I’m not being authentic either with myself or my readers. Now is the time, in my solitary writing room, to take a serious look at the most intimate moments in my life in order to write about them. What a gift! What an opportunity!

4. I completely agree. This also leads into another area of authenticity—writing the truth. With so much skepticism facing memoirists after James Frey’s book, A Million Little Lies (um…I mean, Pieces), I’d like you to share your thoughts about the concept of “memory truths.”

While it’s not at all acceptable to make up facts willy-nilly (like Frey), memoir also isn’t journalism. It is based on how I recall events from my past, knowing that memory is just that—how I remember things—my own personal version of events—or, what I call in Fearless Confessions, “memory truth.”

So while I never make stuff up, my interpretation of events forms a reality that is uniquely mine. I write my truths—how I understand my own life—as clearly and precisely as possible. At the same time, of course, the interpretation of my life is subjective. How could it not be? But readers understand this, and that’s what they expect and want.

If you want to read a factual account of something, read a historical document. Though, of course, even historical events are open to interpretation, aren’t they?

They certainly are! Thank you for sharing your thoughts about memory truths. I know a lot of writers are concerned about maintaining integrity in telling their personal stories. Sue, are there any final words of wisdom or encouragement you’d like to share with aspiring memoirists?

My hope is that you are patient with yourself as a writer, that you give yourself plenty of space and time to develop your craft. At the same time, I hope you find all the courage you need to tell your truths, tell the stories that, perhaps, you’ve hidden for years. Give yourself permission to break silences, speak your truths. I hope you all write your own confessions—fearlessly.

***

Readers: Post your questions for Sue in the comments section and share your thoughts. What are you doing to make sure you write authentically? What do you think about the concept of memory truths?

***

Sue SilvermanSue William Silverman teaches the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (Norton), is also a Lifetime Television movie. Her memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father I Remember You, won the AWP award. Her new book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir is available in bookstore and on Amazon.

Visit Sue’s website and check out the Fearless Confessions book trailer.

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23 Comments »

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  1. HI, Colleen,
    I am thrilled and inspired by your post. That’s wonderful, wonderful news to learn about your blog–and all it has come to mean to you, as well as your readers. It sounds as if you are helping so many others, and making important connections. Thank you for letting me know. All best wishes to you. Sue

  2. Sue,

    Thank you so much for your generous and considered words of wisdom. I am using my new blogging hobby as a motivational tool to get on with writing about my childhood experiences. And the feedback thus far has been truly inspiring, if not unexpected.

    Though the courage, words, emotions and memories are all there, it is finding the time amidst full time sole-parenting, work, study and life in general that gets in the way ! (I am typing this at 12.27 AM !!! )

    I fully appreciate you advice about giving oneself the courage to speak the words that are contained within. Interestingly, this was the topic of one of my most recent posts ! I believe this is the key to authenticity.

    Colleen

  3. Thank you, Alice!! I really appreciate your note! Sue

  4. Hi, Donetta, I’m so pleased you found that information about the plot lines helpful! And thanks so much for reading the interview! Sue

  5. I love the distinction between horizontal and vertical plots. Thank you for that.

    Thanks to you both for a great interview.

  6. What is the difference between memoir and autobiography? I’ve started to write one of them. I guess, reading this and the comments, it would be better termed a memoir.

    I think I have the pieces in place and I’ve already stated these are how I remmeber them.

    • Hi, “unwriter1,”
      There IS a difference between autobiography and memoir. Autobiographies are written, mainly, by famous people, by celebrities, politicians. An autobiography basically chronicles, in a chronological way, a whole life, from birth through to the end of the famous career. For example, Bill Clinton wrote his autobiography, “My Life,” after he left office. It’s a kind of blow-by-blow account without a lot of introspection or reflection or metaphor.

      A memoir, on the other hand, is written by ordinary people–like me. It is usually a search to understand events in a life, to make sense of things. It’s usually does NOT cover a whole life but follows, instead, certain themes or threads of a life.

      For example, in my first memoir, “Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You,” I explore growing up in an incestuous family. My second memoir, “Love Sick,” explores recovering from sex addiction.

      Memoir, then, is a search for certain truths in a life. Autobiography is usually to put the best spin on a life–make it look as good as possible. Memoir doesn’t have that kind of energy. It’s more looking, as I say, for truth, be those dark places or, yes, some light places, too, of course, depending upon the subject matter.

      I have an article on all the subgenres of creative nonfiction called “The Meandering River.” For those of you with my book, you can find it in the appendix. But it’s also on my website, http://www.suewilliamsilverman.com. Just scroll down on the home page, and you’ll see a link to it on the right-hand side. Hope this helps!!

  7. Sue, I received this question via email:

    I read Sue’s comments with great interest but couldn’t find where to leave a comment. I must be web-challenged today!

    My question for Sue is this: My memoir is not introspective or confessional, but for the most part is entertaining, funny stories about being in the entertainment business for 40 years. I have no intention of baring my soul or telling all. But, I do have some great insider stories to tell that have amused people for years when recounted. Whenever I go to a writers workshop or conference, the common theme is “trouble, conflict, trouble, conflict.” How about just plain humor? David Sedaris gets by with it and so does Gary David Goldberg in “Sit, Ubu, Sit.” What are your tips for me?

    Best regards,
    Alice

    • Dear Alice,
      Oh, I get web challenged all the time. I’m glad you were still able to get your message to me.

      Not at all to worry that your memoir isn’t “introspective or confessional.” There are all kinds of memoirs and other kinds of books on creative nonfiction. And yours sounds like it’d be really fun to read–and interesting, too.

      The main thing about memoir is for the author to feel a sense of urgency toward her material. If YOU have a sense of urgency around it (in other words, if you have a strong desire to write it), then readers will want to read it.

      That said, even for relatively “lighthearted” memoirs, it’s still important to bring the reader inside the experience. That would be true regardless of subject matter. In other words, through setting vivid scenes, still bring the reader inside the story…as, yes, David Sedaris does. So keep writing, that’s my advice!!

      • Sue – What a gracious gift of time. I had the chance today to go back and read all your comments – most helpful and insightful.
        Thank you so much!
        Alice

  8. Dear Sue,

    Thank you for writing “Fearless Confessions”! It is a wonderful book and I’ve already told other writers about it.

    I am writing a memoir about my (previous) marriage to a guy from central China. I’ve worked with writing coaches who have told me to include the backstory in the beginning of the manuscript so the reader will learn about me and why I ended up living in Hong Kong. I feel that this distracts from the story in the beginning. Is it all right to include the backstory in bits and pieces throughout the beginning of the story, or even in parts of the middle of the story? Also, on different writing critique discussion sites, I’ve been told to show the conflict on the first page. What do you think about that?

    Thank you and congratulations again!

    Susan

    • Dear Susan,
      Thanks for the interesting question and for letting me know a bit about your memoir! You have very good instincts! I totally agree with you that you do NOT have to start the memoir with all the backstory. That would really bog things down.

      I suggest you begin the memoir in a strong scene–at the moment of impact, as it were. Then, yes, later, bit by bit weave in the back story and the exposition. Too, yes, you can even have an extended flashback in the middle, as needed.

      Conflict on the first page is very good! That can be internal conflict: you’re trying to make a decision: should I or shouldn’t get married, get divorced, etc. Or, it can be some kind of conflict between you (your persona) and someone else. In any event, yes, conflict is good right at the start.

      The reader should know, right up front, what’s at stake for you. What are you seeking? What do you want? I hope this helps. If you have a copy of “Fearless Confessions,” you can see the chapter on plot for additional help. Additionally, the chapater on theme should help. Also, let me know if you have any additional questions here or if anything I said wasn’t clear!

      • Thank you! Yes, I have “Fearless Confessions”. It’s one book I won’t lend out. I’ve only read it once, so will go back to those sections you mentioned. I wove in the conflict early on, but it’s not on my first page. I’ll try to move things around. Thank you again so much!

      • Susan, I’m so glad that helped. Good luck to you with the memoir. And thanks for your support, too. Sue

  9. Thanks for your insight, Sue. Wonderful interview!

    Ruth

  10. Hi Sue,

    I’m just beginning to work consistently on writing a memoir, but I am still trying to clarify the shape of the story. Unlike novels, our life stories don’t always have clear beginning, middle, or end points for the things that have shaped us.

    One thing I’ve begun to consider is that I have more than one story to tell, and that just going chronologically through my life as a sort of diary-in-retrospect is not the right structure, but I’m still a little lost as to how to take a bunch of anecdotes and build them into a story arc, without sacrificing any important truth. How did you determine the form your memoirs needed to take, and which events belonged in each book? Did you start with an outline in mind, or is it better to just write the pieces and worry later about how they fit together?

    • Hi, Julie: that is such an important observation on your part! You’re right in that writing a life chronologically will really bog things down. Any given memoir does need a specific theme, structure, and arc. So, what worked best for me, was to separate things out so that each memoir was fully unified around a theme. In other words, to just give a step-by-step listing of events (first this happened and then this next thing happened), is very difficult to pull off.

      In short, even though, in real life, there is a clear connection between the childhood incest and the adult sexual addiction, I couldn’t fit both of these into one memoir. So, when turning life into art, it is important to give any given work its own clear focus. (By the way, I discuss in more detail structure, theme, and arc in “Fearless Confessions.”)

      I myself don’t begin with an outline, though that’s not to say that won’t work for you. But if you’re not sure which pieces or events go in one book, and which might begin to form the arc of another, then, yes, just keep writing for a few months (or however long it takes) until you see the whole of each more clearly.

      Oh, I should also mention: when I wrote my second memoir, “Love Sick,” of course I did have to refer back to the incest. I did not assume that readers would have already read my first book. However, I did not have to start from scratch–of course. I just mentioned the incest as briefly as possible–just made some references to it–in order to give readers a context.

      If this isn’t clear, please write back again and let me know. This is a complex subject–so please let me know.

  11. Sue,
    I really enjoyed reading your explanation about hortizontal and vertical plots. It makes sense for fiction writing, too. Do you think so?

    Thanks again for your time!

    Margo

    • Hi, Margo, thanks for the post and the question. Yes, I absolutely DO think it can be relevant in terms of fiction. If the novel is first person, and if the narrator/protagonist is an introspective kind of character, this would be especially true.

      But even, say, in a novel with a third-person omniscient point of view, this could still be true, as this narrator, though distant him/herself, can still fully enter the psyche of any given character in order to better explore his/her motivations, etc.

      So that’s a very good point! Thank you!

  12. Great information. I was wondering what motivated you to begin writing memoir.

    • Hi, Rita, thanks! I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post. Actually, I began as a fiction writer and, for years, was trying to tell my story as fiction. It didn’t work! Mainly, I could never get the voice of any given novel to sound emotionally authentic.

      Then, it was actually my therapist who suggested I tell my story as creative nonfiction, or memoir. As soon as I switched genres, that made all the difference in the world.

      Finally, by telling my real story–without trying to fictionalize it–I did find that emotional authenticity I’d been seeking.

  13. HI, thanks so much for inviting me to participate in your blog! I’d be more than happy to respond to any questions from your readers! Thank you!


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