I’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 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.