Sue William Silverman: Confessional Writing is Painful and a Profound Relief

Sue William Silverman
Book Review: Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir
Sue William Silverman
University of Georgia Press, 2009
Softcover, 237 pages, with biographical notes

Sue William Silverman describes her book as “a step-by-step guide to shaping memory into art, to turning imagery into metaphor – all the elements needed to craft raw experience into a fully formed story.” She speaks from a life filled with desperation.

She grew up with a father who sexually molested her in “houses that felt like prisons.” As an adult, she was in therapy for years learning to cope with her humiliation, embarrassment and shame. Her therapist often suggested she write about her experiences, but she had no interest in putting her hidden secrets onto paper, secrets shared only with her therapist and her husband.

Refusing to Write About Herself
Although she was a writing instructor at a community college, had written thousands of pages of short-story fiction, and had started and given up writing several novels, she did not attempt to write about her own life until her parents died during the time she was in therapy. She began her memoir slowly, writing just the facts; then moving on to interpreting the facts, “reclaiming them, making sense of them.” She picked up the pace, reluctantly stopping “to eat, to sleep, to shop for groceries.” Almost before she realized it she had written three hundred pages in three months.

The resulting book, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, received the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award for creative nonfiction. Her second book, Love Sick: One Woman's Journey through Sexual Addiction, was made into a Lifetime Television Original Movie.

Secrets of Confessional Writing
Her writer’s guide includes not only her experiences but examples from other authors, as well as writing exercises to get you off dead center.

The real take-aways, though, are her insights into the specifics of confessional writing; among them:

“Don’t just state your story; reveal your story emotionally.”

“Use the senses to create an emotion or a mood that reflects” how you feel at the particular moment you are writing about.

“A memoir isn’t about a whole life. It’s a slice of life, an exploration of one aspect of a life.”

“Discover an intimate voice that will invite the reader into your story.”

“Readers want confessional stories. Readers better understand their own lives by reading how you coped with adversity, what you learned from it.”

“Until I write the past it flickers in my mind’s eye, ghostly, like an old newsreel. I leaf through family albums, but no one appears distinct. No one seems ever to have been fully alive. Then I pick up a pencil.”

“Writing about pain is painful—but it’s also a profound relief. With every written word the pain lessens.”

She also covers theme, style, plot, metaphor, marketing your work and yourself, and other techniques (that’s what teachers do), which are essential tools but not nearly as fulfilling as her spot-on coverage of writing about painful real-life experiences.

Sue William Silverman speaks at colleges and universities, professional conferences and to social service organizations on such topics as sexual addiction, child abuse prevention, and family dynamics. She teaches writing at the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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