July 2009

Beth Harrington

nonfiction

Fearless Confessions: A Writerís Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman

In the mid-1990's, Sue William Silverman was in therapy for an eating disorder and sexual addiction: the fallout from a childhood spent enduring ghastly sexual abuse at the hands of her father, when her therapist suggested that she write her own story. Baffled by the idea, Silverman nevertheless accepted her therapist's advisement that now that both of her parents had recently passed away, she might finally feel "safe" committing her narrative to paper. Three months later, she completed the manuscript of her first memoir Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You which won the Associated Writing Programs award for Creative Nonfiction and was published by the University of Georgia Press. Five years later another book followed, Love Sick: One Woman's Journey Through Sexual Addiction, chronicling Silverman's struggle with the malady, including the ramifications and particular stigma that women with this issue may face. Her third nonfiction book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir is a hybrid how-too guide for other would-be writers of creative nonfiction and a memoir of penning her memoirs.

Silverman defines creative nonfiction as a genre that has come into being with the advent of the memoir and the personal essay. These works are not grounded in linear chronology and factual documentation the way a straightforward biography would be. Their writing "is a creative act," she explains. "We interpret facts about the past in order to reclaim them, make sense of them."

A fair amount of the writing advice in Fearless Confessions is useful for writers of all creative genres. Silverman reviews the importance of using active rather than passive verbs and describes how to select details that "slant" a scene to evoke the mood and themes that one wishes to convey. Writing exercises embedded in each chapter assist readers with tasks such as streamlining their plots in order to include only information relevant to the story they are trying to write and structuring the events of their lives into scenes. Philosophically, the notion of turning one's life into a creative work is intriguing and even controversial. How often in memoir do honesty and authenticity ebb away in the author's quest to create the polished ideal for a story that is also a life? Silverman addresses these gray areas by advising readers to "Trust memories. Trust feelings" but warns "the only thing readers won't forgive is an out-and-out lie. Nor should they", as James Frey knows all too well.

The final third of the book deals with how to publish and market a memoir, as well as how to handle the reactions of readers -- both in one's public and private spheres. Silverman explores the extent to which literary memoirs are still regarded as taboo, dismissed by some as a way for authors to exploit their personal woes for monetary gain. She mounts a thoughtful defense of the genre, pointing out the extent to which there are double standards in how memoirs are judged. For instance, while the stories of war heroes and hostages in foreign lands can be lauded even when their writing is less than stellar, Silverman reports that women who write memoirs about incest and battery, sexual orientation, or other personal subjects are seen as exhibitionist and self-pitying. The predominating attitude is that troubles on the "home front" -- which are often the stories of women, children, or other powerless groups -- should not be written about or otherwise publicized.

Fearless Confessions has its audience carved out in potential memoirists and essayists and most of its guidance is geared towards those who have already decided that they want to write their stories. Thus, a more objective audience may be skeptical when Silverman counsels "Don't be afraid to discard what doesn't belong in your first memoir. You can always save the material for the next. We all have many stories to tell" with its implication that anyone is entitled to write a memoir and even more than one about anything that has happened to them. Of course, Silverman's response could easily be that everyone has the right to write a memoir but that readers can judge whether it was worth writing (and reading) based on quality of writing and the depth of the story told.

 

Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman
The University of Georgia Press
ISBN: 082033166X
272 pages

 

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