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 writingitreal.com; absolutewrite.com; writedirections.com; writersdigest.com; writing-world.com; writermag.com; bylinemag.com (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!