To commemorate the publication of the 10 year anniversary edition of my memoir Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, I have decided to do start The Memoir Project. I’ll be doing a series of interviews with memoirists I admire. Here we have Sue William Silverman, a brave and courageous women who has written about unspeakable personal tragedy with beauty and grace.
David Henry Sterry: Why in god’s name did you decide to write a memoir?
Sue William Silverman: Not only have I written one memoir, I’ve written two, with a third about to be published this March (2014)! Additionally, I published a craft book on how to write memoir, to help others tell their stories, too.
Here’s why I began to write memoir: Growing up, I lived a double life. On the face of it, we seemed like a normal, happy family. My father had an important career. We lived in nice houses, and I wore pretty clothes. But all this seeming perfection was a veneer, a façade, for the other, hidden life. It masked the reality that my father sexually molested me, a reality never spoken aloud either at home or in public.
Before I began to write about my childhood, I didn’t fully understand this double life or the devastation it caused. Instead, for years, the past appeared in my mind’s eye like faded black-and-white photographs, in which no one seemed to be fully alive. Especially me.
Then, I started putting words on the page, examining my past. It was a relief, finally, to write my life rather than ignore it, a relief to develop a clear focus and vision.
I’ve been asked: Isn’t it painful to write about the past, all those scary childhood memories? Yes, writing about pain is painful – but it’s also a profound relief. With every word the pain lessens. It’s as if I extract it, one word at a time.
To write is to be constantly reborn. Now, I no longer hide behind a veil of secrets. After writing my secrets, my life feels lighter. I step into the world more authentically, more honestly alive.
DHS: What were the worst things about writing your memoir?
SWS: Well, even though I love to write, still, writing is just plain tough. It can take years to discover, say, a true voice for a piece, or discover the metaphors of the experience and craft a cohesive structure.
For example, when I was writing Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, it took five long years to “hear” the voices (yes, plural!) that would convey the totality of the experience. I employ an addict voice as well as a more sober voice, so the book is a twining together of the two. But it took a gazillion drafts before I was able to craft these voices in such a way that they seamlessly revealed the addiction – as well as recovering from it.
Even so, as difficult as it is to write, I’d definitely say that the worst or most distressing thing actually happened during the promotion of Love Sick. Some of the radio interviews I gave, conducted by “shock jocks,” were pretty demoralizing. For example, in one, on live radio, I was asked “where was the kinkiest place you ever had sex.” I was mortified. Love Sick does not, in any way, glamorize sex addiction; it shows how I was emotionally and spiritually dying. So to be asked insensitive questions was, truly, the worst part of the process.
DHS: What were the best things about writing your memoir?
SWS: One of the best parts of writing is the discovery of self, ways in which language can lead to self-definition. Finding answers to your own life’s questions is like following a whisper until it becomes a clear and revealing voice. Sure, writing is time consuming and difficult; nevertheless, I also find it to be almost spiritual.
Additionally, in terms of the promotion process, I’m gratified by the hundreds of e-mails I receive from people who thank me for telling my story because it helps them better understand their own lives.
Here is a short quote from one, so you’ll see what I mean: “Sue, I picked up your story because I thought that I didn’t matter. And in your words I am realizing for the first time that I do matter. I’ve been to lots of therapists, but nobody has ever made me know what it means to be strong until you. I want to be brave like you. You make me know that people can make a difference. You have changed my life for the better and so I just wanted to say thank you.”
To receive a response such as this from a reader, well, it doesn’t get any more meaningful.
DHS: Did writing your memoir help you make some order out of the chaos we call life?
SWS: Yes, absolutely! Memoir writing, gathering words onto pieces of paper, helps me re-visualize dark and confusing episodes into a more enlightened state. By framing arc, theme, and metaphor, I give my life an understandable and clear organization. Writing provides a structure with which to convey experience. Memoir creates a cohesive narrative of a life story. In short, it turns a messy life (and isn’t life always messy?) into art.
DHS: How did you make a narrative out of the seemingly random events that happened to you?
SWS: Well, it’s taken three memoirs to do so!
One way to craft a narrative – or to make sense of one’s life – is to discover the metaphors of any given event. For example, in one section of Love Sick, I write about a maroon scarf that a married man, with whom I had an affair, gave me. The scarf became a metaphor for loss and alienation. Because of the sex addiction, I didn’t know how to hold onto an authentic relationship; ultimately, all I could hold onto was the scarf. By conveying metaphors in this way, experience coalesces into a congruent whole around a common theme. On the surface, Love Sick is about sexual addiction; however, the deeper theme is loss and alienation.
Also, in order to make sense of a life it’s important not to pack too much into any given memoir. A memoir is a facet of a life – not a whole life. By concentrating on specific themes and concerns, I have room to fully explore each. In other words, when writing memoir, it’s more important to develop a theme, rather than a chronology.
For example, in Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You I focus on growing up in my incestuous family. In Love Sick, I focus on the twenty-eight days I spent in rehab recovering from an addiction – a result of the childhood sexual abuse. In my forthcoming memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, I explore, in a series of essays, my ambiguous relationship toward Judaism.
In sum, in order to craft a cohesive narrative it’s important to maintain a congruent theme, conveyed metaphorically, of the story at hand. By doing so, seemingly random events are artistically rendered into a seamless story.
DHS: How was the process of selling your memoir?
SWS: I submitted my first memoir to a writing contest sponsored by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It won in the category of creative nonfiction. Part of the prize was publication with the University of Georgia Press. The UGA Press also, subsequently, published my craft book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir.
With my second book, about sexual addiction, I got an agent who sold it to W. W. Norton. I’d met an editor at Norton, the late Carol Houck Smith, who I felt would be the perfect editor for this book. I’ll always be grateful to her for taking me on.
Now, with the third memoir, I thought it would be a good fit for the University of Nebraska Press’s “American Lives Series.” I’m delighted they accepted it.
I’m very lucky in that the placement of my books was relatively painless.
DHS: How did you go about promoting and marketing your memoir?
Rather than rely solely on book reviews or traditional publicity, I heavily market the books in terms of subject matter. I bill myself as a professional speaker and have traveled around the country giving speeches and readings at conferences that deal with child abuse prevention and sexual addiction. These organizations are comprised mainly of therapists and other professionals who deal with clients struggling to recover from similar traumas. Many of my presentations have also been sponsored by psychology or social work programs at various colleges and universities.
Of course, I also give literary readings and workshops at writers’ conferences and at writing programs.
It’s important to think outside the box and cultivate as many different avenues as possible to market your book.
DHS: Did you have difficulty speaking in public about the intimate aspects of your memoir?
SWS: At first I thought I would crumple in a heap having to present my work in person. But, the more I do it, the less scared I become. And the audiences are incredibly empathetic and caring. I feel very supported. It’s powerful to know that your voice has been heard!
DHS: How did your family, friends and loved ones react to your memoir?
SWS: My parents were dead by the time I wrote and published my first memoir, so I didn’t have to worry about their reaction. My sister was a little scared but, on the whole, was supportive.
What surprised me the most was the reaction of relatives on my father’s side of the family. I thought they’d be angry. They weren’t. In fact, I received many calls and e-mails from cousins, aunts, and uncles telling me that if only they’d known about my father’s abuse, they would have helped me.
At the same time, I know other writers of memoir whose relatives are angry that the family secrets are out in the open. So I know it can be tough to put your story – and your life – out into the world.
DHS: I hate to ask you this, but you have any advice for people who want to write a memoir?
SWS: This is a good question! I teach writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts and, in addition to focusing on craft, we talk a lot about overcoming the fear of revealing family secrets and intimate details of one’s life.
Mainly, I encourage students to try not to allow this kind of fear to stand in the way of writing. After all, we all own our own truths, and we are free to write them. The job of a writer is not to protect people or to make them feel comfortable. Our job is not to sugar-coat experience. I firmly believe in a writer’s right to tell her/his own story. At the same time, literary memoir is not about revenge! It’s about understanding experience. It’s about enlightenment.
Personally, my only regret would have been if I hadn’t written – if I’d let fear stand in my way.
During the writing process, I encourage my students to stay focused on their words, to ignore the outside world as much as possible. This includes family, friends, and even publishers. The most important thing is to first get your story down on paper. Then, after all the words are written, you can decide the next step, how – or even if – you want to share your story with others.
In short, it’s important to take this process in stages. The most important thing is to write, write, write! If you’re scared, just focus on one word at a time…then one sentence, one paragraph, one page. Soon you’ll have a whole manuscript, and be ready to start on the next one.
Sue William Silverman’s memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, is also a Lifetime television movie. Her other books are Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award); Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir; and The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew (forthcoming March, 2014). As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on such shows as The View and Anderson Cooper 360. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. www.SueWilliamSilverman.com.
David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, and book doctor. His new book Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages. He’s also written Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award. He has appeared on, acted with, written for, been employed as, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, a marriage counselor, Disney screenwriter, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Milton Berle, Huffington Post, a sodajerk, Michael Caine, the Taco Bell chihuahua, Penthouse, the London Times, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a human guinea pig and Zippy the Chimp. He can be found at www.davidhenrysterry.com. https://davidhenrysterry.com/