The Courage to Write and Publish Your Story: Five Reasons Why it’s Important to Write Memoir | Essay — Sue William Silverman
It probably doesn’t bear reminding, but I will remind you anyway. In the March/April issue of the AWP Writers’ Chronicle, Aleksander Hemon, in an interview with Jeanie Chung, contrasted fiction and memoir and found the latter wanting in some way, even cowardly. Sue William Silverman, my friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a famous practitioner of the art of memoir-writing, wrote a retort which appeared as a letter to the editor and was also reprinted under the title “In Defense of Memoir” on Dinty Moore’s Brevity. Suzanne Farrell Smith wrote a measured summary of the whole story (“Hemon, Silverman, and What Makes Good Writing“) on her blog and pointed out that just months after casting aspersions on the genre in the Chronicle, Hemon published a memoir of his daughter’s illness in The New Yorker. (In the nature of things, he probably did the interview long before he wrote the memoir, but the two came out in ironic proximity.)
Now Sue has contributed a call to the barricades, an inspirational rationale for memoir-writing which, yes, includes a small excursus into her own acts of memoir (and delightful photographs which are a memoir in themselves).
Sue William Silverman is the author of numerous books, essays, and works on craft, and she is a profound influence in the lives of her students (see the recent NC Childhood essay by Kim Aubrey as an example). Her memoir Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction was made into Lifetime television movie. Her first memoir Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction, while her craft book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir was awarded Honorable Mention in ForeWord Review’s book-of-the-year award.
The Courage to Write and Publish Your Story: Five Reasons Why it’s Important to Write Memoir
By Sue William Silverman
I’m frequently asked why I write memoir. Why reveal intimate details about my life to total strangers? Why put myself, or my family, through the pain—some would even say shame—of telling family secrets? Why not just be quiet, keep personal information to myself?
Here is how I answer:
Growing up, I lived a double life. On the face of it, my family seemed normal, happy. My father had an important career. We lived in nice houses and wore expensive clothes. But all this seeming perfection was a veneer, masking the reality that my father sexually molested me, a reality never spoken aloud.
Later, as an adult, I continued to live a double life—this time as a sex addict. Again, in public, I appeared normal, with a professional career and a seemingly good marriage. No one knew that the shiny façade hid dark secrets: I cheated on my husband; I was close to emotional and spiritual death.
Before I began to write, I didn’t fully understand the effects of the past on the present. For years, the past appeared in my mind’s eye like faded black-and-white photographs in which no one, especially me, seemed fully alive.
Then I started putting words on the page. Finally, I chose to examine my past. Through this exploration, it was as if I slowly began to awake after living in a state of emotional suspension. I wrote my way into the darkness—not to dwell there—but to shed light on it. My entire life changed, all for the better. I no longer lived a lie.
I encourage you to explore, through writing, your life, as well. Whether your childhood was traumatic or not, whether your current life is in disarray, chances are you have a story to tell. Whether, say, you’re figuring out a divorce, finally coming to terms, perhaps, with an alcoholic mother or an absent father, struggling to repair a relationship with an estranged sibling or battling a physical disease, we write memoir to better understand ourselves, as well as to bring a reader with us on our journeys.
Here are five reasons why your life will be enhanced by writing a memoir, by telling your own story.
1. Writing Memoir Helps You Overcome Fear
Most memoirists I know are scared to write their stories. Sometimes the fear evolves from the material itself, the fear of facing events from the past, painful episodes that have remained dormant for years. When this is the case, remind yourself that you’ve already lived through, survived, the actual moment—whatever it was. Now, tell yourself, you’re “only” writing about it, figuring out what it meant.
Other times the fear concerns revealing a family secret. Will family or friends judge your story, judge you? Will your mother get angry? Will your father threaten to disown you? As scary as possible judgment or rejection might be, remember: You can’t control anyone’s reactions. All you can do is write your truths, refuse to continue living in silence, or living a lie.
If you’re struggling just to set words down on paper, I suggest that you try not to think about “others.” I, at least initially, pretend I’m writing just for myself, ignoring as much as possible the fact that friends, family, even strangers might one day read my story. I pretend no one else will ever see my work; and, in any event, it’s my choice whether I’ll ultimately share it with anyone or not.
Of course, this can be easier said than done. Therefore, on particularly scary days, I tell myself I only need to write one page today; I don’t overwhelm myself by thinking I’m writing a whole book! If you need to break it down further, tell yourself you’ll write just one sentence this morning. Or, on very tough days, one word before lunch.
But never give up! This sounds obvious, but the only way I know to work through difficult material is to do just that—write straight through it—focusing on one word at a time. Learn to sit in the dark places. To skirt an issue, to sidestep it, is to remain in an emotionally vague or unfeeling place.
Once the words are down on paper, you’ll feel as if a great weight, the weight of the past, has been lifted—not just off your shoulders—but from your psyche. Now, the past barely haunts me. It’s as if I extracted it, and now it dwells between the covers of a book. I feel lighter, freer, as if I can truly breathe.
2. Memoir Helps You Understand the Past and Organize Your Life
I gain clearer insights about my past when I write it, rather than simply sitting around thinking about it in the abstract. What was the relationship, say, between my sexual addiction and being molested by my father? How did the past cause such emotional devastation? I discovered the answers to these important questions through the written word.
Writing is a way to interact with—and interpret—the past. It helps us make sense of events whether they are traumatic, joyful, or just confusing. Writing sharpens our senses so that images and details from the past emerge in a new context, one that illuminates events for ourselves as well as for our readers.
Living my life day by day, I never stop long enough to question events. There are errands to run, meals to cook—to say nothing of emotional clutter! Who has time to stop and think about events swirling around us?
Only when I put my everyday life on hold, so to speak, sit down at my computer and write, can I even begin to see a pattern to the rush-and-tumble of life.
Memoir writing, gathering words onto pieces of paper or on a computer screen, helps us shape our lives. By discovering plot, arc, and metaphor, we give our lives an organization, a frame, which they would not otherwise have. Memoir creates a narrative, a cohesive life story. It gives your life a previously undiscovered structure and theme.
3. Memoir Helps You Discover Your Life Force
Before I wrote, while I kept secrets, I didn’t feel as if I were really living my life. I didn’t have a clear grasp of who I was. What, and who, was the essence of “me”? Even when I first considered writing a memoir, I went, by turns, thinking that no one would understand or care about my story, to believing that, since there are thousands of other incest survivors, my life story wasn’t unique. My voice wasn’t special. I didn’t matter.
Just the opposite is true.
When writing, if I forge even one good sentence on any given day, I have discovered a kernel of emotional truth. In that sentence, I feel that life force of “me,” as if it’s my pulse. To write is to give birth to a more complete self.
There is only one of you. Your voice is unique. If you don’t express yourself, if you don’t fully explore who you are, that essence of you will be lost forever.
Remember: you’re writing your book, first and foremost, because you must. The act of writing is where the spirituality of artistic endeavor resides. Focus on the words during the creative process: what do they reveal about you?
In order to be creative and fully engage in the process, writers must give themselves permission to set aside the fears. Ultimately, the more I challenge myself, the more courageous I become.
4. Memoir Helps You as well as Others to Heal
In an online interview in Chronogram, Mindy Lewis explains that during the writing of her memoir, Life Inside, she confronted her mother for confining the teenage Lewis in a mental hospital for twenty-eight months in the 1960s. A terrible fight between mother and daughter ensued, her mother not understanding why, in her opinion, Lewis hated her enough to write a book about her incarceration.
Afterward, Lewis went into a clinical depression that was “set off by the guilt and terror about writing the book. I felt my values were so screwed up that I’d rather write a book and hurt my mother.” It was through the support of others who’d gone through similar situations that she continued writing.
Ironically, it was ultimately the book itself that brought Lewis and her mother close. Lewis sent her mother four chapters-in-progress and received a return letter in which her mother provided her own perspective of events. Lewis’ mother, by acknowledging her daughter’s story, chose to put her daughter’s “success and happiness above her own, putting aside her fear and anxiety about being seen as a bad mother.” Lewis says, “Our relationship became transformed; I realized how much I love my mother.”
I myself learned that writing about my experience not only helped me, but helped other women, complete strangers, still struggling. For example, after I completed a reading at a library in Athens, Georgia, one woman waited until everyone else had departed. Approaching me, she was so scared she began to cry. She confided that I was the first person she’d told that her father had molested her. She was too traumatized even to tell a therapist. Why did she confide in me, trust me? Simply because I had written my story. Through this meeting, both of us were empowered.
5. Confessing through Memoir is Good for the Soul
Telling family secrets—any intimate secret—can be scary. Ultimately, however, I reached a place where not telling the secrets was worse. I felt heavy, weighted down. Finally, then, it was more a relief to write my life then ignore it. So even though at times I felt uncomfortable during the writing process, in the end, I felt a sense of release.
In short, with every word I wrote the pain lessened. It was as if I exorcised it, one word at a time. As you challenge yourself, you’ll feel more courageous every day. Writing memoir energizes your psyche, nourishes your soul.
Only by writing my story can I be an emotionally authentic woman, an emotionally authentic writer.
Whatever the reaction of family members, our job as writers is, first and foremost, to tell our stories. Our job isn’t, after all, to make people feel settled, calm, or comfortable. And even if we ourselves initially feel uncomfortable about shaking things up, we become empowered. If we use this power—not out of a sense of revenge—but to understand our narratives—then we bear witness to honest human experiences and emotions, thus freeing our souls.
And you never know: the reaction from family might not be negative. It might be soulful for your friends and family, as well as for yourself. In an interview in Fourth Genre, author Kim Barnes suggests we not automatically assume that friends—or even close family members—will get angry if we write about them. “If you…treat people…with complexity and compassion, sometimes they will feel as though they’ve been honored, not because they’re presented in some ideal way but because they’re presented with understanding.”
In short, whatever the roadblock—real or imagined—write anyway! To do so is to feel your horizons expand within yourself, as well as outward toward friends, family, community.
Writing is a way to remove the muzzle and blinders from childhood. Writing is a way to take possession of—to fully own—our lives. Only you own your memories. As sole possessor of them, you are free to write them. By doing so, you will feel your own power.
Sure, the writing forced me to examine my life in ways that were scary. Was it worth it? Yes! Writing my first memoir, then going on to write a second, are the best gifts I ever gave myself. Fearlessly writing memoir allows all of us to claim our voices, be heard, and understand our own life narratives.
Through telling my story, listening to the stories of others, I am empowered—even as I still, at times, get scared. But I try not to allow fear to preclude me from writing. After years of silence, I have a voice.
Start writing! The universe is waiting for your words!
—Sue William Silverman
Thanks for this concise and brilliant explanation; it’s perfect for those struggling with how and whether to tell their stories.
Thank you, Susan! And I wish you all the best with your writing!
Thank you, dg, for mentioning my blog entry, which was written to promote Sue’s point of view, one I very much admire and subscribe to. And thank you, Sue, for this list of specific, tangible reasons to write. You inspire because you do so much more than react to statements about memoir … you process, reflect, then offer—freely and openly—your own thoughts about the genre and its power. I am one of those students on whom you have had, as dg put it, “profound influence.” But because of your willingness to share in multiple venues, others who have not had the chance to work with you directly can reap the same profound rewards. The way that you write—openly and honestly—is the way that you live. Talk about being a role model!
Thank you so much, Suzanne! What you say truly means a great deal to me. And, of course, I loved having you as a student. Also, thanks so much for YOUR blog!
Thanks Sue! Each time I write about my life and share it with others, I feel renewed, as if giving birth to some new stronger self. Thank you for continuing to promote and encourage memoir writing, and for being such an inspiration to so many of us!!
Thank you, Kim! I love hearing how you feel after writing a memoir piece, and sharing it. The essay you had here on Numero Cinq was beautiful! Very compelling.
Thanks, Sue! I notice that my comment more or less echoes how you described your experience writing about your life. Sorry to use your metaphor without giving credit. I must have been reading and writing in a hurry.
Thank you for all of this Sue, and for my favorite sentence: To write is to give birth to a more complete self.
Thank you, Julie! And I’m delighted you like that line!!
After leaving church today and heading to a nearby restaurant for lunch outdoors on this beautiful autumn day, I opened Facebook on my iPhone and saw a posst by Leatha Kendrick with a link to your story on why we write memoir. I wrote a memoir three years ago, and have been asked several times when I will write a sequel and I always respond, “I just have one story in me. Didn’t really plan to write the first one, don’t plan to write another.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking I might just write another one. My life isn’t over, and it has changed drastically since I wrote my first memoir. And like you said, my first one was the best gift I ever gave myself. I plan to strat my second one. May I quote you in it? Thank you..
Yes, Brenda, write another one! That’s a wonderful idea. In addition to my two memoirs, I recently completed another creative nonfiction manuscript…AND am starting yet another one. There are so many ways to explore a life! And, yes, I’d be honored if you quote me. Thank you so much.
Grounded, honest advice learned in the trenches. Thanks for passing this along for those of us venturing through the back alleys of our own memoirs. Especially drawn to this: “Memoir writing… helps us shape our lives. By discovering plot, arc, and metaphor, we give our lives an organization, a frame, which they would not otherwise have. Memoir creates a narrative, a cohesive life story. It gives your life a previously undiscovered structure and theme.” An adventure worth taking! Thank you, Ms. Silverman.
Thank you, virtualDavis! Your support means a lot. And I wish you all the very best with your own memoir! Keep traveling those “back alleys.” They WILL lead you out, if you know what I mean.
Thank you so much Sue! You have certainly had a huge impact on me. After all, it was your honest feedback and gentle, yet unrelenting push at the post-grad writers conference in August 2009 which influenced my decision to apply to VCFA. Similar to what you mentioned here regarding your childhood incest, I thought for so long, and sometimes still do, who would want to hear my story of trauma when there’s so much trauma to be told? Who cares about my story? You, Sue have helped to transform such skewed thinking. And, how lucky I was to have you as one of my workshop leaders during the 2010 summer semester. I remember a piece of advice you offered: “Each time you review a draft of your memoir, you focus on one aspect at a time to edit.” It sounds so simple, yet I drink, eat and sleep this valuable nugget. Again, here I benefit from your caressing words, your encouraging spirit. Whenever I retreat to that dark place of doubt – what will my dad, my sister, my step-children think of me? – I’ll come back to this piece you have so generously offered to those memoirists like myself who struggle with self-flagellation when we lay our pen to the page, our fingers to the keyboard.
Hi, Melissa — thank you SO, SO much for such generous comments and support. I’m just delighted that we met at that Postgraduate Conference, and that you’re now an important part of VCFA. I look forward to many more conversations…and look forward to reading more of your work!
Wouldn’t it be great if politicians would actually write their own memoirs, then they might actually learn something..well, except for Dick Chaney, he’ll never learn anything and that’s sad.
Alas, most politicians write autobiography, not memoir. And, in autobiography all they have to do is recount their lives, not explore their lives, and the recounting is, for the most part, to show themselves in the best possible light. But, yeah, I agree: if only…
Time to Tell
Thanks for this insightful, gentle, and brave look into the heart of writing memoir, Sue. I plan to share it with my students.
Hi I just sat down and wrote 33 pages in a notebook about my childhood and the incest and about how my mother chose him over her five kids..I May never share it with anyone else but I’m 36 and have never told anyone some of what I wrote..I can’t re read it I tried. I have to be careful I’m on disability for bipolar and ptsd and a few others and last time I tried anything like this was ten years ago and ended me up in a psychiatric hospital for a month but I kind of want to learn how to put these pages in some sort of order and tell my story. My mother died five years ago and my abuser died about ten years ago. I never told either one how badly they affected my life.
Dear Evelyn — I am deeply moved by your courage to write those 33 pages. I understand how difficult that must have been for you…and, at the same time, how profoundly brave. And of course you don’t have to share what you wrote with anyone else. Most important is that you wrote it…that you are giving voice and words to a childhood trauma. What happened to you as a child is so very, very sad. Please know that you are not alone. It means a lot to me that you posted this message and shared this. I am thinking of you and sending love. I’m wishing all the very best for you as you continue to move forward and, at the same time, work hard to recover from the past. Sue