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Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir

Poets & Writers named Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir one of the "essential books for writers."

"Fearless Confessions" is a guidebook for people who want to take possession of their lives by putting their experiences down on paper. Enhanced with illustrative examples from many different writers as well as writing exercises, this guide helps writers navigate a range of issues from craft to ethics to marketing and will be useful to both beginners and more accomplished writers.

PRAISE for Fearless Confessions:

15-Minutes Magazine: "Fearless Confessions is such a dynamic guide to memoir writing it has inspired me to completely refine and retool the memoir I’m working on. Sue William Silverman, a faculty advisor at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, is an amazing master of the language. Her prose is as enjoyable as it is instructive. This should be an essential textbook of any creative writing course. She gives examples of memoir pieces and analyzes each one, showing how they work, why they’re powerful, and even why some fail to impress."

The Writer Magazine: "I dutifully recommend Lamott's Bird by Bird, Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and King's On Writing to my students each term, but I find that I'm particularly excited to inform them of Silverman's new book. Her writing has a...tone that's...both accessible to readers and uncompromising in its rigorous investigation of what makes for compelling memoir."

"It's crucial to cultivate the courage to tell one's truth in the face of forces--from family members to the media--who would prefer that people with inconvenient pasts remain silent." ~~ from Fearless Confessions

Silverman draws upon her own personal and professional experience to provide an essential resource for transforming life into words that matter. "Fearless Confessions" is an atlas that contains maps to the remarkable places in each person's life that have yet to be explored.

SCROLL DOWN TO READ BOOK REVIEWS THAT APPEARED IN THE WRITER, "bookslut.com," and "The Joy Diaries" (below the Table of Contents).




Writing Exercises

CHAPTER 2 ~~ SAVORY WORDS: The First Bite of Your Story

Don’t Just State Your Story, Reveal Your Story . Move Readers With Active Words .
Following a Sensory Trail

Writing Exercises

for your reading pleasure: “Candy Cigarettes” by Anne Panning

CHAPTER 3 ~~ WRITING ON KEY: A Few Notes About Theme

False Starts . Starting True . The Colors We Choose

Writing Exercises

for your reading pleasure: “Rob Me Again” by Katherine Jamieson


Finding the Arc of Your Story: Horizontal & Vertical Plots . Motivating Your Plot . Thunderous Plots . The Structure of Plot . Crossing the Finish Line . Turning Real Life into Art

Writing Exercises

for your reading pleasure: “Scavengers” by Katy Read


Using Multiple Voices: The Voice of Innocence & The Voice of Experience . Your Everyday Voice and Your Literary Voice . Guiding Voices

Writing Exercises

for your reading pleasure: “The Visit” by Candance L. Greene

CHAPTER 6 ~~ MOCK MOONS & METAPHOR: Crafting Memoir Into Art

Finding Your Metaphors . The Metaphoric Memoir . Metaphor: A Window Onto the World

Writing Exercises

for your reading pleasure: “’Tetanus, You Understand?’” by Ellen Morris Prewitt


Your Story, Your Style . The Muscular Sentence . More Than Just “And” . Not “To Be” . Dialogue in Memoir . Past or Present Tense? . These Boots Are Made for Writing

Writing Exercises

For your reading pleasure: “The Man Behind the Shower Curtain” by Julie Mullany


Getting Started . Publishing Outlets: Pros & Cons of Each . How to Decide What’s Best for Your Book? . Promoting Yourself as a Professional Speaker . Web Opportunities for Your Memoir . The Importance of All Our Voices



Western Civilization in an Eggshell . One Secret, One Word, at a Time . Word by Word . The Courage to Show This to Your Mother (penance optional) . Truth and Memory in Memoir . What Readers Understand About Memoirs . What the Media Doesn’t Understand About Confessional Stories . A Hysterical [sic] History of Criticism



Appendix 1

“The Meandering River: An Overview of the Subgenres of Creative Nonfiction”

Appendix 2

Three Confessional Essays

Lynn C. Tolson: “From Process to Product: Using Print-on-Demand to Publish”
Karen Salyer McElmurray: “Gazing: Writing from the Womb”
Michelle Otero: “The Weight of a Word”

Appendix 3

Four full-length essays:

“Independence Day, Manley Hot Springs, Alaska” ~~ Lisa D. Chavez
“After the Dash” ~~ Michael Hemery
“Beautiful City of Tirzah” ~~ Harrison Candelaria Fletcher
“The Pat Boone Fan Club” ~~ Sue William Silverman

Appendix 4

Reading List of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction

(end Table of Contents)


The Writer
July 2009

A new guide dignifies the memoir genre

"Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir" by Sue William Silverman. University of Georgia Press, 272 pages. Paper, $19.95.

By Melissa Hart

INEVITABLY, AT the mention of memoir, novelist friends roll their eyes. "My life just isn't that interesting:' they say. "Whose really is?" I'm left feeling slightly inadequate, slightly ashamed that I'd view my own life as worthy of being in print. But then I remember David Sedaris, and how his career-launching essay about working as a Macy's Christmas elf inspired me to exhume my own childhood and adolescence for literary anecdotes both humorous and pathetic.

NPR broadcast the "Santaland Diaries" in 1992; since then, Sedaris has helped to exalt a genre frequently labeled narcissistic, and too often sullied by writers who fictionalize the facts of their lives. Sue William Silverman's Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir further dignifies the act of writing essays and entire books about oneself in a thorough and thoughtful analysis. "Fearlessly writing memoir allows us to understand our own life narratives,” she writes, "as well as to learn from those 'others’.”

Silverman, a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and associate editor of Fourth Genre, penned novels before winning the The Association of Writers & Writing Programs' award for creative nonfiction-an accolade that included publication of her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. She followed this success with a second memoir on overcoming sexual addiction. In her newest book, Silverman follows in the stylistic footsteps of bestselling authors Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg and Stephen King by penning a how-to book on the craft of writing informed by her own personal anecdotes.

I dutifully recommend Lamott's Bird by Bird, Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and King's On Writing to my students each term, but I find that I'm particularly excited to inform them of Silverman's new book. Her writing has an academic tone that manages to be both accessible to readers and uncompromising in its rigorous investigation of what makes for compelling memoir.

She also explores the challenges inherent in writing about oneself and one's family and friends. "What about other people involved in my secrets, especially my parents?" she writes. "Aren't I, in my writing, supposed to protect their privacy? No. Since my family was involved in the creation of who I am, I feel justified, even obliged, as a writer, to reveal the roles that they played.”

Silverman examines the role of memory in personal stories, tackling the issues of made-up dialogue and imprecise personal perspective with a courage and realism that defy those critics who demand "just the facts" in nonfiction literature. "While it's not acceptable to make up facts willy-nilly when writing about your life,” she notes, "it is acceptable to convey your individual version of events -- your memoir truth.”
Lest readers think she's advocating fiction disguised as fact, however, Silverman relentlessly tackles dishonesty in memoir. Without mentioning names, she evokes the notorious fabrications of James Frey, Margaret Seltzer and Herman Rosenblat. "The only thing readers won't forgive is an out-and-out lie,” she writes. "Nor should they.”

Throughout Fearless Confessions, Silverman cites a wealth of memoirists
from Michel de Montaigne and Samuel Johnson to Mark Doty and Patricia Hampl. She crafts a lively discussion on the pros and cons of the genre, including criticisms such as that from James Wolcott, who wrote that memoir is "a big earnest blob of me- first sensibility.” Each chapter ends with intelligent writing exercises designed to challenge and inspire readers, followed by short memoirs by various writers, which Silverman uses to illustrate lessons on plot, metaphor, dialogue and style.
The book includes an informative chapter on how to market a memoir, escorting readers through the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing versus working with a small press or with mainstream publishing houses. Silverman offers useful tips on promoting oneself as a public speaker and maintaining an online presence, along with numerous Web resources for writers. Writers are encouraged to identify the themes and ideas in their memoir, and then to locate and contact groups who would find their work of interest.

The appendixes in Fearless Confessions begin with an overview of the subgenres of creative nonfiction, including biography, autobiography, immersion journalism, memoir, personal essay, meditative essay, and what Silverman terms the "lyrical essay” in which "the movement is from image to image, not from event to event.”

She follows this clear and eloquent discussion with several full-length essays by various writers. The book concludes with an exciting bibliography - an 18-page list, rich with accomplished memoirists like Susan Sontag, Richard Rodriguez, Wendell Berry and Terry Tempest Williams. It's a list that makes me proud to write memoir.

Melissa Hart

Melissa Hart is the author of two memoirs: The Assault of lnughter and Gringo: A Controdidory Girlhood, which is due out in October. She teaches iournalism at the University of Oregon.

Book Review that appeared in "THE JOY DIARIES"

Last week, I received and devoured Sue William Silverman's new "Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir" (U of Georgia, 2009). And gentle readers, I have to tell you: This is the teaching text I have been waiting for.

It's terrific. It's smart, practical, honest, and candid, and it's clearly the product of Silverman's long experience as both writer and editor. (She has two riveting memoirs in print, and she's the associate editor of Fourth Genre, one of the top two journals that publish creative nonfiction exclusively, and my personal favorite.)

Until now, as a teacher of undergraduate and graduate memoir workshops, I have liked and used Vivian Gornick's shrewd and literate "The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative" with students, but honestly, it makes only a few really important take-away points, and most of them can be found on pages 3-26 and in the last chapter. Most of the rest of the book addresses (at length) texts that my students haven't read, which can be alienating/confusing for them, and I'm not able to devote our whole semester to reading Gornick's references. "The Situation and The Story" is a good jumping-off point, but then I've had to cobble together numerous other resources to make the pedagogical points I've wanted to make.

"Fearless Confessions" addresses everything: craft (from plot to sentence-level issues), ethics, the vexed issue of truth and memory, and even marketing. Silverman also addresses the psychological challenges of memoir writing, the fear that such a project can evoke, and the reasons to have courage. "Most memoirists I know are scared to write their stories," she acknowledges, "but the point, I think, is to write anyway--in our own way, in our own time." Throughout, Silverman's voice is warm and open, a voice of guidance, instruction, and encouragement from a been-there perspective.

Politically, as a gender critic, I was pleased to encounter her assessment of the highly gendered reception of memoirs in our culture, an issue that has troubled me since I read all those hostile, slanted reviews of Kathryn Harrison's "The Kiss"--so brilliant, so maligned--way back when. Silverman tackles the issue head-on:

. . .[W]hy are members of the media and society, broadly speaking, more likely to honor stories written by hostages, prisoners of war, or soldiers who have fought in foreign, faraway places? Aren't stories about domestic civil wars, stories of abused women and children, domestic POWs and homebound hostages--just as acute? Yet when we write about our wars closer to home, or even in the home, we are frequently, and pejoratively, labeled 'confessional' writers. Whiny."

She talks back clearly and convincingly. A whole section late in the book, "What the Media Doesn't Understand about Confessional Stories," develops the point, and Silverman's book title reclaims the term confessions from its pejorative past. For women and men whose writing focuses on domestic issues, I guess it helps to know the critical terrain in advance, so you can be prepared.

Useful appendices offer seven complete essays--three written just for this book--from contemporary writers such as Michelle Otero and Karen Salyer McElmurray, as well as a bibliography of "Contemporary Creative Nonfiction" that I love. Because it has so many works on it that I already admire and teach, like Alice Sebold's Lucky and Peter Balakian's Black Dog of Fate, as well as classics of the genre like Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life and Esmeralda Santiago's When I Was Puerto Rican, it feels particularly trustworthy, and I look forward to exploring the works I don't know.

And I'm really excited that another appendix offers Silverman's essay "The Meandering River: An Overview of the Subgenres of Creative Nonfiction," which I liked so much that I assigned to my graduate CNF students when it first appeared in "The Writer's Chronicle" last year. It provides useful descriptions of immersion writing, the lyric essay, and other CNF forms. Hurray! Now we have it in book form.

I look forward to using "Fearless Confessions" with students at the graduate and undergraduate levels, because it builds on, reinforces, and amplifies all the things I already try to teach when I teach memoir writing, the things I learned from good teachers and trial-and-error: sticking close to the body and the senses, showing-not-telling when portraying people and events, figuring out how to blend your voice then with your perspective now, which verb tense to choose, differentiating between therapy and memoir-writing, and so on.

This past weekend, I taught a mini-marathon blitzkrieg of a two-day intensive workshop, "Kick-Start Your Memoir," for the Nebraska Summer Writers' Conference to a group of fourteen wonderful, serious participants, and I felt very confident, during our last hour together, recommending Fearless Confessions to them. With its guidance, reflections, and several very fruitful-looking writing exercises, it's a book that can keep them going strong on the route they've chosen.

Silverman reminds us why we all keep showing up:

"Memoir writing, gathering words onto pieces of paper, helps me shape my life to a manageable size. By discovering plot, arc, theme, and metaphor, I offer my life an organization, a frame, which would be otherwise unseen, unknown. Memoir creates a narrative, a life story.
"Writing my life is a gift I give to myself. To write is to be constantly reborn. On one page I understand this about myself. On the next page, I understand that."

Yes. Lovely, and just so.

Posted: http://www.joycastro.com/blog/ by Joy Castro


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.