Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Some people date western civilization back to a memoir in the 4th century when a young man struggled with and overcame sexual sin. After converting to Christianity, he played an important role in the monastic movement which encouraged candidates for ministry to practice celibacy. That young man was Saint Augustine and he entitled his memoir simply: Confessions.
Sue William Silverman draws on confessions of her own in her book which begins with a strong topic sentence:
“In Fearless Confession, I invite you to accompany me as I look back at what I learned on my path towards becoming a writer, hoping to assist you with your own journey.” (xiii)
Still, her title—Fearless Confessions—hints that Silverman is not your typical academic author. In fact, she has published three memoirs—
- The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew,
- Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, and
- Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You.
—each of which offer a slice of her life experience, not a complete picture (28), suggesting an important principle in writing memoir—theme. She writes:
“A theme is an abstract concept that represents the underlying meaning, idea, or message of you memoir, whether it’s a full-length book or essay…Revealing a theme is more effective than announcing it.” (24-25)
For your typical biography of a famous person, the hidden theme is typically a how an ordinary person became great—one reason that biographies of ordinary people often lack luster (no hidden theme interesting to the reader). However, even someone living a fairly mundane life shares much in common with potential readers, given that a suitable theme can be identified—in Silverman’s case, that theme is childhood abuse and its consequences.
Having theme, plot develops. Silverman observes: “Plot is as important in memoir as it is in fiction. In fiction, plot is invented; in nonfiction, it is discovered.” (35) Plot develops around a theme suggesting which details to include and which to leave out. Silverman divides plot into horizontal plot (external events or action) and vertical plot (emotions, thoughts, and insights) (36-37).
She develops this dichotomy between action and emotions further in her discussion of voice dividing voice into the voice of innocence and the voice of experience. Silverman writes of the voice of innocence: “This voice relates the facts of the story, the surface subject or action.” (51). The voice of experience then is where: “we add a more mature voice or persona that, in effect, explains and deepens the Voice of Innocence with metaphor, spirituality, irony, reflection.” (52) She then launches into a discussion of how our voice in everyday life, is not our literary or metaphorically-enhanced voice (55).
Silverman’s description of metaphor as something to discover is priceless. What is the meaning we attribute to special objects (like a gifted, maroon scarf; 72)? How do we discover the metaphors in our own life? In my own writing, my grandparent’s farm served as a metaphor for the security that I lacked as my family moved around during my father’s graduate school years.
Silverman describes herself a writer, speaker, and faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes in 9 chapters preceded by a preface and followed by 4 lengthy appendices. The chapter titles are:
- The Longest Paragraph.
- Savory Words: The First Bite of Your Story.
- Writing on Key: A Few Notes about Theme.
- Plotting Your Life.
- Between Innocence and Experience: Finding Your Voices.
- Mock Moons and Metaphor: Crafting Memoir into Art.
- Writing in Style.
- Marketing Your Memoir. and
- Confessional and (Finally) Proud of It.
The chapters end with writing exercises and the appendices provide memoir samples.
If you are writer contemplating your own autobiographical book, Sue William Silverman’s Fearless Confessions is a helpful place to start. As memoir is a theme in my own writing this year, Silverman’s insights opened up and charted direction where I previously was floundering. Thank you.