|Insight, Metaphor, and Meaning:
An Interview with
Sue William Silverman
Author Interview by Angela M. Graziano
Sue William Silverman’s first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father,
I Remember You, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs
award series in creative nonfiction. She is also the author of a second
memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction, and a
collection of poetry, Hieroglyphics in Neon. She is associate editor of Fourth
Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, and teaches in the MFA in Writing
program at Vermont College.
AMG: What do you enjoy about writing creative nonfiction?
Silverman: Everything! Well, okay, that’s kind of abstract. I like the challenge
of finding a shape for my life—an organization for life’s “messy” moments.
Writing about life is a way for me to make sense of it, discover the metaphors
that guide me. Writing, I see everything more clearly, understand the
AMG: I have read that your first memoir, Because I Remember Terror,
Father, I Remember You, was originally begun as fiction. What
challenges did you find when you began to write it as CNF?
Silverman: More to the point, I think, is that I found challenges—obstacles—
trying to write it as fiction! I couldn’t hear/find a fictional voice with which to
tell the story. The voice never sounded authentic because I was trying to be
truthful—while hiding behind a fictional mask. It didn’t work. Once I began
writing Terror/Father, my “true” voice was right there. I wrote the entire draft
in three months. I didn’t over-analyze any of it, or make too many conscious
decisions. I followed its energy, and it just fell out of me, pretty much as is.
That was a gift! I’d never studied CNF; I’m not sure I’d ever even read a
memoir before I wrote Terror/Father. Love Sick was actually much more
difficult and time consuming to write.
AMG: In both your memoirs, Because I Remember Terror and Love
Sick, there are two voices present. Do you think either of these books
could have been constructed using only one voice?
Silverman: No. One voice would only have told the story of what happened.
And, ultimately, just a surface story—what I call the “voice of innocence”—
isn’t overly interesting in and of itself. I think readers read memoir (and
writers write it!) in order to understand what this surface story means. In
Terror/Father, then, what I call the “voice of experience” guides the reader
through the darkness of growing up in an incestuous family. Otherwise, the
book would only have been “my father did this to me.” Likewise, in Love Sick,
with only the voice of innocence, I could have established how I acted out in the
sex addiction, my behaviors, what I did. But I needed the voice of experience
to discover the metaphors surrounding the addiction. In short, the voice of
experience is where the author reflects upon the story, discovers insight,
metaphor, and meaning. Both these voices are crucial in order to have a fully
AMG: Did you plan to incorporate two voices or was that something
that happened naturally through the writing process?
Silverman: It happened naturally. With Terror, I could tell fairly quickly that
the writing sounded flat while only telling the surface story. And, having written
fiction for many years, I realized that CNF is likewise about developing details
AMG: One of the biggest challenges in creative nonfiction is creating
a story that does not seem narcissistic. What do you think is the
element(s) that makes creative nonfiction, specifically memoir, into
something that can be appreciated by a wide range of readers?
Silverman: It’s this voice of experience—metaphor and reflection—that makes
CNF not narcissistic. Metaphor and reflection deepen the story, make it
universal, much as in poetry and fiction. For example, let’s say I’m writing a
memoir with the theme of alienation. Even if a reader hasn’t experienced the
same kind of alienation as mine, he/she has probably still felt alienated at one
point in his/her life, in that universal, thematic way. Therefore, by reading my
story, readers, hopefully, will be able to identify with my sense of alienation, as
well as having light shed on their own.
AMG: Can you talk a little about metaphor and the role it plays in
creative nonfiction? How do you go about creating metaphor in your
Silverman: Discovering metaphor is all in the details: sensory and imagistic
details. For example, take the pajamas in the pajama party scene in Terror/
Father: If I’d written this scene solely through the voice of innocence, I’d just
say that “I went to a store and because I didn’t have enough money to purchase
the pajamas, I stole them.” Not very interesting. But I needed to slant the
details about the pajamas in such a way so that they would be a metaphor for,
well, my body for one thing. Also a metaphor for how I wanted to look like
(be like) all the other New Jersey girls. Slant your details to reveal theme and
you’ll discover your metaphors.
AMG: Where do you feel is the line between creating art from real
stories and creating fiction?
Silverman: Fiction can include both made up stuff and real stuff. CNF must all
be true. Critically, I approach fiction as if I’m looking at a blank page: what
must I discover to fill it in, to create an entire world? I approach CNF, on the
other hand, as if I’m looking at a full page: what must I eliminate from an entire
life in order to discover a tight focus? Memoir, after all, is a slice of a life, not
an entire life. Regardless of the approach, both fiction and CNF need character
development, plot, dialogue, setting, metaphor, etc.
AMG: In regards to that, can you discuss your thoughts on the idea of
emotional truth and its possibilities/limitations?
Silverman: I don’t really see any limitations to emotional truth. The possibilities
are wide open. And they must be constantly challenged. We must achieve
emotional truth in CNF; otherwise, why write it? Writing CNF is an emotional
exploration, more than anything. We write to discover who we are, who we
were—and what it all means. I think it’s incumbent upon writers of CNF to be
fearless, to be willing to explore our dark places.
AMG: In your article, “Innocence and Experience: Voice in Creative
Nonfiction,” you wrote that you “think of nonfiction characters as having
different depths of view—as opposed to fiction that utilizes different
points of view.” Can you discuss this?
Silverman: I think the depth-of-view concept arises from that voice of
experience. It’s important to push this voice, deepen the meaning of our stories
as much as possible. Oh, maybe in the early pages of a memoir, we think X
about a certain event. Then, maybe on page 100, we reconsider: “Now I think
Y about this event.” You know, we’re always shifting, challenging, considering,
reconsidering, discovering metaphor for an experience. I think it’s important, as
I say, to push and test the limits of emotional truth—and this happens through
deepening the voice.
AMG: Often, when faced with traumatic experiences such as abuse or
loss, people talk about certain memories being repressed. When writing,
have you found that previously forgotten memories have surfaced?
Silverman: I never suffered from a clinical version of repressed memory.
Nevertheless, of course we all simply forget things. And, yes, the writing
process definitely helps me remember. Once I submerge my consciousness
into that sensory, imagistic world, all sorts of forgotten things arise. I tend to
remember broad outlines of an experience, usually only discovering those all-
important details through language, through writing.
AMG: Both Love Sick and Because of Terror are written in the present
tense. Had you ever thought of or tried to construct them in the past
tense? What impact may this have had on the stories?
Silverman: I never considered past tense. In many ways, I never consciously
made a decision to write in present tense, either. Rather, when I began writing,
it just came out in present tense. I think present tense lends an air of immediacy
to your story that past tense doesn’t. Most of my flashbacks are in present
tense as well.
AMG: In your article, “Confessional and (Finally) Proud of It,” you
discuss the fantasies you held as a young writer (from meeting the
literati to being reviewed in the Times). With the success of your
books, you now speak across the country on issues of abuse and
violence against women. Can you talk about your current outlook on
the success of your work and the effect it has on readers?
Silverman: I’m relieved I “recovered” from thoughts about the literati, etc. How
pompous and scary. Instead, it means much more to me to have “real” people,
real women, write to me, let me know what my books mean to them. I love
hearing from my readers. These women truly touch me. I feel empowered by
them, by their courage and their journeys. In many ways, they’re thanking me
for telling their stories, too. This is the power of CNF. Regardless of the
subject matter, we’re always telling the stories of others when we tell our own.
AMG: As a faculty member in the MFA writing program at Vermont
College, what are some of the most common difficulties or challenges
that you see with beginning writers?
Silverman: In my experience, there are two challenges most beginning writers
share. First is the difficulty of understanding the voice of experience, figuring
out how the work must discover its metaphors, as well as how to integrate
reflection. In other words, many beginning writers think, “okay, this interesting
or traumatic thing happened to me, and it’d make a great story.” Yes and no.
It might make a great story, but you need more than mere story. You need that
voice of experience to discover what the story means.
Second, many beginning writers fear straying too far from “facts” and worry that
they might be accused of lying. In other words, it’s hard to convince them that
subjectivity is part of memoir. I think there’s a tacit contract with the reader that
retrieving facts from memory is a selective and subjective business—while, at
the same time, knowing that it’s not all right to make facts up or lie willy-nilly.
Here’s a great quote from Patricia Hampl about critics’ reactions to memoirs,
“…they’re so assured that there is a thing called a ‘fact’ and that it can be found
like a lost sock, and that once you’ve found it that’s all you’ve got to do, state a
fact. I think that misrepresents entirely the way the faculty of memory works.”
In short, subjective memory is acceptable, while pure invention isn’t. So, in my
experience, this is what beginning writers struggle with, at times.
AMG: You have also completed a collection of poetry, Hieroglyphics in
Neon. Can you tell me what it is like to write poetry as compared to
prose? When did you first begin to write poetry?
Silverman: What I love about writing poetry is that you don’t have to figure out
how to get “characters” in and out of doors. There they are! The time and space
traveling in poetry is so freeing. Well, okay, I guess what I’m saying is that I
love the looser quality of the narrative, the flexibility of poetry. I mean, sure, you
need control over the material, but it’s a different kind of energy…more flowing.
I started writing poetry a few months after Love Sick was published. I never
wrote it before. Not even bad high school poetry. Line breaks used to scare
me; now I love them.
AMG: Can you discuss what projects you are currently working on?
Silverman: I’m working on a creative nonfiction manuscript titled The Pat
Boone Fan Club & Other Misadventures of a Jewish Girl Gone Bad. It’s
personal history, about discovering identity: as a Jewish woman in a Christian
society; in marriage; in divorce; in a broken-down Volkswagen; while picking
apricots in Israel. How do I discover identity in these various elements in
which I find myself. It’s about finding those potent moments in which identity is
illuminated. Ironically, I think I just finished the manuscript today. Oh, no, that
sounds too scary. I’ll have to fiddle with it some more.
Sue William Silverman’s first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father,
I Remember You (University of Georgia Press), won the Association of
Writers and Writing Programs award series in creative nonfiction. Love Sick:
One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton) is her
second memoir, and her poetry collection is Hieroglyphics in Neon (Orchises
Press). Three essays won literary competitions with the following journals:
Hotel Amerika, Mid-American Review, and the Brenda Ueland Prize for
Prose with Water~Stone Journal. She is associate editor of Fourth Genre:
Explorations in Nonfiction, and teaches in the MFA in Writing program at
Vermont College. Her website is located at www.suewilliamsilverman.com.
Interviewer Angela M. Graziano is a student in the MFA program at Fairleigh
Dickinson University. Her work has appeared in Miranda Magazine, Toasted
Cheese, and A Long Story Short.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 2, Number 2
Copyright © 2007
by Leah Browning, Editor.
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Valley Review are retained
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