Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Truth in Memoir by Sue William Silverman

Today's forecast for St. Peters, MO: Partly cloudy, high 89 degrees.

Today's guest blogger is Sue William Silverman, who teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her most recent book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, published with the University of Georgia Press. As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on The View, Anderson Cooper 360, and CNN Headline News.

Sue will be available today to answer questions or comments.

TRUTH IN MEMOIR ~~ by Sue William Silverman

One night, when my family lived in the West Indies, we awoke to loud pounding on the door and found a friend of my mother’s, and her two children. They were bruised, and planned to flee the island while the drunken husband, who had beaten them, slept. My mother and I collected clothes and money, then drove them to the harbor. Arrangements were made for them to slip away.
Now, years later, I want to craft this event into an essay. But what do I factually remember? Perhaps only the mother was bruised—and not the children. Did they escape on a banana boat or did they charter a fishing craft? Was I in 4th grade at the time, or 5th?
Some facts remain elusive. Does this mean I shouldn’t write about the experience?
Memoir, after all, is not journalism. It’s not supposed to be. Just consider the similarity between the words “memoir” and “memory.” So as memoir writers our job is to portray events to the best of our recollections. So-called “facts” are frequently mis-remembered and blurred. No one can accurately recall every detail of a life. As memoirists, we convey how past events felt and seemed, as well as what they mean to us now.
So even if you don’t remember exact details, write anyway! Sometimes, ironically, the process of writing will actually help you recollect those images from the distant past. This happens to me all the time!
Besides, what is commonly called “fact” is frequently difficult to pin down. My interpretation of events forms a reality that is uniquely mine—my truth—how I understand my own life. If my sister wrote a memoir of growing up in our family, it’d be distinctly different from mine.
Yet, of course, it’s not acceptable to knowingly lie or make up facts willy-nilly. That would be breaking the contract with the reader.
It is acceptable, however, to convey your individual version of events. In “Fearless Confessions” I develop the notion of what I call “memory-truth.” Our memories are our truths. And, by definition, memory is subjective. Readers understand this.
Ultimately, writing memoir is giving shape to a life. For example, although I’m never aware of a plot in my real life, while writing a memoir, however, I must discover one in order to thematically unify my story. To do this, I select which details to include, which extraneous ones to leave out. I manipulate time, condense it. I craft real-life details into artistic metaphors. This is not something I ever do in life—only in the interpretation of it.
This isn’t lying. It’s crafting life into art!

University of Georgia Press. Everyone has a story to tell. “Fearless Confessions” is a guidebook for people who want to take possession of their lives by putting their experiences down on paper—or in a Web site or e-book. 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.

Sue William Silverman says: “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.” Her memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton), is also a Lifetime Television original movie. Her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the AWP award in creative nonfiction.

Feel free to leave a question or comment for Sue. She will be available today to answer them.


  1. As a history lover I know from classes that even what seems so factual--history books--often differ depending on which point of view the event is told from. So how can we expect memoirs to be any different?

    It's seems laughable when people complain about memoirs saying that's not exactly how that event happened--it was the spring not the winter or I never said can they before sure their memory is the infallible one and the author is incorrect?

    Is there a line between filling in gaps in your memory and creating fiction? How do we know when we've crossed it?

  2. Hi, Jodi, I agree with you! Not only do history books have differing versions, but even current events! When do politicians ever see "facts" the same way?!

    That said, in terms of memoir, I think one crosses the line, as James Frey did, when he knowingly fabricated events. If you knowingly make something up and pass it off as a truth, that, to me, crosses the line. Also, he wasn't trying to recall events from childhood. He was trying to make his story more "dramatic."

    In other words, if a memoirist is writing about something that happened as a child--years or decades ago--and signals to the reader in some way that while she can't remember every single detail, but that this is the way the event felt, this is the way it seemed, this, to the best of her recollection, is the way it happened, then you're not crossing the line. The reader understands this, understands the nature of memoir--and that memory, at times, is faulty.

    Crossing the line, for me, is to willfully make stuff up. And, really, there's no need to make anything up! Trust your story to be urgent and interesting enough for a reader!

    How do you feel about this? Does that make sense?

  3. That sounds good...I always wondered. Some of the best memoirs I've read haven't been "big and dramatic" but simply peeks into someone's life in a place or situation or time I've never been in. Frankly I think Frey hurt all memoirists. Do you ever get the feeling that people are always wondering, "Yeah, but how much of this is made up?" because of fallout from his fiasco?

  4. HI, Jodi, Yes, a memoir doesn't always have to be big and dramatic events! Good point. As long as the author feels a sense of urgency toward the material--whatever it is--then that urgency will be communicated to the reader.

    While Frey might have hurt all memoirists--in the way you state above--the way the media handled it, I feel, hurt the genre more. I mean, it was the media that got totally hysterical and, instead of putting the issue in its proper context (this is one memoir where the author made a huge mistake!), THEY are the ones who fanned the flames, as it were.

    For example, there have been very notable cases where a journalist (who really is SUPPOSED to report only the facts, the "truth") has totally fabricated a story. When this happens, the media attacks the journalist in question, but does NOT attack journalism in its entirety.

    That's not what happened in the Frey case. The media attacked the entire genre--which of course is absurd. In chapter 9 of my book, I kind of "take on" the media for the unhelpful way(!!), generally speaking, it treats memoir--especially those written by women!

    Thanks so much for your insights! Very interesting!

  5. Hi Sue,

    First, thanks for visiting here today and sharing your wisdom with us.

    What you've said makes absolute sense to me.

    Your remark about childhood memories struck a chord. I'm the middle child of seven children. My closest sister is 16-months older than I am. Most of our memories are very similar--almost identical--yet a few are vastly different. We sometimes argue (in a nice way) about whose memory is correct. At times we'll even call one of our other siblings to get their take on what happened. Makes me wonder about the memories of twins or other multiple birth siblings.

    I do have a question. You've written about some very painful and personal experiences, and I admire your courage for doing that. I once heard a speaker recommend that writers should allow a reasonable amount of time--I think she suggested five years--before writing about a life-altering, traumatic experience. I believe her reasoning was to allow time to heal, as well as being more objective and clear headed. Do you agree with this statement?
    Donna Volkenannt

  6. Since memoirs deal with such personal events, how can a writer remove themselves from the personal aspect of it to see if the story really would interest a wide audience?

  7. Thanks to Sue for the information and to Donna for hosting this Blog Tour.

    Sue, how do you handle writing about relatives or friends who may not be happy about the result?


  8. HI, Donna! Thank you for such lovely support here. It is truly my pleasure to be part of this blog.

    In terms of your question, about how long a writer should wait after the event to write about it, I'm not sure that one answer fits all.

    Now, if writing about a childhood memoir, there will, by definition, of course, be a gap of many years.

    However, I wrote "Love Sick" (about recovering from sexual addiction), more or less at the end of most of the recovery--certaily before 5 years were up. (Though it took me, ironically, 5 years to write it!) The writing of it helped in the recovery, in that writing helped me better understand the addiction.

    I mean, I think it can work either way. Sometimes, sure, we need the time for our emotions to catch up to the intellectual "knowing" of an event.

    Other times, however, it might be helpful to write, if not during the throes of the event, shortly after, as the writing process itself can help us process these things that happen to us--which, as I say, was true for me in terms of "Love Sick."

    Probably, more than anything, the material itself will, on some level, let US know when it's time to write it! If you feel as if you just have to write it NOW, then write it now!!

  9. Krysten, actually, I don't think a writer should remove herself from the personal aspects of the story in order to determine whether a wider audience would be interested in it!

    My own feeling is that if YOU care deeply about your story, any given event, then that urgency will be communicated to the reader.

    That's how to make a writer care: to feel deeply about your story, and then find the language and structure, etc., in which to best present it.

    Does that make sense? I honestly feel that there are readers for all our stories--whatever your story might be.

  10. Pat, that's a good question--and one I deal with a lot in chapter 9 of the book.

    And, as with the other question, not one answer fits all. To some extent, it depends upon your comfort level: How comfortable do you feel writing your story even though you know you might upset some people?

    Well, sure, everyone worries about this to some extent. That's only natural. But can you worry about potentially hurting some feelings while, at the same time, you write anyway? I guess that's true for me.

    Basically, I feel that I own my story; therefore, it's mine to write. Plus, I don't write from a place of revenge or anger or anything like that. I write in order to understand things that have happened to me.

    For example, in my first memoir, "Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You," I wrote to better understand my incestuous family. In my second memoir, I wrote to better understand sexual addiction. And, in this book, I certainly was harder on myself than anyone else.

    But, as I say, I think our jobs as writers IS to tell our stories (whether through memoir or poetry or even fiction). That's what writers do. I don't think our job is to try to make people feel comfortable, especially about uncomfortable events.

    That may sound tough--and I don't mean it to be. But, for me, I feel it's incumbent upon me as a writer to be emotionally authentic and tell my truths--and hope people understand. If they don't, be it.

    So far, by the way, only my ex-husband is angry at me (about "Love Sick"). Everyone else I know has actually been very supportive! So you never know.

    I hope this answers your question. It IS a very complicated topic--and one worthy of much discussion!!

  11. I'm so enjoying this discussion! And Sue, I have to tell you that I checked your book out of my library a month ago (and have since renewed it! I'm sure more than a few folks are getting annoyed with me :-) so it's a pleasure to meet you, so to speak!

    I've long wondered about those adults who write childhood memoirs because I have such a lousy memory and my brothers are always correcting me about past family events! Any other tips you could suggest to spark locked-up memories? Or do you think that we sometimes lock up memories for good reason?

  12. Hi, Cathy,
    I'm so pleased that you're finding my book helpful!

    That's an excellent question about memory. And, of course, siblings always have different childhood memories, always recalling things differently. That happens all the time.

    But I probably wouldn't believe, necessarily, that your brothers' memories are "right," or that your memories are "wrong." Their memories are theirs, and your memories belong to you! That's the nature of memory, right? If you remember a certain event in a certain way, then that is your truth! (At least that's how I see it!!)

    In order to "unlock" memories, here is what I do:

    For me, the best way to recollect the details of past events is to submerge myself in sensory imagery.

    For example, say I want to write about a birthday party in sixth grade. Maybe I remember some broad brushstrokes of the party but can’t recall as many details as I’d like. In order to do so, I begin by asking myself the following: what did the birthday party sound like, taste like, feel like, look like, smell like?

    By focusing on the five senses, it’s amazing how many seemingly “lost” details we remember! In other words, by concentrating, I try to “re-enter” scenes, submerge myself in any given past experience, and see where that leads me.

    Just follow those sensory details into the past!

    Does that make sense?

  13. Hi Sue!
    You are so generous with your answers. I work with people in my editing business all the time that are writing memoirs. Two problems I run into with them are 1. They don't have a BIG WORLDY message that people can get from the book. Since the authors are unknown, is it important for a reader to be able to take away a so-called "lesson" from the book? 2. And do you use this message or lesson to "sell" the book to an editor or agent in your query letter? To me, it seems like many editors or agents want to say "So, you lived through this horrible time, and you write well, but why would peopel want to read this book? What makes your book universal?"

    Am I on the right track here? Or completely off-base?
    Margo Dill

  14. Hi, Margo,
    Oh, but our life stories--our own personal narratives--ARE universal! In other words, the underlying emotions of anything that's happened to us is something to which most anyone can relate.

    For example, let's take my memoir about sexual addiction. Yes, on the face of it, that's what it's about: recovering from sexual addiction. So other women who are also struggling with this addiction, can certainly relate to my story.

    But, I also get loads of emails from women who don't struggle with this addiction, but who also tell me they relate to my story.


    Because, on a deeper, more universal level, the memoir is ALSO about loss, alienation, a search for love, self identity, body image, healthy sex, etc.

    In other words, a memoir, if well written, has both a surface story (say, about sex addiction, or recovery from incest, or child abuse), but there's also a deeper story or theme that is universal (say, about loss, loneliness, a need for comfort). These emotions are ones to which most anyone can relate.

    And this is why, I feel, memoirs are so popular, why so many people not only write them, but also read them.

  15. Thanks, Sue, and Donna for inviting Sue and sharing her insightful comments with all of us! As someone who's working on a memoir at present, this has been invaluable, and I plan to check out the book as well!

    Just a couple of questions, as many of mine are answered above... Are there liability issues with writing about 'other people' in a memoir, or is it acceptable if you're simply telling your POV of the story? Also, do you recommend certain publishers or types of publishers over others for interest in these types of books? Mine will be written around a divorce while running a B&B, and a dose of its 'feminine' history thrown in...

    Thanks so much for your insight.
    Cate Richard (Dodson)

  16. Hi, Cate,
    Sometimes, publishers worry about "invasion of privacy" issues (not liability). However, even with privacy issues, lawsuits are so, so rare! And, the attorney of your publisher will help guide you and let you know if anything needs to be changed or disguised before the book is published. So I wouldn't worry about that. No one has ever even hinted of a lawsuit with either of my books.

    My first publisher, the University of Georgia Press, didn't ask me to change anything from a legal standpoint. W. W. Norton, however, who published my second book, did ask me to change/disguise a few things--all of which was easy to do.

    In terms of publishers, both university presses and small presses are good places to publish--as are big New York houses. I've been published by both and can't really say one is better than the other. (Just so you know, I do have a chapter on marketing and publishing in my new book.)

    There are differences between the two kinds of publishers, however. With a university or a small press, you might not earn as much money, but your book will probably be kept in print longer.

    With a big NY publisher, on the other hand, you'll probably earn more money, but, unless your book is a big seller, it might not be kept in print as long.

    So, as with much in life, there are pros and cons to each!

    All or any of these kinds of publishers certainly publish many memoirs--and are interested in feminist issues! Good luck with your book! It sounds very important!

  17. Sue, thanks for your valuable comments. I am contemplating writing a memoir that is searingly honest and candid. I have been hesitant because it throws another light on prominent family members, although the key people are deceased. You've encouraged me to take another look at embarking on this project.
    Incidentally, I met Michael Steinberg at "Writers in Paradise" at Eckerd College in 2005 and he introduced me to The Fourth Genre. It was like taking a college course. Keep up the good work, and I'll be looking for your book.

  18. HI, Joy, so good to hear from you! I'm delighted that you're thinking of writing a memoir, and I hope my new book can help you. (By the way, if you want to see the Table of Contents for "Fearless Confessions," you can find it on my website, at I think there's a link above.)

    That's so important to be that candid and honest in your memoir, as you suggest...even though, yes, I know, it does show a family in a different light. My father was a high government official--there were so many people who thought he was amazing--who never suspected about the dark side to my family, until I wrote "Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You."

    But, interestingly, I received much support anyway--from people who I thought would be angry at me--so you never know.

    In any event, I think that's so important that you're now moving closer to writing it! Writing memoir is one of the best decisions I ever made for myself! I hope you find that to be true for you, too.

  19. Thanks, Sue. I appreciate your comments and will definitely buy your book as soon as I can! Best of luck with its success!

  20. Thank you SO much, Cate. Your support really means a lot to me! Sue

  21. Hi Sue,
    Today was amazing all around. We definitely have received a gift by having you visit Donna's Book Pub. Thanks for your advice, thoughtful answers,and time.

    Thanks to WOW! for letting me be a part of this wonderful blog tour.

    And to my visitors,
    Thanks for leaving comments and questions or just dropping to read all that has been discussed. I'm heartened to see the names of some new visitors.
    I am especially grateful to the "regulars" who grace my blog with their presence, comments, and support.
    You are the best!

  22. HI, Donna,
    Thank YOU so much for having me here. I've had a wonderful time answering great questions about memoir writing. I love hearing the ideas for what I'm sure will be important and powerful memoirs...and I hope some of my comments and/or "Fearless Confessions" might help you all get started, or keep going.

    If anyone wants to contact me later, my info. is on my website. Sue

  23. I am glad that writers are looking critically at the possible repercussions of publishing their memoirs. Although memoirs are not considered biographical, they contain biography and history. Consequently, I think that some research is essential. Researching one's own life can be a goldmine of information and perspectives that might have remained undiscovered. More importantly, understanding the perspectives of others who may have been present at various key points in one's life answers questions that could provide a story with much greater depth.

    I also think that it is very important to have an author's note. If names have been changed and time compressed or whatever, reader's should be made aware of them. I think it would be helpful to everyone, reader, character, etc. if author's included in their author's notes a comment about their purpose in writing and that it is not their intention to cause anyone who may appear in their book harm.

    I do not really consider writing memoirs as one's own truth to be really truthful. There is really only one truth - the facts of what happened. There are different perspectives on the facts based on one's personal biases and even senses. If all you care to address is your take on the events of life than this should be stated in the author's note.

    If memoirs have received a "bad rap" becuase of people like James Frye and Augusten Burroughs, it may be because there have been so many stories that seem implausable. The media was right to call the genre of memoir to task. To me it seemed as if there were a publishing contest in which the person with the nastiest childhood would have books on the bestsellers list. It seems as if publishers are looking for shocking stories that will sell lots of books and some writers may fall into the trap of sensationalizing their story in order to get their books published.

    There is a line somewhere between memoir and fiction that is easily crossed. I imagine that each writer has to find that line. I think readers like myself, want to know where that line is too. I don't want to read a story that someone made up based on memory.

    But the most disturbing thing to me is for memoirists to discount the possibility that in telling one's own story, someone else could be hurt. Yes, it may be your story and "you" may have every right to tell it. However, once again there is a line between telling one's own story and telling too much about some one else's life.

    I happen to know about this first hand. Memoirs can be, in my mind, a crime. Memoirs can be used to deliberately harm others all in the name of writing one's own story. I am much more interested in how truthful much of fiction is in comparison to the truth in memoirs. If the truth is subjective than maybe memoirs are a branch of fiction.

  24. Anonymous,
    Sure, it’s fine to add an appropriate disclaimer in the front of a memoir—and most memoirists do just that. Generally, however, I’m afraid you and I will just need to disagree that there is one single truth. That’s an over-simplification that I—and most others—don’t believe. Truth is dynamic, it’s not static.

    In Heisenberg’s “On Certainty Principle," he states that the act of observing something, changes what’s observed.

    And, more to the point, the famous memoirist Patricia Hampl writes: "Critics are 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. And I think that misrepresents entirely the way the faculty of memory works."

    As historians themselves know, there are many ways to interpret a historic event. If you count how many histories were written, for one example, about World War II, I dare say the number would be staggering. itself lists 240,585 books on this subject! If there were only one interpretation of World War II, then there would only be a need for one book about it.

    Anyway, thanks for your post. It reminded me again of why I write memoir, why I read them, and why I'm really glad that I wrote "Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir," to encourage others to write them, too! Sue

  25. I guess we do disagree. Truth is reality, an event occurred and it happened in a series of specific actions. It is a person's perception of the event that may differ. If you look at what science seems to show about memory one can see how human senses and emtional state can color events.

    I don't believe that it is truth that is dynamic but memory may be. It is well known that memories change over time with age and experience. Memory also changes each time a story is retold. Actually sometimes our memories are not even our own, but can be the memories of family members. They can be stories repeated in families over the years. Rather like the fisherman with the fish that got away. The fish gets bigger with each repitition about how big the fish was.

    Because human memory is influenced by so many different physiological factors as well as emotional etc. It is important to explore and research one's own life. I think it is surprising to find some things that were remember incorrectly and other things that were misunderstood and more importantly, to find some of the motivations or circumstances that may help explain why events in one's life may have happened the way they did.

    I do not intend to discourage anyone from writing anything. I do happen to believe that writing one's memoirs are important in order to keep family stories alive, to let our children and their children know who we are and what life was like for us. There may be a moment, usually when someone gets sick or dies, that we wish we knew that person better. However, publishing a memoir, in my view, requires that a writer take great care with the "truth".

    Publishing a memoir can have an impact on living people who appear as characters in a memoir. If facts are reported incorrectly, or if events are distorted out of proportion, it is possible to cause the "characters" public and private distress. Memoirs may be written "off the top of one's head" but I don't think they should be published that way.

    Actually, I can't imagine a person not wanting to research their own life.

  26. Hi, Anonymous, Since you aren't providing any specific details of how you've personally been "harmed" by someone's memoir, it's difficult to really understand your problem.

    Let me assure you that of the hundreds of memoirs I've read, I don't know of one that was written "off the top of one's head." That's misunderstanding the nature of memoir. I suggest, if you want to read real, well-written memoirs, then you might want to check out some titles on my reading list on my website, at Hope this helps!

  27. I find this conversation very interesting, both as a former journalist (and believe me, the "making up the story" is abhorrent to me) and a reader. I never believed the Frey book, and was vindicated (though that seems too strong a word) when the "truth" came out. I've read some memoirs I've really enjoyed (in fact, I'm deep into one of World War II, and the experiences of the Germans forced out of East Prussian lands right now -- Abandoned and Forgotten by Evelyne Tannehill). And earlier this summer I read a fiction book by Laura Lippman that was about a writer who'd penned several memoirs. That was interesting on several fronts, including how different people remembered things different ways. It included a whole section on how one character was just incensed that Cassie, the main character, had gotten the details completely wrong.

    Very interesting topic.

  28. Hi Liz,
    Thanks for your comment. Sue's post has definitely generated a lot of interest and fascinating discussion.


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