Interview by Linda Joy Myers
National Association of Memoir Writers
LINDA: You begin Fearless Confessions with a scene in your therapist’s office. In your book Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, you bring in your therapist as well as in your first book, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. Many writers shy away from this kind of revealing, and I know writers who have been advised not to include therapy information—“it will be boring,” or “who wants to hear about that?” How was it that you decided to include therapy scenes and conversations in your books?
SUE: Good question! I began Fearless Confessions (FC) with that scene in my therapist’s office because he is the one who suggested I write nonfiction in the first place! And since FC—in addition to being a craft book—is also a memoir about my journey as a writer of memoirs, it seemed fitting. In other words, I began FC by detailing how I overcame fear in order to write my first memoir.
In Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, I felt it important to introduce my therapist right up front so the reader would know, while subsequently reading about my dangerous childhood (which comprises most of the book), that, ultimately, I found safety.
Love Sick pretty much has to include my therapist since the book takes place during 28 days I spent in rehab.
All this said, yes, I agree with you that there are artistic risks when including material that sounds like a therapy session! My challenge, then, as a writer, was to weave these scenes into the narrative as dynamically as possible. Writing memoir, of course, is crafting a life into art. I try to do that with all the scenes—including those with my therapist.
LINDA: As you know, my interest is in the healing power inherent in writing the truth, revealing secrets, and seeking transformation through writing. How would you say that writing has changed you? What has it been like to confront these issues in your writing?
SUE: For me, writing memoir is a journey of discovery—and this discovery is transformative. I never quite know what any event means until I write it! It’s a way to organize life, discover connections, and come to understand my metaphors. Mainly, it is in this discovery of metaphor that most affords me insight and understanding.
For example, in Love Sick, I write about this older, married man with whom I have an affair while I’m a freshman in college. He wore this maroon scarf that I liked, and he gave it to me. Now, all I knew at that time, in college, was that I wanted the scarf. It was only years later, while writing the memoir, that I came to understand what the scarf really meant to me—that it was a metaphor for comfort. I loved the scarf because, as an addict, I didn’t know how to love the man—and, more importantly, myself.
It is only through writing that I understand the meaning of events such as these. And these discoveries are transformative, in that this knowledge makes me feel more alive.
LINDA: Can you talk about how writing very personal things about yourself, your body, and sexuality has affected you or your family? Was there any reaction by family members about such exposure?
SUE: In terms of my family, there’s been no reaction! Of course, my parents are dead. My sister hasn’t read my books.
Has it affected me? When Love Sick was first published, I was kind of thrown for a loop when I had some very unpleasant radio interviews with male “shock jocks.” Oh, one asked me where was the kinkiest place I ever had sex. Yikes!
Now, however, I don’t much worry about these negative reactions. Much more important is the fact that I receive hundreds of e-mails from women (and some men) thanking me for sharing my story—letting me know that my book helped them better understand their own struggles…that my book helped them feel not so alone. That’s incredibly empowering, and helps me feel not so alone, too!
LINDA: Did you remember consciously the childhood scenes in your first book, or did you gradually become more aware of memoires as you wrote.? Did you have what is called body memories?
SUE: Both. I remembered many scenes, but the writing process itself helped me recall others. Mainly, submerging myself in sensory detail facilitates this process. For example, let’s say I vaguely recall a birthday party in fifth grade. So, I begin by just getting down the general outline of the party, the broad brushstrokes. Then, I ask myself: what did that moment taste like, smell like, sound like, look like, feel like? By re-creating the sensory moments, whole scenes can blossom onto the page.
LINDA: Did you feel that writing your childhood story was healing? In what way did it help you to heal, and can you please talk about the process of healing. (If this is long, we can do this on the audio if you prefer.)
SUE: There is an important kind of healing that takes place through writing. For me, it works like this: by setting the experiences down on paper, I, in effect, “remove” them from inside me. I put the experiences “out there,” on pieces of paper or on a computer screen. This process lessens the intensity (the pain) as I place the experience outside of myself.
Additionally, when all is said and done, I can hold all those pages in my hands, pages containing all my words, and look at them. Reading my own story, from the outside looking in, as it were, helps me understand—make sense of—the experience. That’s a powerful part of the healing process.
LINDA: How was it to write your adult story in Love Sick—harder, easier, different from writing the book about your childhood molestation in Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You.
SUE: Love Sick was more difficult to write—and it took me longer to write, as well. Two reasons: One, it was difficult for me to discover the “sober voice” in Love Sick, and make that voice interesting. In other words, I didn’t want the voice to sound like a “how to” book: “Let me tell you how to recover from sexual addiction.” Ultimately, through a lot of trial and error, I discovered the literary voice to best convey my story, but, as I say, it took a few years.
Second: it was more difficult to make myself (my persona) sympathetic in Love Sick. After all, I was writing about myself as an adult woman cheating on my husband and having affairs with married men.
In the first book, sympathy was kind of a given, because I was a little girl whose father was hurting her. Not so with Love Sick.
Of course each piece of writing has its own challenges! But that’s also what makes writing interesting. Each book or essay we write is kind of like solving a mystery: How can I best convey this experience artistically? I love that process of unraveling the mysteries of creativity.
LINDA: Why do you think that writing in memoir form worked better for you than the fiction you were using at first as you began writing?
SUE: In fiction, I was trying to tell my true story—but not. So the voice sounded emotionally unauthentic. As soon as I switched to nonfiction, the voice—my true voice (albeit artistically rendered!)—was right there.
LINDA: Do you have any advice for memoirists struggling with writing the truth?
SUE: To know that you own your own truth, your own story. Our stories are ours, so are ours to tell. That’s our job as memoirists: to tell our stories. Trust your memories. Trust the importance of getting your story down on paper. Believe in yourself as a writer. No one else can tell your story, so if you don’t tell it, it will be lost for all time.
Sue William Silverman’s memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (Norton), is also a Lifetime television movie. Her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the AWP award in creative nonfiction. She teaches in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir. Please visit www.suewilliamsilverman.com.