Post #17 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
If you have written (or contemplated writing) more than one memoir or memoir essay, you’re going to find Sue William Silverman’s post most interesting. We are all complex beings with a multitude of life experiences to draw upon and share with our readers. There is the author as child, college student, possibly world traveler in the years before settling down, wife, mother, friend…the list is endless. We have life tracks, career tracks, health tracks, to name a few, upon which we can draw. In following each of these, you’ll probably expose a different aspect of yourself. Sue likens each of these personas to masks–masks that bring clarity and definition as well as cover.
Sue William Silverman is the award-winning author of two book-length memoirs: Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (University of Georgia Press, 1996) and Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction (Norton, 2001, and now in paperback). It’s one thing to write a memoir; it’s quite another to apply the introspection and analysis necessary to write about the process and the genre. This past June, Sue released Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir.
Matilda Butler and I will be talking with Sue this Thursday. As always, you are welcome to listen in. More importantly, you are encouraged to participate. We’ll be talking about her memoirs, but our primary focus will be on what she can tell us as writers. Read Sue’s essay below, then leave a question (or two) for her in the Comments section. We’ll be sure to present your question to Sue. Listen live for her answer, or catch the recording, which we’ll post next Monday. Here are the details:
Date/Time: Thursday, October 22, 2009/2 p.m. EDT (11 a.m. Pacific)
Phone Number: 712-432-0600 (access code: 998458#)
Finally, be sure to check out the writing prompt Sue provides at the end of her essay. She’s given enough material and direction not only to get you started writing but probably to draw several memoir essays out of you…who knows, you may start writing that book after you read her essay on memoir writing and her writing prompt. And be sure to visit Sue William Silverman’s website here.
Who Is that Masked Memoirist?
By Sue William Silverman
I recently received an e-mail from a stranger named Karen who wrote, in part, “Sue, after reading Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You I feel like I know you.” As I prepared this article, I re-discovered another e-mail from a woman named Marie who’d read Love Sick. She also wrote: “I feel like I know you.”
Both memoirs frequently elicit this response—“Sue, I feel like I know you”—even though both books are very different. What does Karen know about me? Marie? Karen knows what it was like for me to grow up in an incestuous family. Marie knows what it was like for me to recover from a sexual addiction. To Karen, the real me is one thing; to Marie, the real me is something, someone different. Even so, does this mean that all I am—as a writer and as a woman—is an incest survivor/sex addict? Is that it? (I hope you’re saying “no” to yourself!)
At first, when I received such e-mails, I felt grateful: I had successfully portrayed myself—or one aspect of myself—on the page. Wasn’t that my goal, after all, to take the flesh-and-blood me and craft myself into a sympathetic and knowable persona?
But now, as I’ve been writing essays, I myself have wondered: Who is this “me” on the page? And I’ve come to realize that while readers might think they know me, really, they don’t. Or, they know something about me, of course—but only what I choose to show in any given book or essay. It’s as if, with each new piece I write, a different “me,” or a different aspect of myself, is highlighted.
For example, in my not-yet-finished essay collection, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, I examine additional identities by wearing a variety of masks. As I finish one essay and begin another, I, in effect, change my mask, removing one, donning another. In one essay, I am a Jewish girl seeking a Christian identity through my infatuation with the Christian conservative Republican, aging pop music icon, Pat Boone. Growing up, I wanted him to adopt me as his daughter—even though I am a liberal Democrat. Then, in another essay, “That Summer of War and Apricots,” I explore my Jewish identity by writing about a time I picked apricots on a kibbutz in Israel.
As Rilke writes in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, “There are people who wear the same face for years; naturally it wears out, it gets dirty, it splits at the folds, it stretches, like gloves one has worn on a journey.”
What this means to writers is that we can wear, or write about, the same face for years. But once it wears out, or once you fully explore the subject matter of one aspect of your life, then it’s time to remove that mask—which is probably fraying—and put on a fresh one.
For writers of creative nonfiction, this is very good news. I teach at the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and sometimes my students worry they’ll run out of material after completing their first memoir or collection of essays. I assure them they won’t. After all, since a memoir is only a slice of a life, not a whole life, you can certainly write more than one memoir, to say nothing of many essays.
Sure, at times in a new work, you might have to revisit a previously explored identity or theme. When writing about Pat Boone, for example, I had to show how, since my Jewish father had molested me, it made sense that I’d seek out an overtly Christian man as a father figure. But I touched upon this incestuous background as briefly as possible, while, at the same time, implementing a much more ironic voice than that of my memoir. In effect, I removed the dark gray mask I wore while writing the memoir, and, for the essay, slipped on one that had as many sparkles as the red-white-and-blue costume Pat Boone wears in his concerts. Even though I had to use a pinch of that incest survivor identity, the essay’s focus is decidedly different from that of the memoir. In other essays, I don’t even mention my family background. The masks are all brand new.
Just as life is complicated, memoir likewise lends itself to a wide range of experience, to multi-faceted personas. In one book, I wear the mask of an incest survivor. In another, I wear the mask of a woman recovering from a sexual addiction. With yet another mask, I reveal a Jewish girl seeking identity in a Christian world. Masks are a paradox. They both reveal and hide. By wearing this mask, you know “X” about me, but you can’t see that other detail—that I am also “Y.”
Art (with a capital “A”) is putting on a mask—in order to more fully reveal. And this mask is the tension between lived experience and the artistic depiction of it.
The goal of these exercises is to generate new work by discovering the masks we wear as writers. By considering various personas, or various aspects of identity available to us as we write, we’re able to draw upon a wide range of experience and subject matter. We all have many stories to tell—and many ways to tell them.
1) Write a sentence that describes one aspect of who you are. Since much of memoir writing is exploration of identity, you can pose your sentence in the form of a question. For me, for example, my sentence could be: Have I always had mixed feelings about being Jewish? The essay or book to follow, then, would examine various answers to this question.
2) Next, put on a mask (perhaps literally—after all, it’s close to Halloween), or pretend to put one on, and write a second sentence that describes a different aspect of you or your persona. Again, you can pose this in the form of a question, something you want to examine through writing. My own example could be: Why do I love red shoes?
3) Here are two fill-in-the-blank exercises to generate additional identities you might wish to write about. First, complete this phrase: “My life as _____.” It could be “My life as a high school track star.” Or: “My life as a reality TV junkie.” You can be ironic and write something like “My life as a rock star,” even if you were in a garage band for two weeks. Next, try filling in this blank: “My life in ______.” Say, my life living in Europe. Or: “My life in constant trouble.” Or: “My life in a dead-end job.”
4) Here is a quote from Oscar Wilde: “When you are alone with him does he take off his face and reveal his mask?” Write a sentence about some aspect of yourself that comes to mind, based on this quote.
Using these sentences as prompts, try generating enough material for full-length pieces. Maybe one sentence will lead to a ten-page memoir essay. Maybe another will result in a 300-page book. Just follow your energy and see where it leads you.
Finally, I’d like to invite you to see my creative nonfiction reading list, located on my website, at www.suewilliamsilverman.com.