Sue William Silverman’s Guest Blog and Writing Prompt Help You Discover and Use Your Masks in Your Memoir Writing

by Kendra Bonnett on October 20, 2009

writing-promptsPost #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 SilvermanSue 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

{ 3 trackbacks }

Sue William Silverman shares her personal insight into writing memoir — Memoir Writing Blog
May 5, 2010 at
Lists of links for writers: Writing tips and advice for aspiring memoir writers — Memoir Writing Blog
October 8, 2010 at
Deconstruction and the art of revealing character personalities, behavior and motivation — Memoir Writing Blog
March 5, 2012 at

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue William Silverman October 20, 2009 at

Thanks so much for the opportunity to write a blog for Women’s Memoirs. I look forward to reading any comments and questions and answering them on Thursday’s interview!

Gloria Parsa October 20, 2009 at

Hi Sue: I’ve been writing my memoir for several years and trying to grow as a writer in the process. I wonder if you’d share what experiences have helped you grow the most as a writer? I want to continue to improve my skills and would really appreciate hearing from such a talented and proficient writer as you.

I won’t be able to listen live on Thursday (have to keep at my day job) but will listen to the audio on Monday.

PS Thank you for your two wonderful memoirs. Some of what I learned about writing came from reading them. I’ve also bought your newest book and am eager to get into it.

Jessicca Burris October 20, 2009 at


What a fantastic blog and writing prompt. I am going to use it and think it will help get me unstuck. I keep getting stuck in my writing, overwhelmed by it all.

Would you share what is the hardest part of writing for you and then let us know what you do to overcome the problems or get past them?

I’ll try to listen in on Thursday. If I can’t, then I’ll definitely play the audio on Monday.

-Jessicca (That’s not a typo — don’t even ask why my mother spelled it that way.)

Karen Walker October 20, 2009 at

Hello Sue,
What a wonderful way to view writing memoir. I’d never thought the different aspects of my life as masks or personas. It is an intriguing way to look at things and would help tremendously with “voice” in various pieces.
I am almost halfway through “Because I Remember Terror Father I Remember You” and am wondering how to chose the format you used?

Katherine October 20, 2009 at

I continue to be amazed at the resources available on this website. I will be using your exercises and hope to be on the call where I can hear more from you, Sue. Thank you very much.

Nadine M. October 20, 2009 at

I’m going to share this blog with my writing buddies. They will all love it. I’m going to propose we use your writing prompt at our next meeting. Thank you.

Here’s my question: What is the best advice you ever got from an editor?

We have an editor in our writing group and she has said a number of things that have really helped me.


Karen Walker October 21, 2009 at

Oops, I have one more question, Sue. Your memoir is chock full of details from when you were four years old and older. I had a difficult time including details from when I was that young because I don’t have concrete memories, just sensations. Can you talk a bit about this, please. Thanks.

Sue William Silverman October 21, 2009 at

Hi, all: Thanks for such kind words and wonderful support–and for your great questions! I will answer all of them during the interview tomorrow. If you have additional follow-up questions, after the interview, I’ll be sure to check back here and answer them online. Again, thanks!! Sue

Allison Applebaum October 21, 2009 at

Sue – I am in awe of you as a writer. I am especially struck by your use of the five senses. Does this come naturally for you? Do you work to include sight, sound, smell, touch and taste? (I think I’ve found all of these in your books. I’m reading Love Sick right now so that one is most in my mind.) Do you have any particular techniques that you use to make sure you have included all the sensory details? I’d really appreciate getting your insights on this aspect of writing.

F.R October 21, 2009 at

Hi Sue, As soon as I heard you were going to interviewed on Women’s Memoirs, I went out and bought “Fearless Confessions.” I’ve started reading and I’m interested in the fact that you started your writing life as an novelist with aspirations to get published. And then you switched to the memoir genre and found success.

Okay, here’s my question. Since you’ve written in both genres, would you talk about your perception of the similarities and differences in the two forms of writing (fiction and memoir)? Thanks, I’m looking forward to the interview. Fran

F.R October 21, 2009 at

Actually Sue, I have an add-on question. Do you feel that memoir writing is every bit as creative as fiction?

I know that one’s memoir style can take advantage of creative nonfiction techniques. I’m just curious if, ultimately, it’s as satisfying as the pure creative form…fiction. Thanks. I’ll be listening. Fran

Matty October 21, 2009 at

Hi Sue,

It’s an honor to write to you, and I look forward to listening to your discussion with Women’s Memoirs. Let me get right to my question: You’re an award-winning author. What’s the road to success? I know you’re an excellent writer, but it seems that it takes more than that to reach that rarified air. Thank you, M

Sooz October 21, 2009 at

Hi, Sue,

I’ve just finished the rough draft of my memoir and as I look it over I’m concerned about the impact its possible publication could have on my career (I teach fiction writing for a well known creative writing program). It may seem silly to worry, but my memoir delves into my experiences with bipolar disorder and relationship addictions. I don’t know what impact the revelation of my mental illness might have on my job, and it scares me. For this reason, though I maintain a blog, I’ve chosen to remain incognito for the time being. I would, however (assuming I get that far), publish the memoir under my real name.

I know that’s not quite a question, but I would appreciate any insight.

All the Best,


Linda joy October 22, 2009 at

Hi Sue, Great to see you here with my friends Matilda and Kendra. We are all passionate about your work, and how it helps to give courage to other writers who are struggling with issues of truth, revealing the soft center of self, and our various identities. Thank you for your hard and heartfelt work, and I look forward to reading more of your books. They are truly transformational and healing.

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