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more on Silverman’s Fearless Confessions

I’ve been asked by a reader to elucidate some points in my review of Fearless Confessions. I apologize for being less than clear. Y’all keep on asking your questions so I can do the communicating I want to do, improve my practice, and not frustrate my readers!

These are the lines in question as they appeared:

I was really excited by Silverman’s concepts of highlighting, with different color highlighters, different plot elements or characters in a memoirist’s story to serve different plots. Or her idea of erasing the parts that don’t serve whichever story is being told: where a fiction writer builds plot, a nonfictionist sculpts one by erasure. These metaphors worked really well for me, and are perhaps the best expressions I have read of concepts I’ve been trying to articulate and wrap myself around.

And the question read,

Who is doing the highlighting – an aspiring writer reading an established author? For understanding the craft in that writer’s style? And is ‘erasing the parts’ advice for that aspiring writer to edit a draft down to the desired essence?

Okay, I’ll try again. The highlighting is metaphoric, not literal, although the metaphor gets a little involved when we talk about the different color highlighters. The idea is this: let’s say I’ve been a competitive cyclist; been married and divorced; and worked in several male-dominated industries, with associated challenges. Let’s say I also studied library science in graduate school. If I’m writing a memoir about my divorce, I don’t necessarily need to weigh down or confuse the reader with all the other stuff. If we imagine my life story as one big, exhaustive text (that no one wants to read), and I’m crafting a memoir from it, I’m going to highlight the stuff that meets the needs of the book I have in mind to write. I’m going to highlight all the parts about marriage and divorce, obviously. And maybe some parts of riding bikes or working around men will also get highlighted, because they are relevant to the narrative about my divorce. But I don’t necessarily need the library science. When I get around to writing a memoir about my experience as a woman in the world, I’ll use the male-dominated industries stuff, and some of the bike racing (from when I raced against men), and maybe some of the library science (a female-dominated profession, with different issues) and some of the divorce. If we imagine my full and exhaustive life story as one big text, I’m using different color highlighters to go through and select the content that belongs in different memoirs. That’s the metaphor at play.

The erasure concept is related. If my life is a big, exhaustive text, and I’m writing an artful memoir of it, I’m not going to include every pair of shoes I ever wore, every friend I made and lost from pre-K on, every meal I can remember eating, every time anyone hurt my feelings. We all know that kind of exhaustive life story is… exhausting. Nobody wants to read that, although many a late-night drunk has offered it to many a bartender. As Silverman wrote it, the fiction writer gets to build a story out of her imagination. But a memoirist has to craft one by erasure, by taking out all the unnecessary details and bullshit of a life, until she is left with a beautifully crafted story.

How’d I do?

Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman

Sue William Silverman is an established memoirist with Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction (among other books, including poetry). This is the first of hers I’ve read, though.

Her title is intended as an answer to accusations that memoirs during the “memoir craze” of recent decades, and particularly those by women or other marginalized demographics that she refers to as the “other,” are confessional-in-a-bad-way, or sensational, or oversharing, or navel-gazing. With this title, Silverman reclaims the term and redefines it. Confessions are good, are therapeutic and cathartic, and lead to healing for the confessor and opportunities for fellow sufferers to begin their own healings. It’s a positive sentiment, although in this telling it occasionally carries a bit more touchy-feeliness than I might like.

I love the balance Silverman strikes between general philosophies of writing and nuts-and-bolts strategies. Each chapter concludes with a series of writing prompts or exercises. The craft books I’ve read for school (now in my third semester) have been successful reads, for me, at a lower rate than the rest of my reading. I don’t know if I’m pickier about craft books, just tend to like them less as a category, or am having trouble selecting the right ones. But my complaints often center on this balance issue: a writer holding forth about Writing (capital W) because he likes the sound of his writing, versus the practical how-to. I was pleased, early in Fearless Confessions, at the balance, which feels just right to this Goldilocks.

There is, though, a touch more cheerleading and rah-rah than I might like, just a hint of a tone that could be patronizing. Silverman has a tendency to wrap up chapters or concepts with “now go forth and do it, you’ll be great!” statements. Some of this is because there is an emphasis on trauma writing, Silverman’s own experience and (arguably) her specialty: the uncovering of a source of shame (incest, sexual abuse, sex addiction) which becomes an empowering and healing experience, and an aid to others. It makes sense to me that writers dealing with these kinds of issues deserve and need a certain amount of cheerleading. But I think Silverman has a lot to offer those of us who are doing different work, less revealing-of-trauma, and her tone came off just a touch strong for me, personally, and perhaps for other writers like me.

It also sometimes felt a bit more beginner than I needed, like in the first appendix, a discussion of the subgenres of creative nonfiction, which I found a little stark in its delineations–although a good primer it would be. Other appendices include a reading list (long, and by subject–I’ll be returning to that), and a handful of craft essays and examples of creative nonfiction essays. These were valuable inclusions that broadened the book and diluted Silverman’s peppy teacher’s tone.

I hear myself waffling as I write this review, and I guess that ambivalence is the story of my reading experience: great content, but often delivered in a way I found just slightly frustrating. And there was great content! I was really excited by Silverman’s concepts of highlighting, with different color highlighters, different plot elements or characters in a memoirist’s story to serve different plots. Or her idea of erasing the parts that don’t serve whichever story is being told: where a fiction writer builds plot, a nonfictionist sculpts one by erasure. These metaphors worked really well for me, and are perhaps the best expressions I have read of concepts I’ve been trying to articulate and wrap myself around.

I think I came to this one at a little the wrong time, and it would have suited me earlier in my studies. I’m glad I read it, but I found myself sometimes a tad impatient with the tone. I think I’ll be returning to this book, and going back to the writing prompts and exercises Silverman offers. I do recommend Fearless Confessions, just with a little patience, if indeed your tastes tend to follow mine, or if your background in creative nonfiction is already established. Or, to put it another way: an excellent introduction to writers new to memoir.

Rating: 7 pairs of red shoes.

The Art of Description by Mark Doty

I have had a rough time with Graywolf Press’s The Art of series, which is a shame, because I am a fan of Graywolf Press generally. (I gave Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext and Christopher Bram’s The Art of History 6 widgets apiece, and DNF’d [did not finish] Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention.) But I gave this one a try because it’s Doty, and I am getting to be excited about Doty. (Stick around for a reread of Still Life With Oysters and Lemons.)

Okay, enough parentheticals. The Art of Description is both an enjoyable read and a useful craft book. I appreciate its balance of quotable moments, profound concepts, and nuts-and-bolts writing advice. I also appreciate its illumination of Doty’s working style, because I plan on focusing partly on his work for my critical essay this semester. He includes as well plenty of examples from other writers’ (mostly poets’) work, with close readings, and one large section of this slim book is an alphabetical list of elements of description, which I think must have been fun to put together.

I know many writers/fellow students who love Graywolf’s The Art of books, and I know that my past failure with some of them is merely personal. But here is one that is working for me, in the way that I believe these books are meant to work: it is small, short, pocket-sized, and packed with memorable lines and nuggets. I want to just leave a few of them here, for my use as much as for yours. (All bold emphases are mine. Italics are Doty’s.)

The parts of a narrative are contiguous, each connecting to the previous instant and the next, but the lyric moment is isolate.

People who have studied drawing know that you have little idea what’s in front of you in the visual landscape until you try to represent it. To some degree, the art of description is the art of perception; what is required, in order to say what you see, is enhanced attention to that looking, and the more you look, the more information you get.

I am reminded here of his detailed study of the color of the white asparagus in a (different) still life, in Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. (Switching books on you for this next quotation.) It is blanched asparagus,

grown, that is, shallow trenches of sand, by which the body of the stalk is gradually covered, as it sprouts, so that the flesh will remain white. Though that term is far too simple for the actual color of these stalks: a pale lemony shade, tinged with a little green, shadowed on the underside, particularly where the curve of the bundle falls away, in its lower reaches, into darkness. The shade of these stalks–exactly right, as a look at a bundle of asparagus grown in this European style today confirms–is achieved through a mixture of ash, lead white, and a color called schiet geel, or shit yellow…

I think he’s practicing what he preaches in these lines: only by looking very closely with great attention at this painting could he see these colors, pick them apart; and then he takes what he’s seen back to real asparagus for comparison; and follows with research into the painting techniques of an earlier time (the shit yellow paint was made from buckthorn berries, “a laxative, thus lending the hue its tone”).

Okay, back to The Art of Description.

…the yoking of disparate elements makes more than a vivid account of perception; the best description is never merely decorative, but makes meaning in itself, building an argument about the nature of the real.

Polarity, the pull of forces in opposition to one another, makes writing feel alive, because it feels more like life to us than any singular focus does; reality, we understand, is a field in which more than one attraction, more than one strong tug, is always at work.

If I were asked to say what distinguishes an artistic temperament from any other, I’d say that it’s a fundamental sense that the project of being alive is something peculiar, little understood. I’ve always felt amazed by–a bit envious of–people who take their lives for granted, who feel that of course this (this body, this community, this set of human laws and social expectations) is the way things should be, how could it be otherwise?

And on and on, but I fear copyright infringement.

As I deepen into Doty’s work, I’m observing and understanding better this writer’s appeal to me personally, so this craft book comes at the right time.

Rating: 8 breathless sonnets.

Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.

This book was assigned for Eric Waggoner’s seminar on “prose technique” at this week’s residency. By the time this review posts, the seminar will have happened, but I’m writing beforehand. This review is time-traveling to the future.

Line by Line is a handy reference tool, but no kind of book to read cover-to-cover, and I’m a bit surprised that Eric assigned it as he did. I read the preface and flipped through the rest, interested to see how it handled, for example, the singular “they” pronoun as used by people who don’t ascribe to the gender binary, including a few of my favorite classmates (much discussion of the problem of “he” versus “he or she” versus a singular “they,” but no direct address of the binary-gender problem itself). I skimmed for examples (mostly colorful ones, and from real writing found in real life). It’s got a decent glossary of questionable usage (like affect/effect), although I was surprised to see “hopefully” included (should mean “in a hopeful manner,” rather than “it is hoped that”) and not “momentarily” (the same strict grammarians, I believe, would reserve this for “taking place for only a moment,” and not for something to happen just a mere moment in the future). Which just goes to show that any book like this can only do part of the job, and only from one grammarian’s perspective–obviously. On the one hand, then, why try? No, we do need books like this. But we need to know they are only ever a starting point.

As for readability, why on earth Line by Line when we have Strunk & White’s Elements of Style?? “Omit needless words,” they famously wrote; and that perfect sentence is oft repeated but not always obeyed. My favorite part of Strunk & White’s “little book” is how pleasant it is to read, cover to cover. This one, I will keep handy for consultation, especially for Eric’s seminar, but it will never win my heart like that other one did.

Rating: 5 future references.

The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay by Carl H. Klaus

The final craft book I read this semester was one of the better ones. Carl Klaus examines that much-discussed issue for the personal essayist (or writer of creative nonfiction), the “I,” the narrator, the first-person mediator of experience and reflection. He notes that for an essay to be “personal,” there must be a person at its center; or at least a persona. This book has four parts (evocations of consciousness; evocations of personality; personae and culture; personae and personal experience) and two to three chapters per part. He discusses problems such as how “never to be yourself and yet always” (a Virginia Woolf line), or the introduction of malady into personal essays (a recent change). Each essay addresses one or more essayists in particular, so it’s a very hands-on study, with textual examples, unlike those craft books I struggle with, that speak in more general terms.

This is also a work of fine writing, and worthy of annotating in itself, something decidedly not true of all craft books. Each essay takes a subject (singular and chameleon “I”; discontinuity) and Klaus then styles the essay after its subject, so the essay on discontinuity is disjointed, and his essay on Montaigne imitates Montaigne’s language. The subjects themselves are worth studying but the form is at least as interesting. I think the individual essays are most useful when the reader is familiar with an essay’s subject (i.e. I’d read Orwell but not Elia/Lamb and found the former essay more useful); but overall, Klaus gives a very good discussion of voice and persona.

Rating: 8 five-hundred-word essays.

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir ed. by William Zinsser

I don’t remember when I got this book; I’ve had it for quite some time. (I also have Zinsser’s How to Write a Memoir waiting for me on the massive and daunting to-be-read shelf.) I finally opened Inventing the Truth to read Annie Dillard’s essay, “To Fashion a Text,” that Kim Kupperman assigned me; but I found I couldn’t put it down. I went back to the beginning and read the whole thing through, and I think it’s an excellent collection.

Zinsser approaches “the age of the memoir” beginning with a series of craft talks in 1986. These talks, transcribed, are joined by later additions to form this collection of nine craft essays, all originally delivered orally (whether to an audience or in interview format with Zinsser) by nine writers including Dillard, Toni Morrison, Frank McCourt and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. They talk about what they want to talk about, so the subjects vary somewhat but all address how to write memoir from very different angles. Their delivery, perhaps because originally oral, is consistently enjoyable, and the content is very useful, practical, nuts-and-bolts; it also offers insights into the writing of masterpieces like Beloved. Not to be outdone, Zinsser’s introduction is a lovely piece of prose in itself, and presents a nearly perfect review of what the book in turn contains.

I made a bunch of notes, and am interested in particular in reading Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City. A few details that especially fascinated me: that Toni Morrison considers the work of her fiction to be “trying to fill in the blanks that the slave narratives left.” And then the concept that when the straightened Mississippi River “floods” its old path, it’s not really flooding at all, but remembering: where have I heard this before? Lovely! I wonder if these essays–all of them!–struck me so nicely because they were originally delivered orally. I have always been interested in the idea of oral histories or oral storytelling.

This was a deeply enjoyable book, obviously recommended for anyone struggling with the writing of memoir, but actually it should be appealing to general readers, too, especially those impressed by the work of Dillard, Morrison, et al. Perfectly pleasant reading.

Rating: 8 Rorschachs.

The Essayist’s Dilemma (Occasional Papers on the Essay: Practice and Form, from Welcome Table Press) by Marcia Aldrich, Lucy Ferriss, Kim Dana Kupperman, and E.J. Levy

This paper is available for free download here. (Full disclosure, again: Kim Dana Kupperman, one of four contributors to this pamphlet and founder of the press, is currently my semester advisor.)

I expected a rather dry read, a how-to, a craft book(let), in short. Instead I found a brief, punchy discussion, in four voices, of something that matters to me. It was quick and fun to read. I’m so sorry I doubted.

This is such a brief piece of work that I’m in danger of writing more in review than there is to review, but here goes. Marcia Aldrich’s introduction sets up the dilemma: publishers don’t like essay collections; essay is a dirty word; essayists have trouble getting published as such. (Examples given.) Lucy Ferriss responds with “The Parts and Whole”: the idea of needing to group a collection around an idea, to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts, is not such a bad challenge, and one that can yield good results. We should not resist this push. Kim Kupperman, in “An Essayist’s Dilemma,” shares the journey (I just used that word because Kim hates it. Sorry, Kim)… the evolution her book I Just Lately Started Buying Wings experienced on its way to the form in which I read it. As she sums up: “a question, a taking apart and reassembling, a husband’s instinct, a poem’s fever, an editorial directive, and, finally, a return to an original idea.” Finally, E.J. Levy writes “In Defense of Incoherence”: she quite likes a thoroughly disconnected essay collection, thank you, and screw commercial concerns.

It’s all good, useful stuff. I think it’s true, that essay collections are unpopular with publishers, because they are unpopular with the (profitable) general readership. Ferriss’s argument makes perfect sense to me, perhaps because my mind works the same way, or I believe the same thing she seems to: that an overarching and unifying idea (or the dreaded theme) is a good thing. This is very much the concept that Levy argues directly against in her piece. As a reader, I am much more like the profitable general reader than I am like Levy. I prefer unity. In fact, I have long resisted reading essay collections, especially when they are presented as miscellany. I realize how damning an admission this is: I hope to write and even publish essays; but I don’t want to buy or read them. Well, it’s a little less damning than that, because I hope to write and publish a memoir-in-essays, or a decidedly connected collection.

Kim, as I read her, does not take a position on whether connectedness is desirable or no. I loved reading the story of Wings; it was the perfect example to learn from, since I studied this and her later memoir rather closely and have been getting to know the author herself some. (Also, its organization is a little unusual, or complicated, but clearly it has an organization.)

Although I don’t read and think the way Levy does, I enjoyed reading her opinion – especially as she called in Fisher’s Consider the Oyster:

I’m a fan of M.F.K. Fisher’s work, but by the time I’m on the fifth oyster in Consider the Oyster, I’m queasy. It’s nto that such a strategy can’t work, but that it makes me suspect that the essayist was considering something other than the oyster–a check from a publisher maybe, the adorableness of her own conceit.

My first thought was, Levy does not like oysters as much as I do. I’d love the opportunity to discover how many oysters it would take to make me queasy! I haven’t found it yet. Seriously, I see her point; but I guess I also found Fisher’s conceit adorable, enough to be unbothered by it. Maybe it’s just how much I like oysters.

Perhaps the greater point here is that we all, always, still, have different preferences. I agree with the thesis of this pamphlet (as I see it), that a preference for a disconnected miscellany of essays is less universal than an appreciation of connected collections (or books with narrative arcs, like memoirs). And I’m on the side of the majority here. That will make it harder to publish the unconnected. I hope it still happens, because I desire a multitude of options and value the tastes of the minority; but I agree with the majority, taste-wise, and with the problem presented here.

I guess the most optimistic thought I have to offer is: this is why we have Welcome Table Press, Kim Kupperman’s small press that publishes weird little essay things that perhaps no one else wants; and thank goodness for that, and for all the other small presses that publish the minority’s desires. It’s The Long Tail all over again, and I’m in favor of it.

Rating: 9 brief and well-stated arguments.
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