How One Author Combined Personal Essays Into a Coherent Memoir

It is the height of hubris to edit an award-winning creative nonfiction author who also happens to be your mentor. But I decided the brilliant proposed title of Sue William Silverman’s guest post–“E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many (essays) One (book)”–wouldn’t translate well in a tweet. So I’ve imposed a more utilitarian title on this post, to give the reader a clearer hint at the wisdom Ms. Silverman will be imparting here. You may have seen my recent post on her occasional use of second person in her new essay collection Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo Saxon Jew, or perhaps my Goodreads review of that exceptional work. Now you can hear from the author herself how she assembled a collection of standalone essays written over a span of years into a coherent and eminently readable book-length memoir. I give you my former instructor with the Vermont College of Fine Arts and my personal inspiration, Sue William Silverman.

—————————————————————————————————————————-

My new memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo Saxon Jew, did not begin as a book idea. After publishing two memoirs, a craft book on how to write memoir, and a poetry collection, I kind of freaked out. What to write next? Briefly, I considered drafting a novel. But that idea bored me. And, by this stage of the game, I knew writers should only write their obsessions. I also knew that my true, authentic voice belonged to nonfiction.

Silverman, The Pat Boone Fan Club, for webStill, was a writer allowed a third memoir? Who had that much to say about herself? I couldn’t envision another straight-through narrative or story line as with my first memoir about growing up in an incestuous family, and my second about a 28-day stay in rehab for a sexual addiction (a result of the incest).

What to do?

Fortuitously, in the middle of this quandary, one of my obsessions came to the rescue. I happened to see an article in the local newspaper announcing that Pat Boone would be performing at the Calvary Reformed Church, part of Tulip Time Festival, in Holland, Michigan, about 20 minutes from my home.

Back as a teenager in New Jersey, I had a crush on this 1960s pop-music idol. Pat Boone, in addition to being a singing sensation, was (and is) a Christian conservative. When I was a girl, my Jewish father misloved me; therefore, I obsessed endlessly about the one man who seemed the very antithesis: Pat Boone and his squeaky-clean, wholesome image. Growing up, I wanted him to adopt me. Seriously. Literally. Now, I dusted off my Pat Boone records and found my Pat Boone Fan Club card in an old scrapbook.

I enjoyed the concert, of course, but after it ended I barged backstage to meet him!

I wrote an essay about this encounter and published it in a journal.

I was back in business.

One Obsession Per Essay

What I discovered, initially, was a different form from how I usually wrote. Previously, I wrote whole books on a single topic. Now, writing essays, I had an opportunity to explore a variety of obsessions: a homeless tramp in the West Indies; a teenage boyfriend who resembled Pat Boone. I wrote about picking apricots in Israel where I became enamored with a paratrooper and his cute red paratrooper’s cap. I wrote about a road trip in a loathed VW camper that broke down in Lanett, Alabama, right before Christmas. Another essay explored an existential crisis when I moved, with a husband who didn’t really love me, to Galveston, Texas. Another was about a vacation in Yugoslavia with an anti-Semitic boyfriend. I wrote about two (now ex-) Christian husbands.

In the middle of all this writing, I met Pat Boone again! Another essay.

On it went. Good obsessions. Bad obsessions. All fodder for essays.

When Disparate Essays Form a Whole

I was about three years into this essay-writing business when I paused to consider where I was at. The essays appeared like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I sensed they were forming a big picture, but in the heat of writing each individual one, I hadn’t stood back to see what it looked like. Was it a whole?

Yes!

Finally it dawned on me that, in essay after essay (albeit approached from different angles), I was writing about a life-long spiritual crisis: a result of surviving a scary, abusive childhood. That crisis involved my conflicted feelings toward my Jewish family, and a concomitant desire to find safety as a member of the dominant Christian religion. In that quest, I kept trying on different identities.

The Revision Process

I began to revise the essays, re-slanting an image here, a metaphor there, in order for each to better highlight this theme of identity. For example, an essay originally titled “The Land of Look Behind,” about that tramp in the West Indies, I re-contextualized by calling it “The Wandering Jew.” I also re-cast details in order to emphasize that here was someone, like Pat Boone, whom I hoped would save me from my abusive father.

After revising the already written essays, I wrote additional ones specifically for the book. One of these, “An Argument for the Existence of Free Will and/or Pat Boone’s Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” became a kind of “meta” piece I could not have written without first discovering the arc I was creating.

Still, I wasn’t sure if the book (and it was, now, mostly a book) cohered strongly enough.

So I added one last structural element. I wrote “bridge sections” in the form of “Dear Reader” letters. In these epistles, I directly address the reader in order to show how all this traveling to and fro, the different men, the various states of being, are all part and parcel of my search for identity, for belonging. I needed these “Dear Reader” sections to elucidate how my myriad postures are masks – but revealing masks.

It took several years and untold drafts to figure all this out – but that’s how it probably should be.

Why We Write

The challenge of discovering the secrets hidden inside our obsessions is an obsession in and of itself! But that’s why we write – or, that’s why I write.

If writing were easy I’d be bored, in the same way that un-obsessiveness bores me. I can only feel that enormous psychic energy required to write if I’m obsessed with the subject matter – if it won’t let go until it’s written.

What are some of your obsessions? If you dig deep, I think you’d be surprised by all that fascinates you, which must be written, which won’t let you go once you begin to tug at the loose threads of their being.

And as you write, the secret links between seemingly disparate experiences, will clarify into a whole. You’ll have your own unified collection of essays.

———————————————————————————————————————–

Sue William SilvermanSue William Silverman’s new memoir is The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. Her two other memoirs are Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, which is also a Lifetime TV movie, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. Her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir.  As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on The View, Anderson Cooper 360, and more.  She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

35 Responses to “How One Author Combined Personal Essays Into a Coherent Memoir”

  1. Always interesting to learn about the process, and the path another writer takes.

  2. Suzanne Robertson Reply March 19, 2014 at 8:39 am

    This is so helpful. Thank you, Sue and Patrick! I loved Fearless Confessions and can’t wait to read your new book.

  3. I really needed to read that today! Thanks Sue. I’m so glad you managed to weave it all together.

    • HI, Deirdre — I am so pleased about the timing of this post, and that this helped you today! It took me a long time to write this book — to finally figure out how to weave it together. But I guess that’s the process! Just a lot of revisions, right?!

  4. I needed this, Sue–I’m doing the same kind of thing. You’ve reminded me to wait until the individual pieces cohere, rather than forcing them into unwanted intimacy!

    • Hi, Gail — yes, I think that’s about right in terms of process! Ultimately, I think that the underlying theme will reveal itself…and, alas, it can’t be rushed! At least for me. I’m working on a new book now and the exact same thing is happening. With each draft, I’m seeing the theme/metaphors more clearly. I know you will, too, with your project!! I think we just have to be patient with our words!

  5. I have to ead her more thoroughly, but I like Sue William Silverman very much; have read her early books a while back. Good for her.

  6. I must say it’s my dream to write a memoir… if only that my son would read it. I would probe my obsessions so that he knows what mess of flesh and mind he comes from. Perhaps then he’ll have the example by which to examine himself. I am obsessed with escape. Escape, of course, is always to freedom. I’ve never taken a real job in my life because it always felt like walking into prison. So, I’ve made money on my own terms, for the most part. Writing is such a wonderful way to do that. Writing should always be about the escape to freedom. All good fiction is. Anyway, I can see this developing into a rant… so let me just say, I certainly get a sense of your obessions, SWS, and I thank you for the example.

  7. Patrick! Thanks so much for bringing Sue here. This inspired me so much. I’ve had many essays published in the past few years and like you describe–it’s one small obsession after another with no obvious connection. Though there are themes. I will wait longer to see what even larger themes present themselves, but it gives me hope that a significant one will . . . at least one worthy of pulling the best ones together one day. That’s my goal at least.

    • Hi, Nina — I’m really pleased that this post helped you think about your own writing. Yes, keep at it!! The larger, overall theme, the deeper meaning that holds all together will reveal itself! It just takes some time. I should also mention that, when I was at the stage when the essays started to cohere, there were some that I needed to get rid of — because they weren’t fitting in. So I think it’s important to be open to that, too. In fact, some of the essays that didn’t fit in the Pat Boone Fan Club book are now inserting themselves into my new manuscript.

  8. Hi, pjreece — I hope you do write a memoir one day! It sounds important for you. And I hear what you’re saying about the idea of “escape.” I find I’m able to do that whether I’m reading or writing. If I’m writing, and even though I’m writing my own narrative, there’s the ability to sink down inside experience and understand it in new ways — more metaphorical ways. For me, gaining that understanding, is a form of escape — though that might sound a bit strange? Anyway, thanks so much for this response to my post and I wish you all the best with writing and with escape!

  9. Sue, I’m so happy for you and this great book. I followed a very similar path in my childhood memoir BLUSH. I did a book proposal after publishing 4 or 5 of what later became 19 chapters. I remember so well the little group at Bear River. You are an excellent teacher. And I’m encouraged to know that I am not the only one who had to struggle to find an arc and themes. But like Jacob, the writer does not let go until the angel blesses!

  10. Hi, Shirley — Thank you SO much for your support and your kind words! And, yes, Bear River! What a great conference. I’m delighted that your memoir came together, too! And, goodness knows, all writers struggle, right!? But the important thing is to keep writing! Thanks so much for your comment!

  11. “One obsession at a time…” I may have to have this phrase needle-pointed onto a pillow for my office. Thank you, Sue.

  12. This was a fascinating insight into how a book-length work comes together. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Awesome, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were my choice for adoption. Great to learn I wasn’t the only crazy kid.
    Working on writing “childrens” books high lighting the gifts special need children. 33 y/o autistic son as inspiration.
    You have inspired me to really just do it.

    • Hi, Darlene — I love that: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans! We all have our obsessions and “wishful thinking” ideal parents, don’t we?! And I’m delighted to hear you’re inspired to write your own narrative(s). Excellent!!

  14. This was a truly fascinating read. Great look into another artist’s process. Thank you both so much for sharing!

  15. I love this whole piece, so loaded with insights into your process.Third memoir. Yikes. Insanely unique voice. Wow. (I recently read another memoir that used the conglomeration of essays, Slash Coleman’s Bohemian Love Diaries). Other writers want to figure out unique ways to combine disparate moments and passions into a narrative whole. (The technique you used in your first two memoirs to separate out the abuse from the addiction is also instructive). I love your willingness to use the word obsession in a good way. I think all writers are obsessed. How else could we sit at a computer and stare inside for just the right word, thought, phrase, anecdote, structure? Memoir writers have a particular obsession, turning self into story. So cool that you say you are bored (not obsessed) by fiction. Me too. One of the great things about reading and admiring great memoirs is the sense of shared dreams. I don’t want to be stuck alone with my obsessions. Our books let us share them!

    Jerry Waxler
    Author of Memoir Revolution and Memory Writers Network

    • Jerry, thank you so much for such insightful comments and supportive words. This means a lot to me. Yes, I have to write deep into the heart of an obsession — whatever it is — until I fully understand its essence. And once the metaphors of the obsession are discovered then we reveal their universality…and others can relate to our narratives.

  16. Thank you for your transparency, Sue. Whenever my students ask how to start their memoir, I suggest they write 3 -5 page vignettes. Capturing moments. One at a time. I tell them the form will follow. It’s like making a movie – scene by scene but by no means in the ‘finished’ order. And yet it works out in the end. The arc and the bridge – love these concepts! It seems a similar process applies to gathering and ordering a collection of poems. And thank you, Patrick, for yet another inspiring and elucidating post.

    • Hi, Sarah — thank you so much for reading my blog and sharing such interesting comments. I love that idea of asking students to begin by writing 3-5 page vignettes. What a great way to get things started! And I love your analogy to making a movie…and, yes, ordering a collection of poems as well! Exactly! Again, thank you! Sue

  17. I have such admiration for people like you, Sue, who are able to write memoirs of the painful and difficult periods of their lives. It’s a brave thing to do, to be that honest with the world. It’s courage I can only dream of aspiring to; I tend to hide my personal war wounds in fictional places, speaking through the mouths of imaginary characters instead.🙂 Thank you for your insights, and kudos to you for turning your life around and creating such a positive outcome from everything you’ve been through.

    And thank you too, Patrick, for introducing us all to Sue.🙂

    • HI, Wendy — Oh, thank you so much for your lovely, supportive comments! They mean a lot. And, you know, I admire poets and fiction writers who tackle the tough, dark topics as well.

      To me, what’s most important, is that each of us, as writers, find our own particular authentic voice with which to tell our stories — regardless of the genre.

      To be honest, I began as a fiction writer! I wrote a bunch of really bad (unpublished) novels that all had to do (one way or another) with incest and child abuse. In short, I tried to tell my stories as fiction. But I’m a terrible fiction writer! It wasn’t until I switched to memoir that I discovered my own true authentic voice.

      In short, it’s important that we writers write our emotional truths as fiction, poetry, or memoir/creative nonfiction. Whatever feels most natural!

  18. Thank you, everyone, for your great comments, and of course to Sue for joining us this week and engaging with The Artist’s Road readers!

  19. Oh, and if anyone wants to contact me personally, my contact information is on my website at http://www.SueWilliamSilverman.com. I wish you all the best with your own writing!

  20. That was great to read, Sue. I’m so glad you shared! I had a class with a woman who was writing a memoir about her mother’s Alzheimer’s, but it ended up not to be as strong as her writing about her childhood as the daughter of a soap star. I think she began to see what her memoir was truly about. With memoirs, the more rambling on you have the better, because it’s going to come up again and again and again what you really should be writing about. But the feedback is absolutely essential. We wanted to hear more about her childhood.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Inspiration to Open Your Heart - Kira Elliott - May 28, 2015

    […] How One Author Combined Personal Essays Into a Coherent Memoir– This is an interesting look at how Sue William Silverman wrote her third memoir. Learning how to craft my writing is a struggle but I am learning. Definitely a heart opening activity for me. If you are not familiar with Ms. Silverman’s work, I highly suggest checking her out. […]

Chime in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: