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.
Still, 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?
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 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.