Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sue William Silverman and Pat Boone: Memoirist Explains It All

One look at Sue William Silverman’s website assures you that this is a woman who does not flinch, not from the past, not from the present, and certainly not from the future.  With three memoirs and one book on the craft of writing memoir, Sue, a professional speaker as well as a writing teacher, has a lot to say and has kindly agreed to chat with me.

Gay Degani: Your memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, vividly evokes the wholesome touchstones of the 50s and 60s of the last century, including Pat Boone, “American Bandstand,” the movie, State Fair, even though your personal reality was quite different. A famous picture of the Boone family on a bicycle, mentioned in your book, seems to embody the innocence of that time.  Can you talk a little about what the picture meant to you and why?

Sue William Silverman: The photo was in Life Magazine and, yes, it is of Pat Boone on a tandem bicycle with his wife and four daughters. I loved that photo and stared at it seemingly for hours. It represented several things. For one, here was a family, all together and smiling, perfectly balanced on a tandem bicycle: it captured the essence of this family that must, likewise, be perfect balanced.

So to me growing up in an incestuous family – one completely out of alignment, unbalanced – I wanted, more than anything, to be Pat Boone’s fifth daughter on the bicycle. And if I were on the bicycle, then I could ride far away from my own family and belong to Pat Boone’s family.
At the same time, it was a still photograph. Here was Pat Boone and his daughters captured in a moment of time. As long as I kept watching the photograph, Pat Boone would never leave me. It was as if I believed if I continued to stare at the photo, I was, in essence, with him.

You know, as a kid, there is a lot of magical thinking going on, so this was my fantasy/belief: If only Pat Boone would adopt me, if only I could have a seat on that tandem bicycle, I’d be safe. Or, by the same token, I would be safe as long as I focused on that photograph!

And they looked like that all-American, white Anglo-Saxon family. I believed they could save me from my scary family that happened to be Jewish.

GD: This is so personal, what made you decide to write memoirs rather than fiction? 

SWS: Actually, I tried writing my story as fiction. I began as a fiction writer and have written something like five or six novels (bad novels, thankfully unpublished) before I switched to memoir. Frankly, back when I began to write seriously, in the mid-1980s, no one was even talking about memoir. No writing programs taught it: you majored in either fiction or poetry.

So, as I say, I tried telling my story in novel after novel. In other words, on some level, all of these novels were more or less about incest – but I disguised my true story as much as possible. Yet it just didn’t work. The voice in the novels – all of them – sounded emotionally inauthentic.

Then, about ten years or so later, when I was finally in therapy, my therapist suggested I try writing my story as nonfiction. At first, I just blew off his suggestion. I was convinced I had nothing to say about myself. Besides, who would want to read a book about me? That was what I believed.

But then my parents died. My therapist said, “Maybe now you’ll feel safe enough to write about yourself.” Initially, just to humor my therapist, I agreed, thinking I’d maybe write one or two pages and that would be that. What happened, though, is that, within a three-month period, about 300 manuscript pages just fell out of me. That was pretty much my first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. From there, I’ve written two more memoirs and one craft book on how to write memoir.

GD: It sounds to me as if all those novels were rough drafts of your memoir, preparing you for something that you could do and you could do so well.  Do you have a writing process that's evolved from switching from fiction to non-fiction?  How is writing one different from writing the other?

SWS: Yes, exactly! On many levels those novels were rough drafts, preparing me for the time when I would have the courage and insight to write my first memoir. And spending ten or so years writing novels was certainly not a waste of time! I was, after all, learning how to sustain a narrative, form an arc or plot, write dialogue, set scenes, develop character. Obviously, in a memoir, the protagonist is myself, not a fictional character, but a memoirist still needs to develop herself on the page, make herself believable.

From my perspective, the biggest difference between memoir and novel (besides the fact that one is fiction and the other is nonfiction) is the need for reflection. Writing a memoir is, at its heart, a journey into the heart and soul of the narrator. A lot of introspection is needed. A protagonist in a novel, especially one that’s written in the first-person POV, can be introspective, but it isn’t necessary. A memoir, on the other hand, needs to be more than a “surface” plot of “first this happened, and then this next thing happened.” A memoir, at its core, relies on two plots or arcs: one that does give a “surface” rendering of events: the “what happened.” But it also needs an interior plot or arc that shows the narrator’s internal, emotional journey.

GD: I love your observation: “Writing a memoir is, at its heart, a journey into the heart and soul of the narrator.” Your writing has taken you on a journey into your own heart and soul.  What's next for you?  What other paths are you going to dare to go down?

SWS: I’m currently working on memoir #4 – which kind of shocks even me – just thinking about it. Well, ok, this might sound kind of grim, but it’s about (more or less) my fear of death – written, ironically, from the viewpoint of a lifelong hypochondriac.

But the structure will, hopefully, save it from being too grim in that it’s written as if I’m on a never-ending road trip, careening down Route 17 in New Jersey (I went to high school in NJ), which is a tacky, industrial-strength highway. The tone of the book is both fantastical and realistic in that it’s a kind of true and faux “journey,” obviously very ironic, to circumvent death: both the real thing as well as all the little deaths, like loss, that plague us on a daily basis.

Well, that’s what I think it’s about right now. But I’m in the early stages. My current draft is in shambles, and, for all I know, the book may turn out to be something else altogether. We’ll see….

GD: Thanks, Sue, for talking with me about your wonderful, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, which contains a series of essays about how being Jewish made you feel left out of mainstream American and how Pat Boone, a mid-20th century icon sustained you through your girlhood and has become interwoven into your life even today. 

To find out more about Sue, read her bio below. Also be sure to visit her website at

Author Bio:Sue William Silverman’s new memoir is The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew (University of Nebraska Press). Her two other memoirs are Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton), which is also a Lifetime TV movie, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (University of Georgia Press), 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 (UGA Press), and her poetry collection is Hieroglyphics in Neon (Orchises). As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on various national television programs such as “The View,” “Anderson Cooper – 360,” “CNN-Headline News,” as well as the Discovery Channel.  She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Home and Somewhat Rested

I have so much to talk about following my trip to Washington DC where I did double-duty, teaching a "Flash Fiction" class at American University's World of Communication summer program for high school students and hanging out with my son, Nick, his beautiful wife, Mysti, and of course, the granddaughter, Emily. Both activities were inspiring, exhausting, illuminating, and fantastic fun with the cherry-on-top (if you'll excuse me a cliche) being a meet-up with Virgie Townsend and the D.C. Binders group on the roof top terrace of the Kennedy Center my last Saturday in the Capital. More about them later.

Part 1

This is my second year of teaching at AU and I first want to compliment all the students for their hard-work and efforts to understand the elements of flash fiction. These, of course, are the same cornerstones that make up fiction in general. Together, with TA Anna Rutenbeck helming production and earning the title of publisher, the students created a beautiful anthology of short prose, The Fishbowl Journal, V. 2, Krakken Edition. So here's to Alex McClellan, Amara Everying, Cortney Rielly, David Hernandez, Delany Collin, Gabrielle Feinsmith, Jeff Reynolds, Juana Capelutto, Mariah Marshall, Marian Schmitz, Matt May, and Max Tiefer!  I hope in the future to buy your work in bookstores (well, yes, and I guess, Amazon), see you at podiums (podia?), on Saturday Night Live, and slamming poetry.  And that goes for you too, Anna, who made my job easily.

The other fun thing was the commute.  While I'm not a fan of long commutes in California, riding the subway every day to work was an experience I enjoyed--most of the time! Even in July. In the heat and humidity.  Even with a shuttle ride still to go at the end.  Time elapsed?  If lucky, one hour.

I had to figure out the passes--Superpass or Superplus, I can't remember.  But I know having two cards even with a lot of money on them is gonna get you in trouble.  You swipe your pass to get into the Metro loading area, and you swipe it going out.  If you don't use the same card, your egress is blocked.  If you go through a gate that is open through no machinations of your own, when you try to exit, you can't get through. You have to talk to "The Man" who stands there glaring as you swipe the wrong and useless card, feed that card into the maw on the post, resist the commuters pushing you through the locked gate as if they're on the sinking Titanic.

Then there are the trains themselves. When you try to crowd into a car with a million people and the heavy-set dude in front of you has glue feet, you have to sacrifice an arm to keep the door open while you holler "Can you please move?"  Luckily, when you do this, no one cares, not even the man with Superglue on the soles of his shoes.  Then when you get on the train with a million people, there's no place to sit andas the car jerks forward, you consider asking Mr. Adhesive-Wingtips if you can borrow his glue.

What I did on the train when I did get a seat:
  • Paid close attention to my fellow travelers, what they wore, what they said, how they slumped, relaxed, or perched on their seats
  • Listened to an interview with Patton Oswalt discussing his book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland recorded at the iTunes store in Brooklyn and downloaded onto my iPod by me for free
  • Listened to Citizen Cope as well as a playlist I'd made of the 2009 American Idol cast (eclectic is my bag)
  • Played Spider Solitaire on my phone
  • Read Len Joy's American Past Time on my Kindle
  • Read student stories on my phone
  • Wrote a draft of a story on my phone about finding black trash bags strewn along the curb, filled with someone's belongings including several bags of books  I had to keep myself from snatching an Eric Larson tome 
  • Talked to an education student--I wish I remembered his name--who had heard me on the shuttle espousing the need to make student write several drafts of a piece--and as the teacher, read them--to give them the full writing experience.  We discussed the importance of practice.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Hey, You AU Flash Fiction First-Timers!!

I'm teaching Flash Fiction class to high school students in American University's Discover the World of Communication and thought this short essay might help to clarify why I love Flash Fiction. This article first appeared at FlashFiction.Net on March 15, 2010

Gay Degani @ FlashFiction.Net: Addicted to Flash

My name is Gay Degani and I’m a flash-a-holic.  I wrote my first flash fiction piece in 2007, and since then, I haven’t been able to turn my back on a single scrap of conversation, writing prompt, provocative first sentence, or saxophone solo.

I’m a sucker for that tingly feeling I get when inspiration hits, but in the old days, I didn’t act on the fragile ones, the ones too slender to develop for 3000-4000 words.  I didn’t know if I had enough time or ability to do them justice.  Then I got hooked on flash.

Here’s why.  All those tiny epiphanies are perfect for flash fiction.  Since flash is short, usually under 1000 words, I know I’ll be able to get my words into a document before the wisp of an idea disappears.  I don’t worry about going off on tangents because I’m focusing on a single moment in a character’s life.  I’m not intimidated because no matter how bad it is, it’s only going to be 300 words, 500 words, a thousand words worth of bad.  And because it’s concise, I can usually write from beginning to end before real life interferes.  And if it does, it’s easy to get back into the story.

It’s this promise of “do-ability” that first drew me to flash fiction, but before I continue, let me say the following are not rules, but steps I take to develop my own fiction.  Because of the short nature of flash, I’ve learned to see the elements needed to write a story—content, structure, and language—as individual components and this has helped me to tackle complex pieces with confidence.

I commit (when I am disciplined) to a minimum of three drafts, each draft with a different focus. 

The first draft is about content.  I am writing for characters, events, voice, mood, tone, and whatever else comes out of my initial inspiration.  This is a right brain activity, me letting the “muse” guide me with little thought of structure or language. 

The second draft is about structure.  I have rough, inconsistent content with holes in the logic so next I need to find the purpose in the story.  This allows me to figure out the order of the story beats.  A beat is the character in conflict, taking action.  This is what moves a story forward .  This is the “how” to the story—how it will unfold from first sentence to last.  

Randall Brown gives a brief description of what “structure” entails in his post at Flash Fiction Chronicles “Who Cares?”: The Nuts & Bolts of Making Narrative Matter:

Something happens (precipitating incident) to create a desire, and that desire creates a need for action that is thwarted by this and that and this and that until, finally, there’s resolution.

At the center of a good story is the impact of  the resolution.  This is what my character learns from the action of the story.  If there isn’t an “aha” moment in the rough draft, I need to look at what my character wants and what stands in her way, what action she takes and what outcome follows.  It is the result of this “journey” that creates the “aha” moment, the emotional core where universal truth is revealed. 

This truth does not need to be earth-shattering.  It can be quiet self-awareness such as “I didn’t know I could be so mean,” or “I didn’t realize I mattered to my uncle.” Flash fiction allows for bigger truths too, but I never know what it is until I look and “see.”

Once I’ve applied this left brain activity, I have a story with content and structure. It’s beginning to make sense, even though I may want to shift things for more impact. 

The third draft is for language. I look at each sentence, the visual images, specific nouns, and vigorous verbs.  Many of these sentences work.  I’ve written them while creating content.  I’ve edited them while working on structure, and I’m always striving to write the best sentences I can, every time.  However, even if many of them are functional, there is always more they can do.

I start by reading my piece aloud to get a sense of rhythm.  Each story has, depending on subject matter and my viewpoint, its own rhythm. This rhythm and the story’s tone should be consistent throughout.  Reading aloud also helps me to find unnecessary words. 

Unnecessary words exist in repetitions.  Because flash is limited by word count, usually there’s rarely a need to repeat information.  Since flash is short, I assume the reader will retain what I’ve written.  But if I feel a reference to a previous action is needed, I word it so something additional is revealed.  Dual purposing words is always a goal.

Unnecessary words can be found in most first-draft sentences.  When I create content, my main focus is the idea, not how I convey that idea.  Therefore, I find words in first drafts I do not want in my final. 

Most people sprinkle their writing with words such as “just,” “so,” “pretty,” “well,” “only” and these words can add to the voice of a piece, but often they add nothing. Elimination also of the words “then” and “that” can make sentences fresher. I have to watch out for “old” and “little.”  Amazing how often they pop up.

Another thing I look out for—especially in flash—are prepositional phrases.  Most of these can be converted to adjectives and make writing more dynamic. These edits are more easily caught because at this stage I am concentrating on language. 

Content, structure, and language occur during all drafts of a story, but by focusing on one aspect in each of my first drafts, I have a clearer picture of what I’m doing.  If I get stuck, reverting to this process gets me unstuck.

So yes, I’m a flash-a-holic because flash fiction has given me a straightforward method to approach each story and a deeper understanding of how fiction works, but even more, it has allowed me to capture inspirations for stories that might have otherwise slipped away.