July 25, 2016

When Does Confessional Writing Cross the Line?

A conversation with several other writers sparked an interesting question: “if you write an essay about committing illegal acts, could you face criminal charges?”

I’m no lawyer, but I’m definitely a rule-follower, and my first thought was, “why the heck would you own up to something illegal and make that confession public?”
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that there are plenty examples of authors do this, both in memoir and essay form, and as far as I know, none of them been arrested as a result of what they wrote.
I’m sure this depends on the severity of the crime and how long ago it was. I can certainly see someone getting busted for over-sharing on a blog or Twitter if it was recent and really egregious. Plus, bloggers don’t have the benefit of a publisher’s legal team to advise on what details may cross the line. I can also see this happening in other parts of the world where someone’s political views or sexual orientation could endanger them.
I’m not encouraging anyone to commit a crime so they can write a tell-all essay or memoir, but I can certainly see why it would make deliciously readable material and why authors might want to ‘fess up as a form of therapy, a way to unburden themselves of guilt and painful secrets.
Here are a few examples:
All of these pieces have a raw poignancy to them (in fact, the first one made me cry), and I admire the authors for their honesty, even when it makes me uncomfortable. Still, I wonder about the answer to original question, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you read other confessional pieces like these? Have you heard of any authors or essayists facing charges for their writing? Do tell!

5 Qs with Melissa Hart, Author of Gringa

Melissa Hart is a journalist professor at the University of Oregon and the author of two memoirs. Her most recent book, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, explores the custody battle between her straight-laced father and lesbian mother. Melissa and I discussed the differences between essay and memoir writing, her inspiration, and more.

Urban Muse: Tell us about the inspiration behind Gringa.
Inspiration comes to me in the form of images–in the case of Gringa, I recalled a pack of Spanish flash cards that my mother had when we took language classes together at the local library. I couldn’t get one image–a line drawing of a disembodied ear–out of my head. Really, it was that flash card that provided the initial inspiration to sit down and write the first chapter. I’d told part of my story–about my mother coming out and losing custody of me and my younger siblings–in my first memoir, The Assault of Laughter. However, I didn’t feel that I’d written the story as eloquently or thoroughly as I could have, and so I set out to write it once more and expand upon it with more sophisticated prose and a greater sense of how the dissolution of my family affected me as a young adult. I’d also been reading memoir and fiction with recipes–Laura Esquivel’s “Like Water for Chocolate,” Diana Abu-Jaber’s “The Language of Baklava”–and as food provided comfort and intrigue for me as an adolescent, I structured each chapter around a key recipe.

UM: Was it difficult to write about events that are so deeply personal?
It is difficult to write about personal events. After almost thirty years, I still have a lot of pain regarding what happened to my family. Many women with kids who came out during the 1970s and 1980s lost custody of their children, and most don’t want to discuss this. However, I think it’s a critical period of history that needs to be explored, and while I shed many tears during my writing of Gringa, I also feel confident that this book offers insight into LGBT families and their value. The hardest scene for me to see in print is the sex scene in “Young Americans.” I didn’t want to include it, but my editor thought it was important. It’s not erotic–more “theater of the absurd”–but I blush to think that my journalism students and my grandparents have read it.

UM: In addition to two memoirs, you’ve published a number of essays. Any tips on writing compelling essays? How is it the same (or different) from writing a memoir?
Essay writing can be so much fun. It requires a lot less time commitment and research than a book-length memoir; however, many of the writing techniques are the same. You have to go into an essay with a compelling introduction, and the whole piece is guided by a thesis (that is, a topic and a point you wish to make about that topic). I think it’s important to include research, so that readers learn something about a subject, and you also need to include sensory details, stylish writing, vivid imagery, and a conclusion that really leaves people thinking. I get a lot of my ideas from what I’m thinking about or learning about at the time–for instance, I’ve just finished an essay exploring Jim Henson’s “The Muppet Show,” which was so important to my family in the 1980s, and which my three-year old daughter now adores. The trick was to make it personal, while exploring a universal truth and offering readers insight into the program and its influences on audiences then and now.

UM: Since you also teach journalism, what is the single most important thing that you impart to students each semester?
I think the single most important thing I impart is that publication doesn’t have to be this far-off dream that one spends years pursuing. It’s something that can happen within a few weeks of learning a few crucial skills, such as constructing a compelling short essay and submitting it to specifically-targeted editors with a succinct cover letter. My Feature Writing 1 students regularly get published in places including The Washington Post, The Oregonian, Horizon Air Magazine, and High Country News. They’re amazed that editors are willing to publish their work, but why not, if they’ve worked hard at multiple drafts and submitted a polished piece?

UM: What books would you say should be required reading for aspiring essayists and/or memoir writers?

M: I’m an evangelist for Sue William Silverman’s Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir [ed. note: Sue has also shared her insights on this blog]. It’s simply the most thorough and inspiring book I’ve found for memoir writers, regardless of the level of experience. And I regularly read and assign the “Best American” series to my students; in particular, I like “Best American Magazine Writing” and “Best American Essays.” I also really enjoy the writing in the literary journals “Creative Nonfiction” and “Fourth Genre.” They’re essential reading for memoirists.

Thanks, Melissa!

5 Qs with Sue William Silverman, Author of Fearless Confessions

Today, I’m excited to share an interview with memoirist and writing instructor Sue William Silverman. Her memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, inspired a Lifetime Television original movie, and her earlier book, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the AWP award in creative nonfiction. More recently, she wrote Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir (see video book trailer). She also teaches in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Art and works as a professional speaker. We discussed building a platform, dealing with criticism, and honing the craft of writing.

Urban Muse: How important is it for memoir writers to have a platform before they get published?
While it can help to have a ready-made platform before publication—and while that might assist getting published in the first place—it is far from being a pre-requisite.

And, after all, one of the main ways to garner a platform is to first publish a book. That was definitely true for me. All I did before my first book was published was write, write, write. Only after Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You was published did I become a professional speaker.

UM: You’ve written about some very personal topics. Have you had to deal with any criticism for baring your soul like this? How did you handle that?
Not so much criticism, as misunderstanding.

For example, when I was on a radio tour with my second memoir, Love Sick, I was asked some very inappropriate questions by “shock jocks.” One, for example, asked me where the kinkiest place I ever had sex was?

When I was asked that question, I was really caught off guard, so my initial response was to panic!

But then I took a deep breath and realized that just because the radio host asked an inappropriate question, didn’t mean I had to answer it. Basically, I simply explained that my book was about recovering from sex addiction. Period!

UM: Any tips for first time memoirists? What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen?
Take your time with your prose. Study the craft of writing.

Some beginning writers (myself included!) think that the most important thing is getting published. Really, the most important thing is the writing itself. Do that well, and the rest follows.

So read books on craft. Take a writing class or two. If you feel really industrious you can even get a Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing. In short, remember how important your story is, and know that it’s just as important to take the time with the writing, until it’s the very best it can be.

UM: Aside from Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick, what other memoirs would you recommend for learning the craft?
There are, literally, hundreds of great memoirs. Rather than try to name a few, I’d love to suggest you review my contemporary creative nonfiction reading list, available on my website, at http://www.suewilliamsilverman.com/. (Scroll down on the home page, and you’ll see a link to it on the right-hand column.)

The list is divided by category and subject matter, so there should be something for everyone.

UM: What’s next for you?
I’m still teaching at the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I’m also working on a new manuscript: The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White, Anglo-Saxon Jew. Which pretty much sums up the theme of the book!

Thanks, Sue!

Find out more about Sue and her books on Sue William Silverman’s website.

Guest Post: Discover the History Within Your Memoir

By Annette Fix

Simply stated: When you write a memoir, you are recording history. History as experienced by a single human. History that you are living and documenting right now.

The dusty textbooks used in schools relay history, citing the names, dates, and places of significant events, and the major public, social, political, and religious figures considered noteworthy. While all those facts and figures are preserved for posterity, where are the stories from the people who lived through those historical events?

Without the individual stories of people who were there, future generations will be robbed of the humanity beneath the history.

The galvanizing election of the first African American president of the United States, the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Holocaust—these events and countless others—both large and small—are pieces of human history that shouldn’t be reduced to facts and figures.

Which is more compelling and leaves you with a deeper understanding of history: the chapter about WWII in your old high-school textbook or The Diary of Anne Frank? At their core, all memoirs have historical elements woven through the story. There is no way to write a memoir can exist without capturing a moment in history. A memoir is documentation—a narrative record of how a single person functioning within society thinks, behaves, and lives at this very moment in time.

Through his personal story in Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt tells a tale that gives great insight into the Irish socio-economic struggles. His experience is not unlike the experiences of many others at that place and time. McCourt’s story has relevance today in this economic climate. A memoir written by someone affected by the current lending crisis or the stock market crash could provide the human insight behind the facts and figures that will eventually be recorded in history textbooks.

The same can be said about the gender oppression in Middle Eastern culture explored in Reading Lolita in Tehran. And the political debate surrounding right-to-life issues in Two Weeks of Life. History repeats itself and often only the setting, characters, and details change.

What is your story has no connection to anything historical?

Maybe your story is not tied directly to any event that will ever make your name appear in a textbook; that doesn’t mean your experience is less valuable. Your daily trials, concerns, and experiences deserve to be recorded to paint an authentic picture of life at this very moment, at this exact place in the world. What may not seem like history to you now could end up being a study in social anthropology in the future, so don’t be too quick to decide your story is insignificant on a historical level.

As an example, when I began writing my book, The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir, I was working through a devastating relationship break-up that occurred exactly 43 days after the terrorist attack on The World Trade Center—two seemingly unrelated incidents. It wasn’t until a year later that I discovered studies were conducted about the phenomenon. Because Americans were shaken to the core by an attack carried out on U.S. soil, many of them began to question what and who in their lives were most important. People made significant life choices, following the mantra: “life is too short.” Though the specifics of my story are unique to my life, and my voice and the execution of my memoir is intentionally lighter in tone than you would expect, the catalyst for my story is both historical and universal.

Take a look at your life. Think on a micro level—what experience in your life mirrors history on a universal/macro level? What is your personal story connection to history?

Annette Fix is a freelance editor, a publishing industry and single parenting speaker, Senior Editor of WOW! Women On Writing, and the author of The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir.

Visit her writing blog at Annette’s Paper Trail. She enjoys hearing from her readers and other writers. You can email her directly at annette[at]annettefix[dot]com.

For the length of her blog tour, Annette will be giving away free digital copies of her memoir. If you’d like a copy, send an email to promo[at]thebreak-updiet[dot]com, please put “The Urban Muse” in the subject line.

You can purchase copies of The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir online and from any independent or chain bookstore.