In Defense of Memoir: Once More Into the Fray

September 8, 2011 § 32 Comments

We asked Sue William Silverman, one of our favorite memoirists and author of the craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, to expand upon the excellent response she wrote as a letter-to-the-editor in the most recent Writer’s Chronicle, and, happily, she agreed:

I was disappointed (okay, angry) to read an interview with Aleksandar Hemon in the March/April 2011 Writer’s Chronicle.  Here was yet another fiction writer (or critic) berating the memoir as if it’s unseemly to explore the human condition.

Here is how I responded, in part, in a “Letter to the Editor” (WC, Sept., 2011):  “When Mr. Hemon questions ‘…how many books of addiction can you write in a lifetime,’ he attempts to reduce human experience to the absurd notion that a person is defined by just one thing.  I admit it – I have written about addiction.  But I’ve also written about growing up in the West Indies, Pat Boone, Route 17, working in a building riddled with asbestos, Lake Michigan…and so on.   Putting subject matter aside, what Mr. Hemon fails to grasp is that memoir requires that the author craft a personal story into one that’s metaphoric and universal – just like fiction and poetry.”

In the same interview, Hemon goes so far as to claim that memoir writers are cowardly because of their “refusal to enter literature, to create fictional work, to ply the imagination…that to me is cowardly…. There is something safe when someone tells you, ‘Your story’s interesting. Just tell it….’ Then you put it together and there’s your memoir.”

Cowardly?  Really?

What I didn’t say to Mr. Hemon, in my Letter to the Editor, is that to write a memoir is not a simple act of regurgitation or spitting out facts to an “interesting story” along the lines of “first this happened to me, then this happened, then this next thing happened.”  Of much greater interest, and at the heart of memoir, is the story behind the story, the memoirist’s courageous ability to reflect upon the past, thus artistically recasting his or her experience into one that’s transformative.

It took me five long years to write my memoir Love Sick.  Why?  Because it took that long to discover the metaphors and the irony – to go beyond the mere facts – of that experience.  If memoir were what Hemon claims, I could have knocked that sucker out in a few weeks.  Anyone could.  (Ironically, the only memoir that Hemon seems to admire is James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, because he did make “stuff up.  He had the right instincts, just not the right label.”)

Here is what I did say to Mr. Hemon: “I don’t hear nonfiction writers disparage novelists, so it’s all the more frustrating that any number of fiction writers have an axe to grind with memoirists.  Literature is not a zero-sum game.  What expands readership is great writing, whatever form it takes.  What shrinks readership is the failure of writers to take emotional and stylistic risks.  Right now, I believe that an expanding range of creative nonfiction presents writers with the best opportunities to take those risks. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many serious writers – to say nothing of readers – find this genre so compelling.”

And that, for now, is all she wrote.


Sue William Silverman’s memoirLove Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton) is also a Lifetime Television original movie.  Her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award series in creative nonfiction, and her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir.  She teaches in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts (

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