Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir
by Sue William Silverman

University of Georgia Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8203-3166-9.
Reviewed by Linda Wisniewski
Posted on 06/14/2009
Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Although the subtitle refers to memoir, Sue William Silverman's guide will be helpful for essay writers as well. The author uses her own life experiences to illustrate the elements of memoir, and good writing in general. Each chapter ends with practice exercises and a "for your reading pleasure" short essay that relates directly to the lesson.

In her preface, Silverman tells us that "Fearless Confessions is intended to help ensure that our voices are heard." Her direct, honest voice tells the reader she wrote this because she "struggled through numerous false starts and made many mistakes" before she learned how to turn her raw experience into an artful story. Through clear instruction, exercises, readings and heartfelt encouragement, she has made certain the success of her mission.

Highlighted statements reinforce each chapter's main ideas. For example, in "Plotting Your Life," Silverman introduces the reader to the horizontal plot (what happens to the writer) and the vertical plot (how the writer feels about it). "It's only through writing about events after they happen...that we come to understand what they mean," she says. "All our lives have plots. We find them through writing."

In her chapter on voice, she contrasts the Voice of Innocence and the Voice of Experience, and ends with an essay by Candace L. Greene portraying the voices of three women—her own, her mother's and her grandmother's, describing each moment in the Voice of Innocence, and ending with the Voice of Experience as the writer realizes a truth about their lives. In the chapter on metaphors, Silverman says "Don't expect to know your metaphors before you begin to write. This is what you'll discover as you write."

She addresses the critics who belittle memoir, especially by women, by labeling it "confessional." Many of us have been marginalized, Silverman writes, regardless of gender. "Confessing" our stories exposes the commonality among us. It serves to expand the range of what it means to be human. In "Confessional and (Finally) Proud of It," Silverman tells about her family's reaction to her memoirs about sexual abuse and addiction, and includes quotes from other writers about their experience with family criticism. In the end, she says, "our job is still to tell our stories..." and to "bear witness to honest human experiences and emotions."

The book has three Appendices: an overview of the subgenres of creative nonfiction, three confessional essays on the writing process written especially for readers of this book, and four full-length essays the reader can use to study the craft elements discussed. Finally, Silverman gifts us with an extensive reading list.

Fearless Confessions is a trustworthy, encouraging companion for everyone who chooses to take the first step toward writing about life. I'm sure I'll refer to it again and again, for ideas and courage as I walk the memoir writer's path.


Sue William Silverman is a faculty advisor at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and the associate editor of the journal, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Her first book, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, received the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is also the author of Love Sick: One Woman's Journey through Sexual Addiction (made into a Lifetime movie) and Hieroglyphics in Neon, a collection of poems. More information about Silverman and her work is available on her website.

Check out our interview with the author of Fearless Confessions.

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