Book Review Essay: Fearless Confessions

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

“Everyone has a story to tell. Fearless Confessions is a guidebook for people who want to take possession of their lives by putting their experiences down on paper.” – Back Cover Summary

In the summer of 2008, I used a little magic.

Through an unusual set of circumstances, I found myself in front of a roomful of corporate trainers leading a seminar on storytelling. They’d made the invitation thinking that I would discuss how my experience in making films might be useful to them. Instead, after being briefly introduced as a local writer and filmmaker (who was currently contracted to build animated training films for their corporate masters), I walked to the front of the room and told a long story about a weekend camping adventure I’d had a few years before. In the story, my friend Nate and I arrive at a remote state park, excited to stay up and watch the Perseid meteor shower without the competing glow of city lights. Before we see a single falling star, we get chased by a deranged goose, saved from the goose by a teenage girl on horseback, then redeemed by finding two lost little boys and delivering them to the searching army of police who’d responded to the mother’s frightened call.

When I finished the story, I stood for a moment in the silent room. Every eye was on me. I’d hooked them.

“What’s something you know about me?” I asked the front row. They responded with details from the story: “You want people to think you’re a nice guy.” “You’re scared of geese.” I asked, “Do you think understanding things about me is useful in any way?” “You bet,” they said. Feeling a connection to me made our work easier, more engaging. They trusted me more.

And so I introduced them to what I believe the fundamental power of a story to be, whether written or spoken. By accessing the primary mechanisms of our brains, stories break through our natural emotional barriers, creating communities out of listeners (and storytellers), thus facilitating the human business of getting things done.

I still believe this, but sharing this belief was not the magic. It was to begin with the story. I introduced characters and an open-ended situation, and the biology and training my audience had from a lifetime of human communication made them curious and connected. Only then did I begin feeding the information they wanted. And I confirmed that a good teacher’s primary role is not to deliver data. It’s to tease the learners, to goad them, to inspire them. They’ll do the rest.

Which Sue William Silverman utterly fails to do for me. Her functional deficiency in training me as a memoirist is wonderfully represented in one particularly surprising flaw in her book: she opens each chapter not with a story, but with concepts.

In classic, tedious English-class fashion, she begins with proper topic sentences and details. It’s a term paper. Only at the end of each chapter does she deliver the story, in a section titled For Your Reading Pleasure, a clear hint of how ornamental she considers the story to be.

Which should be surprising, considering that much of the content of the book is dedicated to sublimating the techniques of good writing into stories (metaphors and such), and arguing for the value of personal confession in human communication. Though she doesn’t say it outright, the bulk of the book seems to be her way of arguing that had she arrived in her readers’ lives with a catalog of facts and figures, their lives would remain unchanged. But by confessing her story (in her own memoir published some years before), by sharing her experience, she helped them reach across the emotional barriers of their lives and so begin to heal from their own traumas.

And yet, in discussing the very task of this form of sharing, she utterly fails to do the very thing she’s arguing for: place the story at the center of the sharing experience.

All this should surprise me, but it doesn’t. Too few artists seem to understand the psychology of creativity, how their art does what it does, and fewer still seem able to facilitate the work of new artists. Oh, formulas for success abound, FAQs, and lots of catering to the typical fears and concerns of inexperienced creators. But just as Silverman misunderstands the power of story, these flawed guides fail to see new artists really need: an artistic bridge across our emotional barriers. It’s art that teaches art. Not cogent topic sentences.

However, sometimes the lack of effectiveness in a piece of work inspires an artist to create something of their own. Not a memoir, though. No, I want to create my own book about creating. It will be very, very short, and will be informed by my training and experience as a classical musician, a filmmaker, and a writer. I’ll call it:

The Simple Guide To Making Stuff

1. Making stuff is hard. But it’s worth it.

2. If you’re like most normal humans, getting good at making stuff will take about ten years. Relax and settle in. You’ll find that it’s worth it.

3. Some people will like what you make. Some will hate it. Most will be indifferent. Those who like it will make it worthwhile. Those who hate it may teach you strange new things. Or they may just hate it. Let them.

4. Success is making stuff and sharing it. That’s all. Any other definitions are too subjective to be useful.

5. As you make stuff, from time to time enjoy the moment. The actual making may be all the pleasure it gives you.

6. Fear is part of making stuff. Embrace it, put it to work. It will keep you alert and will remind you that what you are doing is risky and important.

7. Make. Listen. Fail. Make. Listen. Fail. Make. Listen. Fail a little less. Make some more. This is how to make stuff.

8. It’s all worth it.

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Book Review Essay: Fearless Confessions

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