Why I Write: By Sue William Silverman

The following is from the University of Nebraska Press Spring 2020 Newsletter, i.e.

Sue William Silverman is a memoirist, poet, and teacher of writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has published several books, including Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, which won the AWP Award; Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, which was made into a Lifetime TV movie; The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew (Nebraska, 2014); and Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. Her new book in UNP’s American Lives series is How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences.

I write to find my life. I write to save my life. I write to keep myself alive.

Long Saturday afternoons, in my family’s Danish colonial house on the island of St. Thomas, I sat before my mother’s black Underwood typewriter randomly tapping keys. I barely knew how to spell—at least how to spell real words. That made no difference to my third grade mind. I created long rows of letters such as eixfoe388sn23*&)xlfjepzqqqZQ. I filled pages of onion skin paper with what some would label gibberish. To me, however, this private, singular language held deep meaning. This personal argot was like a child’s imaginary friend. An imaginary friend is real to a child, just as my invented language was real to me. Hour after hour this secret language held my interest more than trade winds gusting through screenless windows, more than tropical scents of mango, hibiscus, sugarcane. I preferred tapping out my secret language to swimming in Magens Bay. I never showed anyone what I wrote.

What was I writing? Words I couldn’t yet speak. At that time, growing up, my father misloved me. He misused me. I never told anyone—I didn’t have the language to tell anyone—until decades later. Yet I was confiding to myself in my own private diary in my own private language.

Later, as a young adult, I again tried to write my narrative—this time in the form of a novel. But my story wasn’t fiction, so the voice sounded emotionally inauthentic. I might as well still have been typing se939n**woqocth. It wasn’t until later, at the urging of a therapist, that I switched to writing nonfiction. Finally, my random keystrokes evolved into words; the words cohered into sentences; the sentences became books that deciphered my life. Finally, my private language evolved into shared language.

I’ve now written four memoirs, and there’s still more to discover.

A memoir is a slice of a life, not a whole life. Therefore, in my first book, I revealed my childhood growing up in an incestuous family. In the second, I explored how that childhood resulted in a sexual addiction. In the third, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, I confronted a search for a spiritual identity.

Now, in my fourth book, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, I tackle a lifelong fear of dying. And even though I still have my heart set on never physically dying, in case I can’t quite pull that off, I seek ways to metaphorically survive. One way, I’ve learned, is through memory—by crafting language that forever secures the past tightly to the page. In fact, one of the sections in this new book, “Requiem for a Qwertyist,” is set in St. Thomas and shows that child-me banging out her lines of eiu9w9f7w, exploring those early scribblings, as if knowing one day she would make sense of them.

I, as narrator, reflect in this essay: “Perhaps this rush of private words boiling across paper, spreading like an ink stain, are exactly the right ones in order to slip through pinhole-sized punctuation marks on pieces of carbon paper, apertures or portals to reach an everlasting somethingness. I imagine lm.pljui exploding past galaxies to black holes in outer space before slamming to the end of a sentence, where jdiwjnnn@@ beams white as the moon, or where cryptic ioegxnl remains embedded in carbon for future civilizations to decipher.”

In short, even back in third grade, I sought a way to survive death. Which is to say that I sought to both find my life and save my life. Each book I’ve written has helped save either my physical self or my emotional life. Or both. Before I wrote my first memoir, back when I disguised my truth as fiction, still, the mere (mere? heroic!) act of setting words on paper kept me alive. For back then I was having a massive emotional breakdown, which led me to that therapist’s office. But still I believed, just like that little girl writing lines of gibberish, that each word would somehow, ultimately, bring me to me.

And the thousands of words, the thousands of pieces of paper, ultimately did bring me to me. I truly don’t know who I am, what I think, until I write “me” and my world. Writing creative nonfiction helps me discover the metaphors that guide my life. We, all of us, are complex beings; I, for one, can only explore one part of me at a time. With each book, I feel more whole. Like an archaeologist I excavate heart and soul through language. This is how I make sense of all the seemingly random moments, events, thoughts, feelings—everything that is the foundation for who I am now.

In How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, I confront the ultimate unknown,
attempting to “enter” Death while still very much alive. After all, if I die, I won’t be able to write that experience! So if I’m to tell all my stories, I need to get a head start on death and write it now. Maybe that in itself will diminish some of my fear surrounding that final experience. In this book, I seek the origins of the fear. I seek the metaphors and memories of the fear, all in an attempt to outsmart death—to get a grip on it, to keep writing, to keep myself alive—at least on the page. And that page will always exist in the world.

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