From the Creative Nonfiction Workshop: Week 8

Much of our conversation yesterday sprang from a brief article by Sue William Silverman in which she discusses the importance of voice in creative nonfiction. Borrowing from William Blake, she defines the two major voices that writers use in memoirs and personal essays as The Song (or Voice) of Innocence, and The Song (or Voice) of Experience. The first, as Sue says, “relates the facts of the experience, the surface subject.” This is the voice of narration, telling us what happened in what order. This voice, in its purest form, can know only what the innocent “you” knew at the time of the events. The Voice of Experience, on the other hand, knows much, much more from its wiser position of distance from the events. This voice is the more reflective voice, the voice that interprets the subject matter and guides the reader through the experience that’s being dramatized.

Sue uses an example from her second memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction, to illustrate how the two voices can intertwine. In this section of her memoir, she’s recalling her experience as a college freshman with an older, married lover, via a scarf that he gave her: “I press the scarf against my nose and mouth. I take a deep breath. The scent is of him–leaves smoldering in autumn dusk–and I believe it is a scent I have always craved, one I will always want. I don’t understand why the scent of the scarf. . .seems more knowable, more tangible than the rest of him.”

Sue’s passage, as she points out in the article, begins with the Voice of Experience romanticizing the man and the scarf before “moving into a more sober persona, the Voice of Experience, which reveals that the scarf is a metaphor for alienation, loneliness, loss. This sober, experienced voice, in other words, guides the reader through the quagmire of the addiction.” Sue goes on to point out that the texture of the Voice of Innocence blending with the Voice of Experience allows the writer to deepen his or her own character. She advocates using these voices to form a cohesive chord. “For without these varied voices,” she argues, “what you have, basically, is a one-note voice telling a one-note story.”

With the objective of forming that cohesive chord, Sue comes up with five “notes” that can move the “you” as character from Innocence to Experience.

Which leads me to this week’s writing exercise. I asked the MFA students yesterday to come up with prompts for an exercise that would allow people to put Sue’s five notes into practice. So, with apologies to Sue for blending our voices with  hers, here’s what we came up with. I’ll first quote the notes as Sue has described them, and then I’ll insert the writing prompt that my students devised. You’ll also notice that I decided that the blog could benefit from some actions shots from the workshop.

Before getting to Sue’s “notes,” I’d ask everyone to think of an object that they associate with a guilty feeling from childhood. Perhaps it’s the candy bar you stole, or the toy that you whined and whined for and then promptly lost or broke. Anything concrete that gives you a guilty feeling now when you think of it.

Marty Ross-Dolen and Dominic Russ have a friendly discussion about objects and guilt.

Sue’s Note 1: “An impersonal, factual persona is an element of the Song of Innocence and provides straightforward exposition to let the reader know where you are in time and place.”

Writing Prompt: Writing in the present tense, begin with a line something like, “I am (fill in the blank)-years-old, and I’m (fill in the blank by considering place, time, the object, other characters). Your objective is to set the scene by utilizing only the Voice of Innocence.
Sue’s Note 2: “An observant but still slightly distant persona that introduces a more writerly style, yet is still part of the Song of Innocence. Here, you provide the reader with an idea of how you observe your world of the senses.”

Writing Prompt: Begin a sentence with, “I see (or smell, taste, hear, feel), and then fill in the blank with a combination of sensory details. If you can use more than one sense, all the better. Concentrate on the object in the way that Sue focused on the scarf in her example.

Nicole Butler contemplates a writing prompt.

Sue’s Note 3: “A more evolved persona, one with feelings,  hovering between the Song of Innocence and the Song of Experience. You’re writing closer to the heart, with a sense of urgency and raw emotion. . . .here you will explore how you felt when the events originally occurred. In other words, you’re feeling the facts of the story.”

Writing Prompt: Begin a sentence with, “It [the object] makes me think of (fill in the blank), and I believe (fill in the blank). Here we’re trying to articulate something you felt or believed at the time of the event, a feeling or thought that’s probably evolved over time.
Sue’s Note 4: By introducing a metaphoric persona, you bring the reader into the Song of Experience. This metaphoric voice beings to offer insight into the facts and feelings.

Writing Prompt: Use your object to construct a metaphor. “The [object] is (fill in the blank. Construct more than one metaphor if you wish. Let the metaphors contain your emotional response to the event and the object and the feeling of guilt that you still carry with you.
Sue’s Note 5: This fully developed, reflective character (Song of Experience) culminates with all the notes. Metaphor is deepened in order to connect each element and event in the work into a cohesive whole. You reflect and ruminate upon the past, consider others in your life. What do you hope, wish, dream, fear? What are the lessons you’ve learned?

Writing Prompt: Write a sentence of action involving you and the object. The complete this sentence: “I didn’t know that. . . .” And this one, “When I think of the boy/girl I was then, I. . . .”

Tory Adkisson and Kristen Grayewski congratulate each other on the successful completion of the writing exercise.


  1. Richard Gilbert on May 17, 2012 at 2:41 pm


    This is, again, so valuable, so clear and useful. I envy your students! Actually I AM one of your students as I read and reread and ponder and often use each post in classroom exercises and in my own work. And as I study your own writing, I am your student.

    You are too modest to say so, but you are a master of Songs of Innocence and Experience in your memoirs and essays. I hope your students and blog readers will see my recent review of Such a Life and my interview with you on my blog:

    Now I have a question: Where does that short essay by Ms. Silverman appear? I’d like to track it down and read it, too.

  2. Lee Martin on May 18, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Richard, you are very kind. Thank you, and thanks, too, for providing the link to your review of SUCH A LIFE, and the interview that you did with me. The Silverman piece comes from BREVITY, Issue 19, Fall 2005. I’ll try pasting in the link, but in case it doesn’t work, you can find the piece in the past issues of BREVITY. Thanks, as always, for reading and taking the time to comment.

  3. Richard Gilbert on May 20, 2012 at 6:53 am

    Thanks so much, Lee. I also opened my copy of her Fearless Confessions and it’s a chapter in there, probably the long version. It will be great to have it in digital form!

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