Headshot of Sue William Silverman MFA in Writing Meet author Sue William Silverman. Silverman has been a dedicated faculty member in the MFA in Writing program at VCFA for twenty years, teaches at VCFA’s annual Postgraduate Writer’s Conference, and was recently appointed as Co-Chair of the MFA in Writing program. Silverman’s latest book, Acetylene Torch Songs: Writing True Stories to Ignite the Soul  (University of Nebraska Press 2024), speaks to essayists and memoirist “through guided prompts, worksheets, checklists, publishing advice, personal essays, and strategies…” to ignite their writing and craft.

In early 2024, VCFA spoke to Silverman about her unique approach to mentorship, her time at VCFA, and her work on Acetylene Torch Songs. Watch the video interview below, or read the full transcript.

Watch the Video Interview


Read the Full Interview Transcript



I’m Sue William Silverman, she/her. I’ve been teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts since about 2002, and I teach creative nonfiction. Also, I’m the current Co-Chair of our Writing department.

Can you speak a bit more to what the VCFA mentorship is? How do you work with students and support their learning?

So of course, VCFA is a low-residency program, and what that means specifically is that during the semester, part of the program, I work with maybe three, four, or five students—and that’s true for all faculty—and because there’s such a low student-faculty ratio, we’re really able to give a lot a lot of attention to each of our students. Like, if I taught in a traditional program, I might have 30 students—I don’t know, a lot—which I’ve done. But by having such a low number of students, basically four times during the semester, they will send a packet of their work, which will include both their prose, as well as some short critical work.

And once I get their packet, I mean, they have my undivided attention. I immediately focus on them in order to offer them feedback. And really, the feedback consists of both the macro and micro. So I’ll do line-by-line edits, but then I’ll also look at the larger picture. Is there sort of an art to the work? Is the voice developed in creative nonfiction? Of course, we’re sort of turning ourselves as the real self into art as a narrator. So is the narrator fully understood? Do I understand the motivation of the narrator? I read for metaphor. Is the work being transformed into art metaphorically? So it’s really a wide range of feedback that each student will get.

That said, the one thing I love about VCFA is that we do not have a cookie cutter approach to teaching. So I see each student as an individual, and so [I ask] how can I best help this particular student meet his, her, or their needs? What are their goals for the semester? So there’s a constant sort of interplay between faculty and our mentors and our students. I really love that approach—that we don’t have just one way of writing or one voice that we’re looking for. It’s very aesthetically diverse, and actually diverse in many ways. I sort of see working with my students like we’re a team, you know, so that we’re really always in touch and trying to make sure that their goals for the semester are fully realized.

In your years of teaching, what specific philosophies and practices have you developed/brought to your unique teaching/mentorship model?

For me, teaching creative nonfiction, first and foremost, I really want, I really try, to emphasize to each student that creative nonfiction is every much an art form as much as poetry or fiction, because sometimes there are sort of the naysayers of the genre who think that, oh, it’s not as worthy as poetry and fiction. And that is so not true. So I do want to make sure that each student really understands that we are, in fact, taking our lives, themes of our lives, moments in our lives, and turning them into art.

And I also encourage students to know that whatever their story is, that it’s worthy. I mean, sometimes people are writing about something traumatic, they can be scared to sort of approach the material. One of the most important things for me as a teacher is to create a really safe space for every student, regardless of what their background is or what they’re writing about, but just to create this really safe space so that they feel comfortable writing whatever it is that, you know, is sort of burning to come out. I think that that’s one of the key things—to know that they’re safe and that they’re not being judged. We’re sort of in this together to really help focus on the craft and for them to develop as writers. So I think that’s one of the most important things.

Vermont College of Fine Arts is a really robust community of writers, and there’s so much support. And so I always want students to know that, yes, in some ways, we’re in our little rooms at home writing alone, but yet, when you belong to a community that’s as strong as ours is, in another sense, you’re never alone. And we do have this whole community behind them in a general way, but also they always have me. I’m still in touch with students I worked with in my first semester, way back in 2002. I’m just still in touch with them. And so, it’s just sort of never ending, which any good sense of the word, that you always have this sort of writer home to which you belong.

What’s a lesson you try to impart on students every semester?

Thing that I always emphasize every semester is the importance of voice in creative nonfiction—that there’s not just one voice. Like, I’m going to tell the story of what happened to me, you know, like this happened, then this happened, then this next thing happened. That really, to get to the heart of creative nonfiction, and I call that voice, sort of the unaware voice, that is important, that does tell the story of what happened, but it’s key and crucial to twine that voice with what I call the aware voice, who really is the author now in the present, reflecting back on the past that can add that more artistic, metaphoric, reflective element. It’s hard, it’s not that easy to do. I mean, it took me a long time to figure out how to do that as well when I was learning how to write creative nonfiction, because how do you twine those two voices together? But that’s crucial. So I would say that a large part of every semester, probably with most every student, is that we really do focus on that really, fully realized voice. That combination of the unaware narrator and the aware narrator. The aware narrator also needs to have enough information, have enough insight, to sort of guide the reader along as well like, okay, this is really what’s happening now. You know of what happened in the past, so that the aware narrator does act sort of like a guide, both for the unaware self as well as the reader.

How have you seen students grow through the mentorship model?

Something that I love is watching students evolve and grow. You know, with a lot of them, I’ve read their initial application into the program, and then maybe I’ll actually get to work with them in the third or fourth semester. And as great as their application was, just to see the depth and it is around this idea of voice and introducing metaphor into the work, and sort of watching their sort of growing understanding that I’m not just telling a story of what happened to me, but I’m really reflecting upon what happened to me in this kind of deep metaphoric way. And then when they give their 20 minute graduation reading… I just feel so… I mean, I sort of cry and I smile. It’s just so moving to watch how they have evolved.

And I have to say that it’s not just that their writing has evolved, also as people they have evolved. You know, they have more courage. They feel more self possessed, in a way. There’s one other step though, that a year two, three years later, they’re getting a book published, and I’m writing a blurb for the book. And that just really is amazing, just to go from, you know, application to now I have a book published and I am writing a blurb in support of it. I mean, it’s just… it’s a beautiful journey. Our students are very successful. I mean, our alums have published something like over 1500 books or something, and won, you know, lots of major awards. So which, to me, says what we’re doing works.

Onto your new book. First, can you give a summary of Acetylene Torch Songs: Writing True Stories to Ignite the Soul?

This is my new book, Acetylene Torch Songs: Writing True Stories to Ignite the Soul. And in many ways, it is a craft book about creative nonfiction, talks about voice, structure, use of sensory detail, metaphor, memory sessions. Additionally, there’s part two of the book. It’s more around the emotional and spiritual aspects of writing creative nonfiction, and sort of like the courage to write, why your voice is important, and that everybody’s narrative is really important.

Additionally, each chapter has a personal essay that I wrote, kind of specifically for that chapter that would sort of highlight the concerns of that chapter. I didn’t think of that right when I first started writing it, but sort of halfway through or something, I thought, I’m giving this advice and everything, but can I follow the advice? I thought, well, I better see if I can or not. So I thought, I will write a personal essay after a challenge to myself to make sure that I could, in fact, write what that chapter was about, so I could give a really concrete example of what I was talking about.

How did this story come to be?

Ironically, it came to be because I teach it for Vermont College of Fine Arts. At every residency, faculty give a lecture, and usually it’s about craft or some element of the genre that they teach in. And so I’ve been giving all of these lectures, and then I thought maybe I should do something more with them. And so I thought I could write a craft book about them. Of course—it will not come as a surprise to anybody—it’s much harder than I thought it would be. It’s not just take, you know, a lecture that was maybe sort of kind of abbreviated in bullet points and stuff and slapping it into chapter. I mean, it went through, I don’t 10, 20, 30—I don’t know how many drafts. I wrote completely new chapters as well that I hadn’t given a lecture on, just to make the book feel more cohesive. And then, of course, all those personal essays that I mentioned, those are all brand new as well.

But it did come in part because I’ve been giving these lectures, but the other piece of it is that I just so I just feel so strongly about the importance of creative nonfiction and the idea of personal narrative, and that we all do have a story to tell, and if we don’t tell our stories, then nobody else will, then they’re lost forever. And that just is so sad. So it really is also kind of to encourage people who maybe don’t know that they have a story, or if they do know that they have a story, maybe they’re scared to tell a story, you know, like, What will people think of me? Stuff like that. So it’s also to sort of give encouragement and to offer courage to people that it’s okay to tell your story, that you really do own your story, and people will relate to it.

So it’s also for self awareness that we learn, of course, about ourselves, but also it does speak to a wider world out there. I mean, just the other day, I received an email. So my very first memoir was published back in about 1997. I received an email just the other day, you know, in February 2024 from somebody who had read my first book, and she’d been carrying this book around for all these years, and she’s not trying to write her story or anything, but just how much it meant to her that in terms of her recovery. My first book is about recovering from child abuse, and how much the book meant to her in her own journey. So we’re speaking to you know, concerns that are in our culture, in our society, to this more universal us. Our stories are really, you know, quite universal. And so to know that you’ve affected somebody’s life or touched them, it’s lovely. It’s empowering to her. It’s also empowering to make, as you make that sort of human connection with somebody, the emotional odyssey, really is understanding things that happen to us.

The book “…urges writers to embark upon emotional odysseys in pursuit of their art.” What is that “emotional odyssey” writers must take, and why is it so critical to our work as writers?

I mean, when I’m living an event, I don’t really think. We sort of slog through every day. We don’t give it deep thought or deep intention. I try to get through every day like everybody else, you know, and you don’t give it sort of deep thought about what just happened. I hardly know what I think until I write it. And so when I’m writing something, that’s when I really understand that something. It’s kind of living life twice, in a way, and the second living, the writing of the life is actually a lot more interesting and has more depth than the first time around. And so the emotional Odyssey is really coming to that.

So my first book is about growing up in this incestuous family. My second book, Lovesick, is about 28 days I spent in rehab recovering from sexual addiction. My third book is sort of this kind of misguided spiritual odyssey, a sort of journey that I was on. And then my most recent book is about how to survive death and other inconveniences, which is just about my complete fear of death while being a hypochondriac and all of that. And so, first of all, it’s a matter of dividing your life thematically, because some people, some beginning writers, think, well, everybody just has one memoir, and that’s it. That’s your life. And that’s not true at all. So I’ve written four and because I sort of see my life in these different thematic threads, and each thread really is its own sort of emotional odyssey of really understanding the depth. Okay, I lived that experience, but what did it mean? How did it affect me? What are the metaphors surrounding it? What’s the language around it? These things that I don’t have any idea about when I’m actually living the event. So the writing of the past, writing our memories, is where I really do understand my life in a very full and deep way, and I can’t imagine, for me, a more important way to spend my time than to really understand the self. And by doing so, it’s made me more empathetic. It’s made me a better teacher. It’s maybe a better friend, because I have resolved and come to understand the self, and I feel more centered, more at one with myself. And the more I do, I am a more empathetic, more compassionate person, I think, than before I started to write.

How do you hope Acetylene Torch Songs will inspire and impact its readers?

Really do hope that it will give people more courage to write their own stories, and that they know that the book is not written academically at all. It’s a very friendly voice. It’s very user-friendly. So when people start to write their own stories, or continue on, they’ll have this book, it’ll be almost like a friend who’s sitting with them, like, yeah, okay, I’m not alone. I’ve got this book, and I can hear Sue’s voice in my head. And so I really do hope that it gives people both the permission and the courage to write their stories and to really believe that their stories are important. That’s one thing that I emphasize, that whatever your story is, whatever the memory is that you want to capture on paper, that it’s really important. So this book, I see it sort of as a friend and a guide as, you know, like a mentor. Almost like the way I would work with my students.

Where can readers find the book, and how can they support you and your work?

So the book is Acetylene Torch Songs: Writing True Stories to Ignite the Soul, and it’s available online wherever books are sold. But also my website is www.suewilliamsilverman.com. So you can go there, or please visit your local indie bookstore, because they can order absolutely anything. The book is published with the University of Nebraska Press. It’s also available through the press’s website. But as I say, always try to support your local indie and they will order it for you.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One thing that I think I really want to emphasize about Vermont College of Fine Arts is that, you know, I mentioned that it is a strong community of writers, but you kind of get the best of both worlds, in that, as much as we are nurturing and do pay close attention to each individual student, you’re going to get a really rigorous education. So it is the best of both worlds in that, you know, there’s a lot of encouragement and support, but that’s not at the expense of really teaching you how to write. It is a rigorous academic program as well.

Read more stories and news about our alumnx, students, and faculty at our Stories page. Interested in an MFA in Writing? Visit our program page for more information on our VCFA graduate degrees. Plus, learn more about our incredible faculty here