Memoir Interview: Look inside for the story of self, Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

In her memoir, “Ruby Slippers: My Road Back to Kansas,” Tracy Seeley returns to her childhood homes to try to make sense of where she has come from and who she is. In my previous essays on the book, I recommend that every memoir writer consider the model of this book as one of two ways to write about their childhood. In this multi-part interview, I ask Tracy Seeley to share insights into her writing process, to help other memoir writers organize their own lives into stories.

(Click here for Part 1 of this review. Coming soon: an original interview with Tracy Seeley)

Jerry Waxler: I look at Ruby Slippers as a sort of mirror image of “Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls. She told her story from the POV of the child actually going through the experience. You tell it as an adult looking for the child. Were you tempted to write your memoir the same way she did, as the story of you growing up? What was it that swayed you to organize it as a research back into your life, told from the present?

Tracy Seeley:  I love Jeanette Walls’ book, so I’m happy to be in her company.  But I came at my project from this perspective: there are really two main characters in every memoir, the “I” things happened to, and the “I” who tells the tale.  I think there’s a lot of rich possibility in the space between them, and wanted to write across that distance.  That’s one thing a lot of memoirs don’t explicitly do, and I think in many cases it’s a missed opportunity.  My Ruby Slippers is also as much a story of my adult reconciliation with the past as it is about the past.  It also focuses on my recent experience of breast cancer and how I bring what I learn on the road into my current life.  So for a lot of reasons, it made more sense to me to write in my adult voice looking back, and looking at myself in the present.

Jerry Waxler: Your memoir is about striving to understand your own roots. When did it first occur to you that you wanted to delve into your childhood and decipher the origins of yourself? I’m not talking about your first interest in the memoir. I’m talking about your first interest in understanding your past.

Tracy Seeley:  I’d say my first interest took hold pretty clearly when I was in my mid-twenties.  I’d been looking through my old baby book and kept coming back to the page where my mother had written the thirteen addresses I’d had as a child.  That’s a lot of addresses, half of which I’d been too young to remember.  I simply wanted to see them all, see the stage on which my childhood had played out.   At the time, I didn’t have a plan to write about it, but that impulse to dig down and look at the past was there.  It took me another twenty years to make the trip and start the excavation.  I’m not sure I’d say I consciously wanted to understand my past, but I did want to dig around and explore and put something about it in words.  By then, I had decided I wanted to write about whatever I found.

Jerry Waxler: Lots of people have thoughts about childhood. We remember snips and scenes. We talk to siblings. We talk to a therapist. All this information about our past gathers in old memories. When we are ready to write a memoir, we begin to pull the old material out and place it in order, and then add, subtract and organize. So on the first day, when you started writing your memoir, what did your heap of facts and memories look like? How much memory work, journaling, or personal story writing had you done, before you even started writing the book?

Tracy Seeley:  My first heap of facts looked like a little pile of hoarded jewels.  I had a small handful of very strong memories that I’ve carried around for years, moments that I knew were at the core of things–the core of my own psyche, and so the core of the story I would eventually tell.  One was the day we moved away from Goodland, the small farm town where I’d started kindergarten.  Leaving broke my heart.  The other was the day my father left.   Another was the day I taught myself to ride a bike, which in retrospect seems pretty amazing.  I love that little girl who had the will and the courage to do that. Anyway, I started with a few little gems.

My second pile was the memories I most attached to the houses I revisited, and the things I found when I went back as an adult writer.  So there was a lot of past and present thrown in there together.

I wish I could tell you that I did a lot of journaling, but I’m terrible at keeping journals.  But I did write a few short scenes before I even thought of writing My Ruby Slippers and which later became important to it.  The first was that scene of leaving Goodland when I was five.  You can see how central that little moment is to the book, too, now that you’ve read it.  Leaving, being uprooted–that was such a formative and repeated experience in my childhood.  So it won’t surprise you that the second scene I wrote a few years before I started the book was the one of me leaving for a work shift at Denny’s and knowing with utter clarity as I started my car that I’d be leaving Kansas soon and not coming back.  The theme of leaving, losing places was emerging in the things I sketched out early.  And I’d been writing personal essays for a few years, too.  Mostly things that ended up in a drawer, because I was learning.

Jerry Waxler: Not everyone is comfortable digging back into their history. Help us understand how you felt when you were in the thick of the search, looking back into your own origins. Did that feel weird, new, disturbing, revelatory? Were you like an explorer in a scary land, or a comfortable reader, browsing through the library of your own past?

Tracy Seeley:  I’m pretty introspective, and had been circling around my own brain for years.  So the process of self-exploration or rooting around in my past wasn’t hard or scary.  It’s sort of what I do anyway.  But deciding to write about myself for other people to read–now that took some work.  I’m a private person, believe it or not.

Jerry Waxler: How did it feel to finish the book? Now that it’s done and out in the world, did you feel you succeeded? Do you feel comforted, more whole, energized? How would you describe the emotional outcome of having completed this process of writing the memoir?

Tracy Seeley:  Well, with a book, there are so many finish lines, it’s hard to locate a point when you say “Ta da!” and pop open the champagne.  There’s the day you think it’s done, just before you realize you need to rewrite it, the day you finally finish the rewrite, and the day your editor says it’s done.  Now that’s the champagne day.  That felt great.  It still feels great.  The book’s been out for nearly five months now, and I’m having the time of my life.  I’m on a summer book tour, I’m having a great time in the virtual world–on Twitter, on blog tour, on my own blog.  I get lovely notes from readers telling me how much they love the book, how they couldn’t put it down, how it resonates so much with their own experience.  It’s been deeply rewarding to make that kind of connection with other people.

And it’s deeply rewarding to create something new and whole from a messy box full of memories, ideas and preoccupations.

Notes
Tracy Seeley’s Home Page
Amazon Page for My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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