Conversation versus Story Style in Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

In the previous two sections of my interview with Tracy Seeley about her memoir “My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” I asked her about conforming to the typical structure of memoirs. In this fourth part of the interview, I look for insights into some of her stylistic choices.

Click here for Part 1 of my essay on “Ruby Slippers”.

Click here for Part 1 of my interview with Tracy Seeley

Style: Conversation versus story

Jerry Waxler: I’d like to crunch in on one specific scene in your book in order to help me understand your stylistic choices. In the scene, you are trying to understand whether or not you should feel guilty about the slaughter of American Indians. You wonder, “How many generations later must people feel responsible?” Your inner debate opens into a flashback in which a student in one of your English classes was anxious about this exact point. You recount the conversation you had with this student, and then you transition from the flashback into speculation about what you might have said to him that would have helped the whole class come to some clearer understanding of their responsibility to history.

I love this scene, and love your clear thinking and intellectual guidance along this fascinating line of questioning. You were in control of my reading experience, and I never felt jarred out of place or out of point of view.

But the scene raises all sorts of stylistic questions. First, it’s a flashback to a debate. That’s unusual right there. And then your speculation about what you might have said doesn’t take place inside any scene. Sharing your thoughts to this extent is not typically part of storytelling. However, there is one medium where such a fluid sequence of thoughts would be perfectly normal. In an energetic conversation, we naturally introduce concepts and anecdotes to illustrate a point. I read somewhere that the best Creative Nonfiction writing comes when you try to imagine telling it to a smart, curious friend. I feel like that’s what you are doing.

The first time I thought that conversational styles might be okay in memoirs was when I was listening to Frank McCourt’s memoir “Tis.” I shouted “ah-ha!” when I realized that his narration was almost indistinguishable from great conversation. Reading “Tis” was like listening to Frank McCourt having an elaborate enjoyable, entertaining conversation. Actually, it sounded like he was having the conversation with himself, which was even more fun.

I find much of this fluidity in Ruby Slippers, a lovely mesmerizing flow of philosophy, story, and reflection. As a reader, I love this form. As a writer, I find it daunting. How can I write across two different genres? And is it really story writing? What are your thoughts? How did you steer between these styles of essay and conversation versus straight storytelling?

Tracy Seeley:  Well, first, I think writers should be able to do whatever they want as long as it works.  I’m on Twitter, and nearly every day something comes across my feed: “Seven Rules for Writers,” or “Ten Rules…” or “Twenty….”  And I think it’s all pretty much hogwash.  Many of the writers we revere most as a culture look at “rules for writers” and laugh.

The idea that a story has to move in strictly chronological order is one of those rules.  A lot of great stories often move back and forth in time.  The problem arises when a writer relies on flashbacks because they can’t think of a more effective way to explain background or suddenly need to explain a character’s motives for something.  Then flashbacks don’t serve the story.  They’re just a gimmick.

But to get back to my own strategy.  My choices were largely made in some gray zone I call aesthetic intuition.  It’s like the way a skilled football player just knows where to run on the field to catch the ball coming toward him, or a soccer player knows how high to jump to meet the ball at the right angle to head it into the goal.  That kind of knowing comes from lots of practice and watching better players do things.  Writing is like that for me, and I made a lot stylistic decisions intuitively, at least initially.  Of course, then the conscious mind kicks in and asks, “Okay, but does that really work here?  How exactly do I make it work?”

Literary or aesthetic intuition, of course, isn’t something we’re born with.  It’s shaped by our reading and educational history and intellectual inclinations and character.  I’m very synthetic in my thinking, which means I like bringing things together, following chains of association, seeing connections between disparate events and ideas.  I love bringing a whole assorted bag of things together that you would never be able to fit in a simple, linear narrative strung together with scenes.  That’s why I’m drawn to writers like Woolf, or Rebecca Solnit, or W. G. Sebald, the great German writer and Nobel Prize winner.  His Rings of Saturn leaves me open-mouthed every time.

Stylistically, the way to make these strategies work, like moving from the main narrative to a flashback, or from the main line into a digression and back, is to maintain a consistent tone, and never, ever forget a reader’s need not to be abandoned along the way.   I like your description of the conversational feeling you got reading the book.

Lovely Easy Language arts.

Jerry Waxler: When I enjoy a book, I try to understand why. Of course, a great story with a strong character arc is essential. But each page needs to be enjoyable too, and so, aspiring memoir writers need to pay attention not only to good story telling but also to good sentence construction. Some people say that the language needs to be beautiful. I have conflicted feelings about the degree of beauty the language should have. Mary Karr’s “Lit” is a good example of writing so exquisite that I found myself thinking more about her exquisite metaphors than about the story. I go more toward the camp that wants the language to be practically invisible. Your writing achieved that state that I enjoy: clear, compelling, easy to read, and yet it still evokes thought provoking, sometimes moving images and ideas. During your journey to acquire your language arts, can you think of any particular tip or advice that moved you along, that made your sentences clearer?
Tracy Seeley:  I love beautiful sentences, and I lean toward lyric, complex constructions.  I love semi-colons.  I’ve also learned to rein that tendency in a bit, but still it’s there.  I sometimes struggle with writing simply declarative sentences like “It rained on Wednesday.”  I mean, really?  That’s it?  Still, beauty can get carried away with itself and we can fall in love with gorgeous sentences that bring too much attention to themselves.

My language arts story is a long and involved one—my mother took me to the library every week when I was a kid, I majored in English, then got a Ph.D. in literature, and now have been teaching literature and writing for nearly half my life.  So the best advice I have is to read, read, read.  And read writers with a wide range of aesthetic sensibilities. You’ll absorb a lot by osmosis, and can study more closely those writers you love.

In your own sentences, a few tips can help: Use strong subjects and verbs; use fresh language; stay focused on the juicy, concrete, physical world in your descriptions so that readers can really see what you do; keep adverbs and adjectives to a minimum, and learn to edit.

One of the best books for learning stylistic editing and creating what I call “juicy” writing is Sin and Syntax: Crafting Wickedly Effective Sentences by Constance Hale.  Great book that practices what it preaches.  It’s delightful.

Jerry Waxler: The only memoir I know of that does such a lovely job tying together facts of life into a philosophy of life is Kate Braestrup’s “Here if you need me.” Can you recommend any others that achieve this sort of pleasurable, uplifting, and delicately interwoven philosophy that emanates organically from the story?

Tracy Seeley:  The one that comes most clearly to mind is Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: a Spiritual Geography, which I’ve mentioned before as a memoir of place.  I’m sure there are others, but they’re not coming to me at the moment.  Or maybe I’m a rare, special bird.  But I doubt it.

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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