By Jerry Waxler
This is part 2 of my interview with Tracy Seeley, author of “Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas.” In this section I ask her to share her thoughts about stretching outside the standard definition of memoirs. The topic is important to any memoir writer who is trying to share their own unique lives within the form of the genre.
Jerry Waxler: Memoirs are sometimes thought of as novels based on real facts. I think it makes sense to aspire to story telling. That’s what I teach also, because after all, our goal as memoir writers is to tell a good story. But as a reader, as well as a writer, I also find great pleasure in going beyond the structure of a novel, and considering the many ways that memoirs differ from fiction.
If there is such a thing as a “straight story model” of memoir writing, you seem to have stretched it in a number of ways, which I found expansive, enjoyable, and effective. I believe your memoir offers a much richer palette than the straightforward scenes that make up a typical storyline. I want to explain what I’m talking about before I ask you for your opinion about the process of stretching the story form. I see three ways that your memoir broke out of the mold.
One, Daisy Chaining
Before I even started reading the book, I knew from the title and blurb that it was going to be about your search for self in Kansas. As I continued to read, I found you daisy chaining from your own history, to your family history, to the state of Kansas. Along the way, you pondered many truths and questions such as the relationship between history and current events, east and west, urban versus rural life, parents and children, the deteriorating economy of the middle states. When people write memoirs, they are encouraged to find a theme, a particular aspect of it that will pull the reader from beginning to end. I find it interesting that you had woven several themes.
Two, Historical foundations
The second way you broke out of classical story-form is that you have embedded so much history of Kansas into the storyline. This is unusual, because you are telling history. And yet, you maintain my suspension of disbelief throughout by taking my proverbial hand and letting me know that we are exploring this information together. I am inside your head while you are discovering these things.
Three, deep, rich, philosophical denouement
The third break in “classic story form” is that your denouement, the conclusion, the ultimate destination of your story is not a physical location or an external set of events. For example at the end of “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt disembarks in New York, as clueless about where he has been or where is going as a human being can be. All he knows is that he is in New York. Growing up for him meant biologically growing. He still had many years to go before life would make sense. On the other hand, your memoir takes me not only on an external journey through place but also on a huge inner journey. The destination of “Ruby Slippers” is a deep understanding of the intertwining of self and place, and the intertwining of the people in a place. The ending was a lovely, surprising, creative, clear, compelling philosophical conclusion.
Despite your breaking of these “rules,” I found your memoir to be one of the most insightful and moving ones I have read. I have several questions about your innovative style and structure.
Jerry Waxler: When trying to figure out how to write the book, how did you process on this perceived requirement that a “story” has a well-defined theme and story line, does not break out into an historical overview, and relies more heavily on the external conclusion? Did you feel compelled to stay in that mold? Did you wrestle to break out? Had you developed an alternate theory of writing the memoir that allowed you find these other directions? Did you feel like a maverick?
Tracy Seeley: (laughing) You’ve touched on so many interesting ideas here, and the thought of being a maverick appeals to me so much! And thank you for loving its non-rule-following qualities so much.
I do think My Ruby Slippers does some things that most contemporary memoirs don’t, and I hope it opens up the field a bit. I feel eternally frustrated by those who say that literary nonfiction and memoir in particular should be nothing but story: scene, scene, narrative arc, etcetera. There are great books that do that, but it’s very limiting, I think, to say that nonfiction should model itself only on the novel or short story.
I came to writing My Ruby Slippers with a background in literary study, and I’d spent years reading back through the history of nonfiction, especially the essay. Before the contemporary scene came along, what we now call “creative nonfiction” was vastly more varied, less rule-bound.
One of my great literary heroes and models is Virginia Woolf, who mixes fiction and nonfiction modes, writes in wildly digressive fashion, leaving the main narrative to ruminate for awhile before returning to it. Take a look at one of her great essays, “Street Haunting” if you get the chance. It’ll knock your socks off. I think we can agree that even though she breaks about every rule there is, her writing still comes out alright. Even in her autobiographical writing, like Moments of Being, she’s not just building scenes. There’s a strong presence on the page of her, the writer, reflecting on, commenting on, and digressing from the main narrative line. I like reading that mind at work on the page.
So I didn’t struggle with breaking out of a mold, because I really don’t like it to begin with and had other models to work from. I think of My Ruby Slippers as a book-length essay that exploits many of the forms that nonfiction can take—and all of those parts help tell the story of who I am and how I see the world.
Jerry Waxler: Two. The writing world seems to keep driving us toward the chute of pure story. Most writing mentors and classes, editors, critiquers, and agents, tend to want stories built only from scenes along a simple straightforward line. This feedback can be incredibly helpful up to a point, but when I want to stretch slightly outside the boundaries, there is a drive to bring me back into the formula. When reading memoirs, I sometimes see this pressure distorting the beginning of the memoir, when the first chapter feels to me to have been manipulated by editors who are trying to force drama into the “all-important” first pages because we readers are supposed to have short attention spans. I also know of teachers/critics who discourage memoir writers from adding anything that is not a scene, in an ultra-orthodox attempt to enforce show-not-tell. Show-don’t-tell is a hard rule for memoir writers who want to share the inner workings of mind, and authentic, thoughtful observations about the world. Of course I completely agree that too much reliance on ideas can also ruin a story, so I understand there is a balance. And that’s just it. How do you find mentors and editors to lead you between the Scylla of too many ideas and the Charybdis of too restrictive a story form?
Tracy Seeley: The edict to “show, not tell” does a serious disservice to creative nonfiction writers, and to the genre. It’s not the same as fiction, even though it may share many techniques, and it shouldn’t be forced to be fiction made out of “true facts.”
Weaving ideas into story, or weaving multiple themes together as I do in My Ruby Slippers, or writing digressive asides, are things that nonfiction should be allowed to do. In the contemporary literary world, many nonfiction writers are doing fantastic, innovative work doing just those things. Still, the question is how to strike a balance: how to make sure everything serves the ultimate aims of the work, and how to not let any one part overbalance the rest. I wrestled with this throughout writing My Ruby Slippers, trying to find that balance, and trying to make sure that when I did veer off the path to explore ideas or to ruminate on the subject, it all served my own developing story.
But the question you ask, about editors and publishers, is about what sells (or what is perceived to sell), and that’s a different matter altogether. I don’t know how to reform the commercial publishing world. I would say, though, that there are many small presses that value, publish and promote work that might be quieter or more innovative and less obedient to the common dictates like “show, don’t tell” or “only one theme, please,” or “single, linear storyline only.” I’m thrilled to be working with a publisher like that now. The University of Nebraska Press really got my book, and didn’t bat an eyelash at the embedded history or the sections that show and tell. If you want to do that kind of writing, and I think every nonfiction writer should (ha!), look for readers, mentors, and publishers with a little wider view of the literary world.
It seems a terribly impoverished view to say that a writer should never include, as you say, “the inner workings of mind, and authentic, thoughtful observations about the world.” That’s one of the gifts that creative nonfiction gives us. We ought to use it.
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.