By Jerry Waxler
Every memoir writer must strive to shape the events of their lives into stories that will be worth reading. This creative project requires some understanding of the memoir form, so that when a reader picks up your memoir, they will have some idea of how you fit into the genre.
In my previous post, I interviewed Tracy Seeley about her memoir “My Glass Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” I asked her to comment on the fact that she uses techniques that don’t conform to the “typical memoir.” In this third part of the interview, I follow this line of questioning about how it felt to buck a trend in publishing, and then continue with questions about her writing technique.
Jerry Waxler: One of the reasons that writers strive so mightily to conform to the rules is because we want to please agents and editors. The common wisdom requires every writer to explain how their work fits into the industry, and that means proving it sounds a lot like previous works. What sort of thought process helped you fit Ruby Slippers into this system and find a publisher who understands your particular, unique approach?
Tracy Seeley: When I started looking for an agent, with hopes of getting a big commercial deal, I was very naïve. It became clear very quickly that because I wasn’t already well-known for a field of expertise, wasn’t a rock star or former star, and didn’t have a controversial or sensational or highly dramatic story to tell, I was in for a hard time in the big leagues. It just wasn’t going to happen.
So I started looking for a small press that was committed to publishing literary nonfiction without having such an overriding commercial concern for publishing only those things that would sell millions of copies. That’s not to say that small presses don’t want to be commercially viable, and they do sell books (thank goodness), but they have a bit wider view of what’s valuable in a book.
Small presses, too, though, want to know how your book is like others that have gone before (and gone on to succeed), as well as how it’s a new and exciting, one-of-a-kind thing. It’s a funny kind of challenge to describe your work in both terms. But My Ruby Slippers does belong to a tradition of what I call memoirs of place–and I was able to place it in great company. I think of works like Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, Kathleen Norris’s Dakota, or Joan Didion’s Where I Was From. Didion, by the way, is another great nonfiction writer who isn’t worried about fitting the mold. She thinks a lot on the page.
At the same time, memoirs of place tend to be about having deep roots in the place being written about. Because I didn’t have that kind of relationship with place, but was looking for one, it was relatively easy to show that My Ruby Slippers was also doing something new. And even though it told the story of my breast cancer experience, it’s pretty radically different from breast cancer memoirs in general. So I was able to thread the needle pretty easily.
Jerry Waxler: I read in one of your interviews that you rewrote the book several times. Are you saying you really wrote a whole new draft? It’s hard enough to write a book once. How did that feel?
Tracy Seeley: When I first started My Ruby Slippers, I wasn’t sure if or how to include the story of my having breast cancer. So I started with just the Kansas story: traveling back, revisiting houses, etcetera. But that didn’t really work, because the cancer story was such an integral part of who I was on that journey and how I saw the world I found out there on the road. At the same time, I had no clue about how to weave the two story threads together. So I set aside the Kansas-only draft and started over. That was about 100 pages. The second 100-page effort tried to tell the Kansas and cancer stories together, and I don’t even remember what I tried on that one, but it clearly didn’t work. The connections seemed arbitrary, the transitions between them clunky. So I set that pile aside, too.
Eventually, just by messing around with different free-writing episodes and taking a lot of long walks, I figured out the common link between the two stories–which was the theme of displacement and learning to be at home and at peace in the world. At home both physically, geographically, and metaphysically or spiritually. Once I got that, I started again and drafted “Prelude,” the opening chapter of the book. It ties both stories and themes together. At that point, I could go back and pull things out of both early drafts. About half that earlier material made it into the book, much revised, differently structured, but there. The other half went various other places, including a published essay or two. Most it fell into the abyss. But that’s okay. It got me where I needed to go, and then I didn’t need it anymore.
I later ended up cutting out four chapters about revisiting houses in Colorado, where I was born and lived until I was four. Except for a few small bits, that material’s all still in a drawer waiting for someone to turn it into magic. Maybe I’ll get back to it one of these days.
Jerry Waxler: Now that your work has been published, how do you feel about the way you put it together. Does it satisfy? Do you feel you succeeded in telling your story?
Tracy Seeley: No writer is completely happy with a finished work. I look at My Ruby Slippers and see all kinds of things I would do differently now. But at the same time, I’m very satisfied. I think I told the story I wanted to tell, and did it in a way that I think is rich and multi-layered. It’s literary in a way I value, and is the kind of book I like reading–and that seems a great thing. I learned a lot doing it, and with luck, my next book will be even better. But I’m getting such great, heartfelt responses to this book, I have no complaints.
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.