Grace Notes and Self Confidence Tracy Seeley Interview Pt. 5

by Jerry Waxler

In the previous 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 structure  and style of memoirs. In this last part of the interview, I ask a few closing questions.
Click here for Part 1 of my essay on “Ruby Slippers”.

Click here for Part 1 of my interview with Tracy Seeley

Anecdote that works like a Grace Note

Jerry Waxler: While living in a small community in Kansas, you became infatuated with a run-down home, a fixer-upper a thousand miles away from where you live. If you bought it, affordably, for not much more than you would pay for a doghouse in San Francisco, you could have a second home and return to stay in it anytime. It felt so real at the time, until reality set in. Naturally you used the scene to explore some lovely observations about visiting Kansas, and the choices between San Francisco and this pastoral setting. That scene stuck with me, and I kept thinking about it. It seemed an intimate part of the story and yet somehow incidental, like a grace note.

This anecdote resonates with me because my wife and I often have similar fantasies on vacations, wondering if we could buy a home wherever we happen to be. We laugh at ourselves and let the impulse go. So it is with interest and curiosity that I see you doing the same thing. There must be some psychological intuition to settle in the new place. Surely that instinct has been driving wanderers from place to place throughout history. “Let’s settle here.” Condominium sales people make a living out of this instinct. And perhaps that is what your father felt when he went on to the next home.

Do you have any thoughts or comments about the value of “grace notes,” that is, seemingly loosely related anecdotes in memoirs? Do you have a favorite one in your book or in your reading that appears to be out of place, and yet resonates perfectly?

Tracy Seeley:  I think that’s part of the magic of a book.  What strikes a writer as a grace note, or momentary aside, will resonate powerfully with a reader, while something the writer thinks is monumental will just slide by someone else.  I love anecdotes that momentarily seem out of the main line of the story because they remind us that the world is a richly interconnected place, thick with story and meaning even over there in the margins.

I don’t know if I have a favorite anecdote, though I’m awfully fond of the encounter I had with the man who lived in Matfield Green, the one who brought his aerial photo over for me to see.  I really treasured that moment at the time, and it helped me understand what having such a deep love for a little place could look like.

Self confidence as a writing professor

Jerry Waxler: One of the standard fears that most memoir writers face is “My writing isn’t good enough.” I wonder if that fear ever occurred to you, especially considering you are a university professor. Do you worry that as a professor, you are exposing yourself to being less than perfect? What sort of discussion did you have with yourself about the vulnerability of exposing your writing?

Tracy Seeley:  I’ve never met a writer who thought his or her writing was good enough!  So yes, the thought crossed my mind once or twice.  But I also recognize it as just that: only a fear.  It’s only a story I tell myself.  When I hear it, I shoo it away.  If I change the wording a little, I can easily say, “my writing is good enough.”  It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough.

And I think that being willing to expose my writing to public scrutiny is a good model for students.  I sometimes even take passages of my own writing into class to explain why something doesn’t work, or how I revised something from bad to better to best.  It’s important for student writers, or any aspiring writer, to see that every work is flawed, and every finished book began as a big jumbly mess.  It’s part of the process.

Does that mean it’s easy to make that leap from private writer to published author?  No—but it’s part of the deal, so I took a deep breath and jumped.

What else of yours can I read?

Jerry Waxler: Now that I’m a Tracy Seeley fan, what’s next or what else of yours can I read?

Tracy Seeley:  After this summer book tour ends, I’ll be eager to get on to the next book.  I’m just starting to think about it, so don’t want to say too much, though I know it won’t be a memoir, and I can promise it will also be essay-like in interweaving different kinds of stories and moving across time.  How’s that for cryptic?

Meanwhile, I have two essays you might enjoy: “Cartographies of Change” in Prairie Schooner (Summer 2010); and “Monument Rocks” in The Florida Review (Winter 2008).  Both grew out of material I cut out of My Ruby Slippers.

You can also subscribe to my blogs!  (addresses below)  The Tracy Seeley one is on hiatus at the moment, but there’s a lot of good, fun material there about slow reading and slow living.  The My Ruby Slippers blog is about the summer tour and will also delve further into the book once I’m not on the road and have more time for it.

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.

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.

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.

Memoir writer on conforming, rewriting, publishing

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.

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

Click here for Part 1 of my interview with Tracy Seeley

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.

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.

Stretching the Memoir Form, Tracy Seeley Interview, Part 2

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.

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

Click here for Part 1 of my interview with Tracy Seeley

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.


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.

I Left my Heart In… Kansas? Memoir Review Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

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

The memoir “Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” chronicles Tracy Seeley’s search for herself. She travels from San Francisco back to her origins in the Midwest, tracks down old neighbors and friends of her family and asks them, “What was going on with Mom and Dad?”

Early in her inquiry she wearies of crunching into her parents’ motivation. The task doesn’t offer the insight she expected. She decides that to understand herself, she needs to understand Kansas. She lets us meet the people in Kansas who love their land, and she immerses us in their perspective. She digs deeper and researches the past. What was it like through the centuries to live in Kansas, or pass through Kansas, and finally to be passed over by travelers across the country who look down from 30,000 feet? Her search leads her back to the economic frenzy that drove people there in the nineteenth century to kill native inhabitants, plunder vast bison herds, and plow under the Great Plains.

She shows us the Heartland not through the eyes of an expert historian but through the eyes of a woman trying to understand herself. Subtly, gently, and almost inevitably, she expands up to another level and asks how Kansas fits into the psychology of the entire nation. Her charter to make peace between these two parts of the country is extremely important to her. Having grown up on the Great Plains and then lived in Connecticut and San Francisco, she now needs to unify these parts of the country in order to find her own peace.

Her quest for wholeness coincides with a media-declared rift of red and blue states, an adversarial picture that appears to draw us apart. I hate this split, and have my own longings to unite these apparently disparate aspects of our country. For one thing, as Abe Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I have another, more personal reason. I grew up in Philadelphia, and arrived in college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison as a self-proclaimed big city intellectual. After four years, I discovered that many of the people to whom I felt most authentically connected had grown up in the Midwest. They seemed more straightforward, and somehow disarmed my overly complex emotional defenses. So even though Tracy Seeley was searching for herself, I felt that she represented my interests as well. I leaned forward, page by page, as she turned the curiosity of an English professor toward solving the dilemmas of real life.

Search for self turns into a philosophy of life

Typical Coming of Age stories follow a fairly simple trajectory. A child sets out to become an adult. The satisfaction at the end results when the person has figured out how to face the world. Tracy Seeley’s memoir is not a typical Coming of Age story. It begins not through the eyes of a little girl, but a sophisticated college professor seeking to understand her origins. Her search starts as a psychological investigation. Then it expands to wider and wider circles, from her self to her family, her community, state, and nation, and finally Nature.

Many stories end with an exit ramp, called a “denouement” where, after the body of the action, the author and reader relax, say goodbye, and prepare to return to the real world. Tracy Seeley’s denouement is one of the most satisfying I’ve seen in memoirs. As she collects all the information she has gathered, the heartlands and coastlands become parts of one whole, just as people, nature, and place are all parts of each other. The conclusion of the story is not a set of logical facts, but a poetic impressionistic image of optimistic wholeness. When I first picked up the book, I suspended disbelief and entered her state of mind. By the end, I want to reread it so I can return there.

Her ending demonstrates the amazing, expansive possibilities for the memoir genre. Each book takes us deep into the workings of whatever is meaningful in the author’s world. If at the beginning of the memoir, the author starts out attempting to answer a philosophical question, the most satisfying conclusion is a philosophical answer.

The title and substance of “Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” plays on one of the most widely known stories in modern times. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy leaves her home in search for love. Her quest leads her to the city of Oz where she finds that the Wizard does not have all the answers after all. In the conclusion of that story, she realizes that the good qualities of life have been in front of her all along. Her parents do love her, but to appreciate that love she had to develop some qualities within herself. The story makes a powerful point for modern life. To find wholeness, we have to be willing to go both ways on the golden highway, to unite the worldly knowledge of city and university with the simplicity of nature and family. Ruby Slippers updates Wizard of Oz to modern times. It’s a remarkable achievement of philosophical art.

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

Other memoirs that focus on place
Colored People, Henry Louis Gates, West Virginia in Jim Crow south.
House on Sugar Beach, Helene Cooper, A privileged girl grows up in Liberia, Africa.
Thrumpton Hall, Miranda Seymour, a daughter explores the history of the English Country Manor where she grew up.

Writing Prompts, Place
What place made an impact on you? Changed you? Frightened you? Made you long to stay forever?

Write a scene about moving to a new place and feeling out of place.

Memoirs that end with a philosophical denouement
My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor
Here if You Need Me, Kate Braestrup

Writing Prompt, Great Dualities
How can you help the reader understand more about some great dilemma in your life, such as “right wing and left wing” or “religion versus spirituality,” “city versus country,” “black versus white”? Of course you may be tempted to back up your ideas by quoting ideologies or belief systems. Such idea-based reasoning might be good for normal conversation, but in stories, too many ideas jolt the reader out of suspension-of-disbelief. Set aside your ideology and theories and try to make your points through scenes, with dramatic tension, and realizations to help the reader identify with your dilemmas. Write one or even a sequence of scenes, complete with characters, dialog, historical context, that show how the dilemma tore at you, and how you reacted.

More memoir writing resources

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

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