Another way to write about childhood, memoir review Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

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

Tracy Seeley was born into a nomadic family in the Midwest. As soon as she settled into one home, her father’s demons and dreams forced him to search for a better place. After each move, Tracy left parts of herself behind. When she was old enough, she fled Kansas in search of her own place in the world. She earned her doctorate in English Literature at the University of Texas. She taught on the east coast at Yale University, and then shifted to the west coast to teach at the University of California in San Francisco.

In her adult places, when she told her educated peers where she grew up, their standard response was “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” The quote from the Wizard of Oz implied that Tracy’s childhood was irrelevant to her sophisticated world. Her life had become fractured in two ways. First her childhood was spread across thirteen homes, and second, her adult world was split off from the world in which she grew up. No wonder she wanted to return to the Heartland and make more sense of how it all fit together. Her lovely memoir, “My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” chronicles her exploration of her origins, as she attempts to find a unified story.

Story of researching yourself

Tracy’s story reminds me of “Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls. In both books, restless parents failed to deliver a safe, stable environment. After each author grew up and settled down, she returned to her chaotic beginnings and tried to knit together the pieces by finding the story.

The two memoirs make an instructive duo, because each author chose to construct her narrative in very different ways. Jeanette Walls did the research outside the page. In her memoir, “Glass Castle.” we are inside the little girl’s point of view, following her journey of growing up. In “Ruby Slippers,” Tracy Seeley starts her memoir as an adult, wondering how she grew up. She takes us on a guided tour of her investigation into her past.

Every memoir writer steers between these two frames-of-reference. In the first time frame, we live through the situation, becoming the person we are today. In the second frame, we look back, trying to make sense of how we got here.

I have written a number of essays about the Coming of Age genre as told from the child’s point of view, in bestsellers like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club, and Jeannette Walls, Glass Castle. In part two of this essay, I will dig deeper into Tracy Seeley’s memoir about rediscovering the roots of her self.

Click here to see Part 2 of this review of Ruby Slippers.

Notes: Other memoirs about researching self

Another memoir about researching a childhood was A. M. Homes, Mistress’s Daughter. The book takes us on her journey to find her biological parents and reconstruct their past. In Thrumpton Hall by Miranda Seymour, as well as in “Reading my Father” by Alexandra Styron, a daughter creates the story of her father’s life through a combination of memories and his journals and letters.

In some memoirs, the early chapters tell the story of childhood, and then later reflect on earlier events. For example towards the end of “Glass Castle,” Jeanette Walls struggles to make sense of her relationship with her parents. In “Look Me In The Eye,” John Robison first tells of his childhood, and then later in the book explores how his earlier experiences had been shaped by Asperger’s Syndrome.

Amazon Page for My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas
How Did John Robison End His Memoir Look me in the Eye
Why so many memoirs of dysfunctional childhood?

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.