Memoir Author Interview: Tracy Seeley on her Memoir, My Ruby Slippers

by Matilda Butler on July 27, 2011

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #58 – Women’s Memoirs, Author Conversations – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Today, Kendra Bonnett and I have a special interview to share with you. We are delighted to be part of a blog book tour organized by WOW! Women on Writing for Tracy Seeley’s new memoir, My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas (American Lives).

Women’s Memoirs brings together many facets of memoir writing, seeking to help women who are considering writing a memoir, who are already writing and want to improve their craft, or who have finished their memoir and need assistance marketing it. When WOW contacted us to see if we would be interested in Tracy Seeley’s memoir, we eagerly agreed. Tracy tells her personal story as developed through a sense of place. She’s included several tips that will help you with your craft of memoir writing. Then on Friday, we’ll publish a second interview. Kendra talks with Tracy about her marketing strategy for her memoir. Be sure to return then.

memoir, memoir writing, memoir review, journaling, autobiography, memoir author interviewWelcome Tracy to Women’s Memoirs. We’re delighted to have an opportunity to talk with you and to learn more about your new memoir. Here’s our first question:

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: You have taught English and creative nonfiction writing at Yale and now at San Francisco University. In what ways to do think your teaching influenced the way you wrote your memoir?

Tracy Seeley:
I’m not sure that teaching influenced the way I wrote my book as much as reading did. When I first started thinking about writing My Ruby Slippers, I read lots of great memoirs, books about place and personal essays by writers I admire and studied how they did things. Everything from structuring a chapter to describing landscape, to weaving together multiple plot threads or themes, which I really wanted to do in My Ruby Slippers.

Some of that reading I did in the context of classes I taught—so that’s one of the gifts teaching gives me. I chance to teach things I want to learn, things I want to study more closely myself. While working on my book, I created a course on “Writing About Place” so that while students worked on their own pieces about place, I could immerse myself in the subject and in the writers I wanted to learn from. And even if you don’t teach, that’s something anyone can do even at home. Create a reading list of the kind of thing you want to write, and go for it.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: While few of us may have a background teaching English or creative nonfiction, we all have a place or places that we call home, a key element in your memoir. Could you say a little about when in your writing you knew that place would be so important? Then, could you give our readers a tip to get them thinking about the importance of place in their lives.

Tracy Seeley:
Even before I made my first trip back to Kansas to start working on My Ruby Slippers, I was obsessed with the idea of place. I don’t remember where I first stumbled on the concept of a sense of place, but the minute I did, I had a big “aha!” moment. A sense of place? I knew I didn’t have one, or a very deep one. I’d spent most of my life moving around. So when I went back to the places I’d grown up, place was very much on my mind. What does it mean to have a sense of place? How do you acquire one? And what’s lost if you don’t have it? Those questions really drove the project from the start.

So what is place? For me, it’s the intersection of location with human meanings. Some of those meanings are deeply personal, from our own experiences and memories of a place, and the people we know there, or once knew. And some of those meanings are older than we are, from the stories of past generations and other peoples who lived in the place before we ever came along. And some of those stories are about the land itself. What are its rivers, how did its geology form, what about its climate, its seasons, its soil, its capacities for supporting human life, etcetera. The more we know these things about the place, the more deeply we belong to it and feel rooted. And the more readily we connect to the other people who live around us.

I think that knowledge helps ground us in the world and in the lives of other people in ways that our contemporary digital, consumerist lives just can’t. So having a sense of place begins with a commitment to live deeply where we are. A real location on the map with its own, particular communities, natural characteristics, and stories.

For those who want to explore the importance of place in their own lives, I’d start with that question that spurred me to write My Ruby Slippers: How deeply do you dwell? How much do you know about the place you live?

Another good place to start is to focus on a place that’s important to you, that you suspect is important in who you’ve become. That place will immediately be apparent to you—a place with strong memories attached. Then start writing about it. Start with a description that without mentioning an emotion, conveys the emotion you feel in relation to that place. That’s how I started My Ruby Slippers, with a one-page description of a place that evoked strong memories and emotions.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Memoir writing is a way to share our story with others. Yet what gets included and what is left out? I know from your website that you were drawn in several directions with which parts of your story to tell as well as how to balance the elements you decided to include. I’m sure our readers would appreciate your thoughts on defining the boundaries of a memoir. And since memoir is just a slice of life, I wonder if you are already thinking about writing a second memoir about a different aspect of your life?

Visiting Craters of the Moon on my way to Kansas

Visiting Craters of the Moon on my way to Kansas

Tracy Seeley:
Decisions about what goes in and what stays out are tough, especially when a book is in the formative stages. I think it’s important not to make too many decisions too early, but to simply write, write, write, and be comfortable with the chaos for awhile. It’s vital in those early stages to simply create a lot of material, knowing that you’ll cut things out later. It’s like making sure you’ll have enough clay to finish your sculpture, even if you end up paring a lot of it away once you have a clearer idea of its final form. If you don’t have enough to begin with, you cut off your possibilities too soon.

When I write, I know from experience that the shape and focus of the thing will eventually begin to emerge from the material. The question “What is this book really about?” gets an answer. And from then on, I make decisions about what to include and exclude based on whether the material serves that particular project and supports its central reason for being.

I have a drawer full of things that got cut from My Ruby Slippers, which of course is wrenching at the time. I’m kind of attached to some of it. But I also know that those sections served an important purpose in the book—they helped me discover what it needed to be. And once I knew, those parts just didn’t fit anymore.

I’m not planning another memoir at the moment, though I am starting to write around and around a new topic which involves a family story from my great-grandmother’s generation. It might end up being memoir-ish, or something altogether different, though I don’t know yet what the book will really be about. I look forward to discovering it when the time comes. Meanwhile, I don’t say too much about it—I like projects to build up a head of steam first and take some kind of shape. I don’t want to talk it away too soon.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Thank you Tracy. It’s been a pleasure having you visit Women’s Memoirs blog and we wish you success with your memoir, My Ruby Slippers. We look forward to having you back here on Friday when Kendra interviews you about your memoir marketing efforts.


And if you prefer to read books on your Kindle, here’s a link to that version of Tracy’s memoir.

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