Tracy Seeley is the author of My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas, published in 2011. She teaches literature and creative nonfiction at the University of San Francisco. There, she has held the NEH Chair in the Humanities and won both the Distinguished Teaching Award and the College Service Award. She currently co-directs the Center for Teaching Excellence.
Seeley has also published scholarly essays on Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, poet and essayist Alice Meynell, and other writers, well as literary essays in The Florida Review, Prairie Schooner and other journals. Her essay "Cartographies of Change" was a finalist for both the Iowa Review and Brenda Ueland prizes in nonfiction.
Tracy lives in Oakland, California with her husband Frederick Marx, a filmmaker. She is an avid if novice gardener and has raised two smart and darkly witty daughters who now live too far away. Visit her website.
Read Sharon Lippincott's review of My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Sharon Lippincott
Posted on 09/14/2011
The journey of discovery you recount in your book took place over approximately five years and seemed to occur in layers. How much journaling did you do as you traveled?
On my first two trips, I kept detailed daily journals of what I'd seen, done, heard, and thought about. On my first trip, I also kept a tape recorder in the car. I was driving a lot and knew I'd lose details if I waited to write it all down at the end of the day. So I'd often just talk to into the tape recorder. I'm sure it seemed a little bizarre to other drivers, a woman driving along talking to herself non-stop.
At what point did you decide to write the memoir? If you made the decision before the end of the period you write about, how did the decision influence subsequent trips?
I really had the idea to write something about my trip even before I went back to Kansas even the first time. I didn't know yet what that something would be. I thought I'd just go back once, write about that trip, and be done with it. Then along the way things got a little more complicated. On that first trip, I fell completely in love with Kansas, and I knew I wasn't done with it. I wanted to know more about it, experience it in new ways, deepen my connection with it. For several years, I had a big Kansas magnet at my back that just wouldn't let me go. So I ended up going four more times. In the process, the book became much bigger, more complex, full of the stories I gathered along the way.
Your story is heavily laced with narrative reflection, and obviously many of the insights developed in the moment as you traveled. How much more did the process of writing about your experiences add to and shape those insights?
Like a lot of writers, I discover what I think and where I'm going simply by writing. I think of the line from Roethke's poem "The Waking": "I learn by going where I have to go." Writing is like that for me.
I did have a few key ideas and questions in mind when I set out on my travels, I'd thought a lot about them before I left, and they guided some of my thoughts on the road. The most important questions had to do with a sense of place. What does it mean to have one? How do I get one? If I've never had one, what have I missed? Discovering the answers happened a bit as I traveled, when I'd have a flash of insight or a phrase would come to me. But most of it happened once I sat down to write and pull it all together.
Early in your story you describe the meditation class you had signed up for shortly before your cancer diagnosis. You continually refer back to that class and the helpful techniques you learned. How do meditation and writing interrelate for you?
Great question. For me, meditation and writing are both forms of focused attention. When writing and meditation go well, I enter a deep place of concentration and awareness. They're also related in a practical way. If I meditate before I write, I'm less jumpy, more focused, able to sit still and put in the time at the desk. It puts me into a calmer, more receptive frame of mind.
In the Prelude, as you drive from Colorado into Kansas on your initial visit back, you observe that you had lost the chance to ask your parents more questions, and you write "But in their dying, I'd also gained the freedom from being their child. I could map our emotional landscapes to the places we had lived, free of their watchful and wary eyes." Despite this observation, at least on the first trip, they seemed to be constantly within awareness. Were you really free of them?
Are we ever really free of our parents? Ha! I carry a lot of people around with me and I think most of us do. My parents are always going to be part of me. Their presence helped shape who I've turned out to be, they both gave me both gifts and wounds that are part of me, my memories are filled with them, and they cross my mind pretty much every day. Not in any vexed way or because I have unfinished business with them—but there they are. I felt that presence very strongly the first week or so of my first trip back. After that, they kind of slipped away, much further into the background.
From the beginning of the project, though, I felt completely free of them in one important way. They were no longer alive to object to my writing about them. I didn't have to worry about hurting their feelings, or be guarded with them about what I was writing or thinking about my childhood or their marriage. That's often a problem for memoirists, and I've been free of that from the start. It made things a lot easier.
You crafted a complex, layered approach for telling your story, using your travels as a baseline for moving through time and unfolding insights by reflecting back to earlier times. Within that structure you braid reflections on your parents and family and your healing journey through cancer together with cultural and historical background information on Kansas. How did you evolve this structure and fit all the threads together?
When I left for Kansas, I'd just finished nine months of treatment for cancer, so the two experiences were tightly woven together from the outset. Besides the coincidence of timing, though, I kept thinking there was a deeper connection, that they had something important to say about each other. As I wrote, trying out different ways of bringing them together, I discovered that both of the Kansas and cancer stories were about displacement and my finding ways of being more fully alive and rooted where I am.
So that's how it all started. Displacement and finding my way beyond it. I also wanted to write something with lots of layers, which I'm drawn to in some of the writers I most admire. Some of those layers are the stories I tell from Kansas history, like the story of Sadie, a 19th-century Pawnee child, or the story of John Brown. Those stories are what place means for me: a location marked by layers and layers of stories. My family story, stories of people who lived there before me, stories about the land. All the stories I tell are marked by my preoccupation with displacement, loss, and moving toward something new. At some point—maybe about half way through my first real draft, the structure for weaving them all together began to emerge out of the material.
You use such lovely descriptions, especially of emotions and feelings, for example, "The ghosts of my dozen childhood moves and my father's leaving had laid their chilly hands on my heart." Do you have any secrets you can share about how you access these succulent similes?
Boy, I really don't have any secret techniques. I wish I did. Similes usually just come to me, if I sit quietly and wait and pay attention to the mood and feeling I want to convey. I listen, and gradually it arrives. That sounds completely unhelpful, I know.
One thing that may help is that I really pay attention to the metaphorical power of individual words and then develop it. Which is what happened with your example.
Just to explain a bit further. It's fair to say that I was haunted by the many times my family had moved and then by my father's leaving. We use that word "haunted" all the time. So much so, that we don't feel the full weight of it. So it really wouldn't have had any power if I'd written, "I was haunted by my father's leaving." It's become a cliché, and so it's empty. But haunting led me to ghosts, which I thought would be too heavy-handed in the passage, so I just waited a bit, and the chilly hand just arose out of nowhere. Not a whole ghost, just a hand. Immediately I recognized the power of that image. The chill adds a physical sensation to something that's not really physical, which brings that moment an added dimension. So when the ghosts of the past laid a "chilly hand on my heart," the image conjures the right mood and conveys the emotional effect of my past, but it's also indirect and suggestive—and that's always more powerful than something explicit and obvious. So if I had a secret, it would be sit quietly and let the metaphors speak through the words. Then make sure the metaphor suits the situation in all of its connotations, its moods. And keep pushing until you arrive at something surprising and fresh.
What closing thoughts do you have about the value of writing for personal healing and transformation?
When I set out to write My Ruby Slippers, I wanted to create a literary work. And that's always my priority. But writing memoir is also deeply personal work, as you know. We look into our past and ourselves and pull out a pile of fragments and stories and moments and thoughts and feelings, and that's our material. Yikes! There's a lot of us in that pile. Often, there's a lot of hurt and lot of unprocessed experience, too.
But whatever the pile looks like, our task is to turn personal experience into a literary experience for others. That means we really have to step back from the raw events and raw feelings, create enough distance to structure a story, select the parts we'll tell and parts we won't, the details we'll include and the ones that don't really fit. We have to decide what the book is really about. We have to make a million literary decisions, create great sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and so on.
What I found was that in doing the literary work, I was also doing the personal work. I was giving a shape to my past that it hadn't had before. It was taking on new meanings, developing new relationships with other parts of my life. I could think on the page about it, reframe the past through my present understanding. And in the process, I healed a lot of wounds. That's not what I set out to do, but it happened anyway as I wrote. One great result was that I came to better understand and have compassion for my father, and was able to let go of a lot of resentment and anger.
As freeing as that has been for me, I think our primary task as memoirists is to create art. I always think about Virginia Woolf here. In her memoir A Sketch of the Past, she describes what happens when she writes about a "shock," a startling moment of hurt. "I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost is power to hurt me." So the words are the thing, the art is the primary task. And in creating art from our experience, we make it real, make it whole, and it loses the power to hurt. Do the art, and the healing comes.