Well-researched Memoir: Questions for Ursula Pike

“Work towards your publishing goals but also celebrate the chapter you completed, the hour you spent writing, or the finish manuscript you sent to your writing group for critique.” –Ursula Pike

Ursula Pike is the author of An Indian among Los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir (2021). Ursula lives in Austin and teaches creative writing at Austin Community College. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and her writing has appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, World Literature Today, and Lit HubFor more information about Ursula, check out her website: https://ursulapike.com/.

On Saturday, December 3rd, Ursula Pike is teaching a class for the WLT called “More than Memory: Using Research to Enhance Your Memoir. In this class you’ll learn how to ground your memoir in a well-researched framework.

Here’s what Ursula had to share with us:

Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?

Ursula Pike: I write memoir and creative nonfiction (also called personal narrative writing). Writing true stories offers different challenges than fiction writing because you have to follow actual events. My book An Indian Among Los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir tells the story of two years that I spent in a small community in Bolivia, South America. Everything I write starts with a question that I have about an experience I had. First, I need to understand what happened to me. Then I see how I can turn what I’ve written for myself into a narrative that others might find answers questions about experiences they have had.

I came to writing as a diary-keeper and person who journals. I’m still a little self-conscious about admitting that I write in a diary or journal because it seems like something a twelve-year-old girl does. But writing in my journal helped me deal with life – from when I was twelve until now, many years later. And I also read anything I could get my hands on. My mother took me to the library frequently when I was little and I learned to finish a book in the two-week check out loan window.

Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?

UP: Finding the time to write is one of my biggest challenges. Between working, teaching, trying to read more than one book a year, and living a life; finding hours to focus on my writing can feel impossible. But I know that small moments of writing can add up. It is also very much about prioritizing my goals and needs. If writing is as important to me as I know it is, then I can find the time.

As for the publishing business-related challenges, I have to focus on what I can control. Many years ago there was a great response by Roxane Gay in her NY Times column “Ask Roxane” in which she explained that she had to learn to define “artistic success in ways that weren’t shaped by forces beyond my control.” Work towards your publishing goals but also celebrate the chapter you completed, the hour you spent writing, or the finish manuscript you sent to your writing group for critique.

Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

UP: There are moments when I have clarity on what I’m attempting to say with a specific piece or find a writing prompt that frames my story perfectly. But there is no GPS for writing, at least not one I’ve found. Every project requires me to make wrong turns, follow rabbit trails that lead nowhere, and then return to where I left the main road. Epiphanies usually happen during revision when I see patterns or connections that I was not even aware of when I was writing.

Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

UP: One aspect of memoir writing that I struggled with and that I see other writers not address fully is telling the story through their eyes. People read memoir to experience something through another person’s perspective. They want more than a list of events: this happened, then this happened, and then this other thing happened. They want to know what it was like to live through those moments. How did it feel when your high school crush invited your best friend to the prom? What did the chicken and waffles at that famous restaurant taste like before and after your partner said she was leaving you?

Thanks, Ursula!

Click here to learn more about Ursula Pike’s upcoming class.


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