Ruta Sepetys, YOU: The Story: A Writer's Guide to Craft Through Memory

Ruta Sepetys, YOU: The Story: A Writer's Guide to Craft Through Memory

Guest host Julie Chavez interviews #1 New York Times bestselling author Ruta Sepetys about her nonfiction debut, a powerful how-to book for aspiring writers, You: The Story: A Writer’s Guide to Craft Through Memory. Ruta reveals what inspired her to write this guide (and why she felt so vulnerable recording her own audiobook). The two then talk about stories: how everybody has them and what it takes to put them on paper–revisiting memories, reframing perspectives and regret, finding our authentic voice, writing to comprehend (not condemn), being open to criticism, and lots of revisions.


Julie Chavez: Ruta, I’m so glad you’re here today. Welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Ruta Sepetys: Thank you for having me.

Julie: I’m so thrilled. As I was telling you right before we started recording, I was familiar with you before I got the opportunity to interview for Zibby’s podcast. I’m just so happy that we get to talk about you and your craft and this book, You: The Story: A Writer’s Guide to Craft Through Memory.

Ruta: I’m so excited. Let’s dig in.

Julie: I want to start by saying I’m happy to be talking to you because I’ve been having you talk at me all week because I’ve been listening to the audiobook. I have to start there. This will be a popular opinion. I want everyone to get the audiobook and the print book of this book. Listening to you was such an incredible experience. You just really pick up on your passion and your love. There’s such grace in the way you talk in this book but then also in your speech. As an adult writer, I thought, oh, my gosh, this is so good for me to literally hear in my ears that I don’t have to strive for perfection, that there’s work involved in this craft, all these things. I feel like this book is clearly geared a little bit younger in general, but I got just as much from it. I think so much of it was listening to you, but then I needed the print book because then I would go and tag the print book to go back to. All that to say you have created a beautiful, valuable resource. Congratulations. I can’t wait to put it in the hands of all the young writers I know, but really, any writer.

Ruta: That’s so generous of you. When my publisher came to me and said, “We think we’d like you to narrate the audiobook,” my first response was no. Oh, my gosh, no.

Julie: Pass.

Ruta: Because there’s no hiding. I’m encouraging writers in this book, as I’m sure we’ll talk about, to reflect on some memories. It was one thing to write the book. As I was narrating it, I could hear where I was laughing. The director just kept waving me on like, we’re going to keep it. You’re going to keep me laughing. You can hear, kind of, when I’m breaking up a little bit and when I’m emotional. It was kind of a vulnerable experience to do the audio.

Julie: I could understand that, and especially because you have so many stories interwoven in this book and really a lot of personal narrative that you’ve included that’s extremely powerful and I think speaks to the value of the book. Those are some really tender things. To write about it is one thing. That is its own emotional experience. Then to read that back to yourself, I can see how that would’ve been bringing out additional layers for you.

Ruta: Definitely. It did. Also, it was very powerful because it made me reflect on the work I do with my novels. To create my historical novels, I interview fifty to a hundred people. They share their experiences with me. It really gave me a bit of a taste of what I’m asking these survivors and true witnesses to do. It was kind of instructive as well for me.

Julie: That makes sense, a little, almost, humility, not in the sense of being humbled, but just that approach of a reminder of how we carry memory and how we share that.

Ruta: Exactly.

Julie: Thank you for sharing that. I’m very glad that they convinced you to record it because I think you were the best one to do it without a doubt, as I was listening. I really thought it was well done. I want to start by just going through a few of the things that stood out to me. First of all, let’s start here since this is a craft book. Why did you want to write this? What at this point in your career felt like, okay, this is the next thing I want to do?

Ruta: I am such a believer that sharing our stories facilitates human understanding. I have seen it with the novels that I have written. Together with the witnesses and the survivors, we’re taking underrepresented history. When people read the book and learn of it, they think, oh, my gosh, why did I not know this? Maybe they have a better sense of someone they know in their community who is Lithuanian, Romanian, Spanish, fill in the blank of one of my books. People often ask how I do what I do and how I infuse a vivid depth of feeling into the fiction. That depth of feeling for a writer, that comes from our own experience. If we’re writing about being heartbroken or hopeful, what we’re doing is reflecting on how we felt and then infusing that into the fiction. Really, my goal is to assure everybody that they can do what I’m doing. Even if they’re not a storyteller, they still have a story. I think every adult wishes that we had better archived our family story, our parents’ story, our grandparents’ story.

Julie: Yes, that is so true. That’s what I think people should know. This really isn’t only a book for writers. It really is a book for everyone because, to your point, it’s so true, we’re connected by story. We do want to keep those. That’s a beautiful sentiment. Neat to hear you talk about the ways that not only your books, but now this are bringing that out.

Ruta: We all have this amazing compost of experiences. Sometimes it’s just a matter of helping people recognize story. Some people don’t even realize that a day is a story and a year is a story, and so to give them tools and framework to identify story in their life.

Julie: It’s so well done. You have the chapter. Then you have a recap, which is great for anyone who has a short-term memory situation, like Dory and myself. Then you have the writing exercises and questions to answer. It really is not only instructive, but reflective. I really like the way that you structured it. Also, I love the different sections that you chose, like perspective. I was really stuck on perspective for a while because I wanted to reread it. Dialogue, research, plot, character development. Also, I have to say, you do a really good job of — I think it was in the plot chapter. I might be wrong. Main point here is that I was so impressed that when you were talking about where to begin, you said that depends on you. This whole book is full of — like you said, you’re asking people to think about how they can best and how they would like to express things. It’s just so freeing for those of us that are always wanting a system to say, you can trust your intuition. Your story leads you to how it needs to be told. You just did such a good job. I loved it.

Ruta: Thank you. I want it to be accessible. You brought up perspective. I do think that the stories we tell about ourself, that actually frames our identity construction, doesn’t it?

Julie: Yes.

Ruta: If someone asks us, if a book was written about your life, what would the title be? –would it be fiction? Would it be nonfiction? I wanted to write something accessible. People often tell me, I don’t know where to start. There are lots of places to start. The rules are, there are no rules.

Julie: It’s so true. You really do a good job of capturing that in this but then turning it around to where not only is there no place to start, that’s not an overwhelming fact. It’s a freeing fact because it allows you to step into whatever you need to do next. I have a question for you related. I think the reason I got hung up on perspective — I listened to it, and then I went back and read sections of it. I was in deep. I really wanted to talk to you about regret because I loved when you were talking about, think about a mistake, now go back and think of it as not a mistake. Just personally, do you have regrets? Do you think about things that way? Do you always try and reframe? I was just curious about that when I read that.

Ruta: I definitely have regrets. I also am someone who kind of beats myself up about something when I think, I wish I wouldn’t have done that. I did that the wrong way. I focus on this in the book, about failure, the concept. What is a failure? For me, with a regret, I’m always trying to, as you said, reframe it. Failure and regret, is it a forest of exploration, something we can learn from and learn within, or is it just a suck-hole of soul death? I don’t want to get caught in the suck-hole of soul death. I look at it, and I say, wait a minute. Oftentimes, mistakes I’ve made — I have made a lot of them. I talk in the book about working in the music industry and all these fiascos. When I go back to them, oftentimes, after something that I found regrettable or I thought was a mistake, there’s something good that came from that. That’s what I try to focus on. That’s what I want people to focus on as well. That’s where we learn.

Julie: A hundred percent. I’m a definite, let me rethink my mistakes. My favorite is in the middle of the night. Really, I can do it anytime. I’m available for it all throughout the day.

Ruta: I know. That’s me too, waking up in the middle of the night, lying there in the dark thinking. That’s when I realize things too. I will wake up in the middle of the night and realize, oh, my goodness, why did I say this? Not good.

Julie: Your poor brain. Our poor brains. They’re just so busy and silly. I have a question for you. You are a person who really has a rich writing career, I would say. You’ve written many books. They’ve been very popular. I think they’ve also meant a lot to many people, which is the most beautiful thing that a writing career can do, is to have books that are precious to people. Yours absolutely are. Is there anything in your career that you wish you would’ve done earlier or that you wish you’d waited to do?

Ruta: Wow, that’s such a great question. Yes. Prior to becoming a novelist, I spent over twenty years working in the music business working with songwriters and rock bands and recording artists helping them distill story into song. I wish that I would’ve had the courage — I always wanted to be a writer from the time I was in third grade. I wrote my first book, The Adventures of Betsy. I didn’t have that creative courage. I was helping other people discover their courage and express their stories. It took me too long or a bit longer than it should’ve — but who’s to say? — to really find my own. Then something I wish I would’ve waited on — then when I did find courage to come back to writing, I had written this humorous middle-grade mystery. I’m part of a writing group that I met through a writers’ organization, SCBWI. We’ve been together nearly twenty years now. My writers’ group told me when I had a first draft of this book, “It’s good, but it needs some work.” I spent good money to send bad pages to an editor at a conference. Let’s just say it did not go well. I think I was so excited. I have a draft. I have a draft. I’ve got a book. Now I know how important revision is. Finding that creative courage a little sooner and waiting a little longer to send out those first pages.

Julie: I think there’s a lot of wisdom there. I don’t think anyone can really appreciate the power of revision, though, until you’ve gone through it the first few times, until you see what it actually does to the work. It can just feel like more work to the same end as opposed to, we’re actually moving this needle forward.

Ruta: Yes. For me, actually, that pause after that negative critique with an editor at a conference — I did revise. The manuscript was actually requested by a publisher. Mind you, this was in a different genre. This was a middle-grade mystery. I contacted an agent. I said, “I’m seeking representation because the book I’ve written has been requested by a publisher.” The agent said, “Sure, send it.” At the last minute, I decided to also include five pages of this historical novel that I had been working on. The agent contacted me. He said, “This middle-grade mystery, I can see why the publisher is requesting it, but these lonely five pages, your authentic voice, it’s in these pages, Ruta. You want to write historical fiction. Why aren’t you doing that?” Oh, my goodness, this agent I respected. That pause of, wait a minute, I’m not going to just send the book to the publisher right away — my authentic voice is in historical fiction. I learned I was writing humor because I was trying to distract people away from some heartfelt messages, things that I felt. It was easier to cope with them through humor than really going at them straight on through historical fiction.

Julie: Interesting. I loved that story in the book. I just thought, oh, man. I always find myself going back to stories where a small adjustment or a small choice brings a totally new track. Then also, the people that appear in our lives that say something at the right moment that just changes everything, I love hearing about that.

Ruta: Me too. Also, we have to be open to it. I discuss in the book that when I was younger, really, the way I interpreted feedback sometimes was based on, as I said just a few moments ago, my own identity construction. I don’t want to give away a story in the book. People can read it. I had the opportunity to have lunch with this major music mogul. He gave me some feedback that really dented me, that really hurt me, only later to realize that I had misinterpreted that feedback. I thought it was criticism, but it was actually constructive input. Also, I think the time that we’re at now, we’re interpreting feedback, and what these stories are that we tell about ourselves, they’re all contributing factors.

Julie: I got to do a writing coaching session with Camille Pagán a little while back. She asked the question, “What are you making that mean?” It’s so true. If someone gives you feedback and then I’m using that to create some story in my head about how I’m garbage at X, Y, Z, then suddenly, I have now made that mean something that it didn’t mean. I think approaching it with a sense of neutrality and true openness, you’re exactly right, as opposed to defensiveness.

Ruta: Exactly. I want people who are listening to think about things, maybe input that they’ve gotten or comments or feedback. What do they make that mean? In the words of your writing coach, what do we make things mean? I think it’s a valuable exercise.

Julie: It is in all parts of life. I do know I definitely like to make things mean way more when my husband gives me feedback because I think it makes life so much more interesting when I really take it to a ten.

Ruta: Definitely. Absolutely.

Julie: Other people, I can be totally reasonable. Him, no. Pass. It’s not happening.

Ruta: It’s the same with me. If it’s my siblings, the scale just jumps up.

Julie: How dare you say that to me? Here’s a question. I know we talked about perspective because it really stayed with me. What was your favorite section to write in the book?

Ruta: My favorite section to write in the book, oh, gosh. A section that really surprised me to write — I wrote down, I’m going to have a section on plot. I’m going to have one on voice, the allusive voice, and dialogue and character development. It was the dialogue section that really surprised me. There are conversations we remember. There are conversations we wish we could forget. There are conversations we never got to have. As I went into writing that dialogue section, I had an idea of what I was going to write about. Then that changed. I was reflecting on some interesting conversations that led me to realize that sometimes when we revisit some of those old conversations, they can bring new meaning. I did that and reflected on some conversations that I had with my father. That was probably the most emotional section for me to read in the book. That was a section that surprised me. The part that I loved writing the most was probably when I’m talking about character development. As an example to illustrate, I share some stories about my own teenage self when at thirteen I decided that I wanted to live in a poop cocoon. I’m not going to give it away for readers. Talk about turning yourself inside out for the sake of this book.

Julie: You really did, yes.

Ruta: That was my favorite part. Why was it? At the time that I was going through it, my teenage self, it was so dramatic for me, what I was describing. Now with a buffer of time and a different altitude, I was actually laughing at some of these experiences. That made me realize that it was not only maybe a deeply lived experience, but a healed experience. That’s what writing can do for us. Sometimes we have these realizations as we’re writing. That was probably my favorite part, describing my nutty teenage self.

Julie: You had so many great stories about your teenage self. It just made me think back to my own, but a willingness to revisit those. I’m someone that never kept a journal because I’m too — I should use a growth mindset here. Something I’m working on. Not yet. Basically, this idea that I have a hard time looking back because I tend to overanalyze mistakes or because I really zone in on the wrong things. It was like I didn’t want to make a record of my own stupidity and then write it in a form that I could look at later. A willingness to revisit that, you’re right, it can become a healed experience because you see it with a different filter now. We’re adults. You have so much more grace and wisdom to revisit that. What a wonderful thing. As opposed to thinking, I’m looking back to judge this, it’s, I’m looking back to explore it, to mine it, to see what’s there.

Ruta: Exactly. I kept telling myself, don’t write to condemn. Write to comprehend. That’s what was happening as I was writing through some of these things. I was laughing. Again, I just want to reassure everybody that you all have, like I say, this compost of experiences to draw from. It’s how you reflect upon it and describe it that makes it interesting, not necessarily that you had to travel to some far-flung place or experience something really miraculous. No. The way you feel is miraculous. The way you describe it, that can be miraculous too.

Julie: I really like how you talked about familiarity working against us in that way where it takes the shine off of things and we forget the wonderful things and the miraculous things and all of these extraordinary things that happen in our lives. Familiarity kind of being an enemy was really something that stood out to me.

Ruta: Thank you. I agree with that.

Julie: I liked the Ann Patchett quote that you included. “Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?”

Ruta: Ann, she’s just brilliant, first of all. That quote really stuck with me. Often, when I do events, people will ask questions that imply that the muse is more of a contributor than a work ethic. They’ll say, do you light a candle? What is the process? Of course, I do all the cliché things. I write at a cabin in the woods. I light candles. I drink tea. I do all of those things, but honestly, that’s not where the mojo is. The mojo is in the motivation and just showing up every day and saying, this is tough, and I’m going to do it. I’m going to write. I’m going to rewrite. I think it’s interesting. I wanted to include that because so many people do ask questions that imply that they think it’s more muse and less hard work, and that’s not the case.

Julie: No. Do you ever find yourself falling into that trap, or is that something that doesn’t happen for you anymore now that you are farther along in your process?

Ruta: What I found is something that I imagine that people who might be any sort of athlete or artist — you don’t really feel like, maybe, showing up. You don’t feel like going for the run. You don’t feel like practicing. Then you do it. You show up. You begin. Man, you can have a great day. It’s like, oh, wow. That motivation leads to inspiration. What I find is that if I show up and I start to do the work, the muse arrives. Then my heart breaks open. The world breaks open. I think, oh, my gosh, this is amazing. This is so fun. I’m having a great time. I definitely subscribe to that. I know now what’s possible. That’s why with my books, even, history provides kind of a framework or a scaffolding, but I don’t outline too tightly because I love that creative process. When the muse does show up and say, hey, what if you did this? I think, oh, my gosh, I love that idea.

Julie: That’s really neat to hear. You’re starting to talk about this book with people. I would guess that you have some younger people that you’re talking with about it, and older. It’s so hard to distill it. Obviously, the main takeaway is, you need this book, and you should buy it. What do you tell a kid or a young person or a person who’s just starting out writing? If you’re trying to distill it down, what’s the one thing you would start with?

Ruta: I would love for them to know that writing well is less about what you’ve achieved or how you were educated or these interesting places you’ve traveled to. Writing well is about our emotions and our feelings and how we express that. If you felt deeply, you have lived deeply. You’re a creative person of courage. You have the tools to be a writer. Any deep-feeling person has the tools to be a writer. That’s the main takeaway and the point I want them to know. Everyone has a story. Neuroscience has proved that we are all creative. These stories we tell ourselves of, I’m not creative — there are lots of ways to tell a story. Maybe they don’t want to write a novel. Maybe they want to write a screenplay, a graphic novel. Maybe they want to do some sort of mixed media project. Maybe they want to choreograph a dance, however they’re going to express that story.

Julie: I really like that. I’m hearing you talk about the joy that’s found in creation where you are a creator, and so how do you bring to the world what only you can bring?

Ruta: I’m a big believer in not only, how do I bring to the world — who can I collaborate with? When we combine energies, really magic things can happen. I saw that in the music business when a songwriter would come with an idea and work with another writer or the band had an idea and they went in the studio and the producer was like, hey, what if we add this here? When energies are combined, amazing things can happen. Also, think about, who could you collaborate with on this project? For young writers, I also would love them to think about the concept of mentorship. When I say mentorship, I know people always think, wait a minute, that means that someone more established is working with someone who’s just starting out. No. What about reverse mentorship? I work with this concept all the time. Young people have skills and talents that I don’t have, whether that’s expressing a story through a video for Instagram. How can you collaborate with people and tell stories in new and different ways? When you think about writing, let’s also not just consider it a solitary endeavor, but maybe a team sport.

Julie: I love that idea. Yes, I am on the hunt for a coauthor. Ever since I figured out that was a thing, I was like, I want in on this. It just seems like you get to do so many things all at once, and just multiplying the joy, doing it with someone else. I love the idea that it could be a team sport.

Ruta: I’m doing that right now. I am writing my first coauthored book. I normally write historical fiction. I am collaborating with the master of historical nonfiction, Steve Sheinkin, who is three-time National Book Award nominee. He’s won every prize. We are getting together. The draft is done. I have to say, it was absolutely a blast. The world was so much less lonely. When I was trying to find these obscure things for research and I would mention to him, “I’m on the hunt,” he’d say, “Wait, I have that,” and vice versa. Then I would say, “Wait, Steve, I have this.” We got to research together and travel. I’m a big believer in collaboration.

Julie: What fun. What’s one thing you think that people might assume about you based on your books or based on your writing career that is incorrect?

Ruta: First, I think people might assume, because of the detail and the research involved and also some of the heavy historical topics that I write about, that I am perhaps a dark and somber person. That’s not it at all. Some people think, wow, you must really be dark to be attracted to these heavy and sad historical topics, but it’s actually just the opposite. Through researching and writing these books about difficult events, oh, my goodness, no, it actually makes me more hopeful. Amidst the darkness, I find evidence of human beings forging everlasting bonds through adversity. I find evidence of the miraculous nature of the human spirit. That’s that juxtaposition in play, love and loss, hope and hardship, strength and struggle. Where people feel like, you must be really dark and kind of a downer of a — granted, I probably am going to be that person at the party who’s like, would you like to talk about communism in 1939? They’ll say, no, Ruta, I don’t want to hear anything about that. I’m not a dark person. I find so much inspiration in stories of the human spirit.

Julie: Interesting. That’s a good nod for anybody who wants to invite you to a party. Maybe you’ll get more invitations after this.

Ruta: Actually, after people read You: The Story, this writing book, they’re saying, oh, wow, I want to hear more about this plane crash. I want to hear more about when you worked in prison, these different stories. Hopefully, I’ll get more party invitations.

Julie: There you go. Has that been strange for you, to step out from behind the fiction a little bit?

Ruta: Totally. It’s not only strange, but like I say, it’s been a good exercise in vulnerability to step out and say, I want to teach you about voice or perspective or character development, and here’s an example, or backstory, and here’s an example. Before each book is published — I know every author is different. For me, I do go through this sense of fear thinking, oh, my goodness, what if I didn’t get it right? What if I haven’t captured this history correctly? With this book, it was entirely different because I thought, oh, my gosh, I am sharing these stories. Granted, as I mention in the book, I use my stories. My siblings are my best friends, but I didn’t tell their stories. They have their own stories to tell. These are my perspectives. We have to be careful. I know some people are interested in writing about experiences, but they’re worried. What if I hurt someone? Remember, that’s a good cautionary tale that we’re all the villain in someone’s story in the scheme of life. We need to be sensitive. The other thing also to reflect on is we’re talking so much about memories and reflecting, and there are some memories that are not worth returning to ever. Protect your head and your heart, always. As I was going through this exercise, there were some things that I thought, could I write about that? No. No, I don’t even want to think about that. Done. I don’t. You move on.

Julie: Yes, having the self-awareness and the health to ask yourself those questions. What feels good? What feels off-limits? What feels like I can revisit it and find some light where it was dark? Then what doors stay closed? I think there’s a lot of wisdom there, definitely, for people that are looking to go back into those memories.

Ruta: I think so.

Julie: I feel like we should finish up with just talking about your mom. Listening to you say her little voicemail snippets in the book, I could not stop laughing because my mom does the same thing. I do the same thing occasionally to my children. I’ll say something. They’re like, wow, thanks for the downer, Mom. The way you said it, “Hi, love. It’s me. Buh-bye,” by the end, it was amazing, I was just waiting for them. That was really perfect.

Ruta: I wanted to illustrate for listeners and readers this concept of rhythm in character development. People that we know, they have certain rhythms. Think of your old teachers or your neighbors or friends or relatives. When you imitate them, what we’re imitating is the rhythm. My mom, oh, she was a rhythmic character all right. I used that. Do you know that as much as I could say, wow, man, how much I really, really miss my mom — it could be difficult to write about that. Do you know that hearing now people gravitate to those sections in the book saying, your mother, she reminds me of my mother, it’s made the world less lonely for me, whereas it could’ve been an exercise that maybe was sad or full of grief. Actually, it’s become just the opposite. Thank you so much for mentioning that.

Julie: I am so glad we got to talk about it because it’s a joy to hear and to remember. That’s how those people live on with us.

Ruta: And to relate to. You said, you know what, I do that myself.

Julie: A hundred percent. My mom always says it gives her great joy. What she says to me is, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all.” That happens to me quite often.

Ruta: To me too.

Julie: What are you going to do? Ruta, this was a joy. I am so very happy that you provided this book. As a person who works with young people and talks about writing with them, this is just going to be such a valuable tool. I can’t wait to put it in their hands. Thank you for taking the time. Thank you for taking the pieces of yourself that you had to explore and set aside to make this come into being because it’s just going to be a gift to so many. Thank you.

Ruta: Thank you so much. I really hope that people do consider this question. If a story was written about your life, what would the title be? Think about that. Just take a moment and think about that. That’s a good first step.

Julie: That is a good first step. I will try not to think about that in the middle of the night. It’ll be perfect. Thanks for the time today.

Ruta: Thank you.

YOU: The Story: A Writer’s Guide to Craft Through Memory by Ruta Sepetys

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