A look inside writing memoir and building happiness
Yasuko Thanh is a graduate of the University of Victoria’s MFA writing program and works as a sessional instructor in UVic’s writing department. Her stunning memoir, Mistakes to Run With, is a gritty account of her life as a teenage runaway working the streets of Victoria and Vancouver. The story, told with raw truth, is an exploration of what it means to be human, understanding love, and how to build happiness on a base of trauma.
When I interviewed Thanh, I was interested in the experience of diving into painful memories. I asked about the hardest part of writing a memoir. She said it was realizing how much she didn’t know, even about her own experiences.
“As I first sat down to write, I still felt pretty sure that, even though the title was Mistakes to Run With … it wasn’t really mistakes. It was all fine,” she said. “Every day I come to new realizations about things.”
After that, I couldn’t help but wonder if writing was like soul-searching for Thanh. She nodded and explained that, “Rough drafts are definitely more soul-searching … then I try and apply the technique and intellect to the work afterwards.”
This is evident on the page. Each word in her memoir is rife with raw emotion, every memory is painted with an introspective hue, which is amplified by her skill at writing impactful scenes.
“I feel like if I can get the emotion down in the first burst, then that is what will carry the rhythm and voice,” said Thanh.
“What periods of your life do you find yield the most inspiration for you?” I asked.
“Necessarily the past,” said Thanh. “If it’s the present, it just comes out more like something you’re going to show your therapist … usually it’s stuff that’s happened in the past that I have questions about.”
The feeling that Thanh is using her memories to learn more about herself is woven throughout the narrative. This encouraged me, as a reader, to do the same. I came away with the sense that I know myself better, having read about her experience.
When I asked what was the most surprising thing that she’d discovered about herself through the writing of this memoir, Thanh told me that it was admitting she was not in complete control.
“Reading it, editing it, as an adult who had children the same age,” she said. “Yeah, if my 15-year-old was dating a 26-year-old, there’s nothing right about that. So, I guess my naivety was the thing that was most surprising to me.”
The memoir explores so much of Thanh’s time on the streets, and the story uses vivid detail to make her scenes come alive. Throughout my reading, I was heavily impacted by the difficulties she faced. As we sat together, I couldn’t help but notice the difference between who she was on the page and who she is today.
Later, I asked her what she’d like readers to come away with after reading her memoir. She explained that the most important thing to her was making sure people could see the humanity of those on the fringes of society.
“When you look around and see somebody who is screaming at the sky or is standing on the corner trying to make some money … look beyond the surface,” Thanh said. “Everybody has a really rich inner life. They’re real, complete human beings.”
As a student currently going through UVic’s creative writing program, I had to ask Thanh what she thought writers should remember if they want to write as honestly as she does.
“Don’t self-censor; just begin,” she said. “Just try and get as deep into your body as you can and then spurt out whatever it is.”
Afterward, Thanh gave advice for students at UVic struggling with trauma, mental health, or problems that may be barriers to their success.
“I wish I had been more open with my professors,” said Thanh. “Your professors are your most valuable resource. They want to see you succeed, so there’s no shame, no judgment at all, in going to them.”
Thanh is now working on her fourth novel, the story of a woman raising her daughter, set in the present day. When she’s not writing or teaching at UVic, Thanh is spending time with her kids and boyfriend, and running a vintage shop out of her basement.
After reading her memoir and meeting Thanh in person, I felt changed. I came away with the knowledge that those who have experienced trauma or are weighed down by mental health disorders should have hope. Pain can be turned into a strength when working to achieve goals, and can be used to build happiness. I give this memoir five stars.