While Cheryl Strayed was in Minneapolis as part of her book tour for Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, which I posted about previously, I went to hear her twice, once for a reading and once for a reading/talk called “The Art of Memoir.” I’m hoping to pass along to you some of what she had to say about the book, her writing life, and memoir. She’s so great, such a pro, so well-spoken, and so generous in her answers to questions. Given the book’s popularity, you can find about a zillion interviews with her and reviews of Wild on the Internet. She has links to her brilliant essays and to some of her Dear Sugar columns on her website. Of course the best thing is to read the book! http://www.cherylstrayed.com/index.htm
She said of the Wild hike, things in her life were coming undone when she saw a guidebook on hiking the PCT at the REI store here in Minneapolis. Something about it spoke to her, even though she’d never gone backpacking. She had hiked and camped a lot but had never actually backpacked. She saw the hike as a way of “walking herself backward – to be the person she was meant to be and the person her mother had raised her to be.” She described Wild as being about the question “how do we bear what we can’t bear?” She means not just her bearing her pack on the hike, which weighed too much for her to lift except for “hunching in a remotely upright position,” and which she nicknamed “Monster,” but also “how do I bear living in the world without my mother in it?” She walked ninety-four days, which provides the backbone for the book, the external story of the hike itself.
She said one of the challenges of writing was how to make monotony and tedium interesting – since many of her days were the same, spent in solitude, waking up, eating her cereal, hiking all day, making camp, eating her dinner, and sleeping. In my opinion she definitely made the hike interesting every step of the way, by careful selection and structuring of events and people, interweaving the back story of losing her mother and losing her way as she spiraled into affairs, heroin, divorce, and unresolved grief. As she said, “memoir is so much the art of selection.”
Since I admire how well plotted and structured her memoir is, keeping us turning the pages to see what happens next and feeding us essential back story seamlessly, I asked Cheryl if she rearranged events or did they occur on the trail as they’re presented in the book. I was curious about this, because it seemed so perfect the way things fell where they did. She said yes and no, that usually things happened where they did, but certainly with the back story she might rearrange when she thought of something and put it in where it fit best. She was essentially telling two stories, one of the hike and one of everything that brought her to that. She’s very skillful in making them both vivid, and seemingly natural in terms of flow, because, as she said, “memoirists are story tellers.” She kept a detailed journal on the hike, and used it for specific details. She did her best to research and verify things she could, including contacting some of the people she encountered on the trail. But the memoir is how she remembers things. It’s her “subjective truth” of the experience. She believes nonfiction writers have an obligation to the truth but it’s obvious when you read Wild that it is distilled and shaped, not just a factual (boring) record of what happened. It’s written by a story teller.
She believes that a memoirist’s job is not just to tell what happened, but to bring meaning to it. It was a good decade after the hike before she understood what it meant. “The book wouldn’t be half the book it is if I had written it a year after the trip.” She had thought of herself as a fiction writer, and as an accidental memoirist, when she began writing essays. She loves writing nonfiction, she said, because of the intensity of the voice. “Nonfiction has the thinnest screen between writer and reader.”
Torch, her novel, is drawn from autobiography, but she created fictional characters. People want to know, she said, what in Torch is nonfiction, and now they want to know what in Wild is fiction! She said she had to write Torch first, and was thinking about that novel on the PCT and all through her twenties and thirties. She said she tends to be an emotional writer, and had to write Torch. She thought Wild was going to be another essay.
She said she never ever let go of the vision that she was a writer. Even from an early age, she took herself seriously as a writer. From the age of six or seven she loved books. She wanted to be a person who made people feel the way she did reading books. She wanted to be always in the company of people who wanted to write and do what she wanted to do. She learned to write by reading so much. She mentioned influential writers as Alice Munro, Mary Gaitskill, Edna O’Brien, Faulkner. (Wild includes a bibliography of the books she read—and then burned, so she wouldn’t have to carry them—on the PCT.) She worked right out of college for Women Against Military Madness, but she knew she couldn’t do that work and be a writer. It was coming at the expense of doing what she really wanted to do. So she became a waitress. She decided she didn’t want to go into a MFA program right away. At thirty she couldn’t believe she hadn’t published a book! She realized she needed concentrated time to write, and researched MFA programs that would support her while she wrote. When she went to Syracuse it was the first time she had had health insurance. Syracuse essentially paid her to develop as a writer in the three years she was there, giving her stipends and classes. After graduate school she went into serious credit card debt, taking financial risks in her life, which she saw as part of the writer’s path. “I should have mentioned Visa and MasterCard in the acknowledgments!” She assumed once you publish a book you’re fine. But no – you still have to keep faith with your vision and see it through. She reminds herself that coal mining is harder than writing.
Her writer friend Steve Almond asked her if she wanted to take over the Dear Sugar column on the Rumpus website, anonymously and for no pay. She said as a starving artist her response to everything offered is “yes,” and she thought it sounded like an interesting thing to do. She wasn’t a therapist and not qualified as such to give advice, but she had found consolation and advice in books, and she could tell stories to help others understand the human condition – little stories from her life and lives of friends. She wrote Dear Sugar for two years, until people began to figure out she was Sugar, and so she “came out” on Valentine’s Day. Her collection of Dear Sugar columns, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, will be released on July 10, 2012.
Cheryl told a funny anecdote about her famous Sugar line, “Write like a Motherfucker.” There are mugs and tee shirts now with that slogan. She and her husband would wear those tees, until her son reached the age of seven, that is, and was able to read the tee shirt. “That says ‘Write like a Motherfucker,’” he informed his parents. Cheryl said to him in surprise, “Oh, so it does! Well, that has to go under a shirt from now on.” http://therumpus.net/sections/dear-sugar/
She told another funny, charming story. At the University of Minnesota, before the first meeting of the fiction workshop she was going to take from me, we happened to be in the women’s restroom at the same time. She recognized me and said she was so star struck that when she heard me pee, she thought to herself, “That is Paulette Bates Alden peeing!”
Last week at Normandale Community College, before her reading we once again found ourselves in the women’s room at the same time. Only this time I knew it was the amazing writer Cheryl Strayed in the next stall, and it was I who was totally star struck!