Aspen Winter Words: Cheryl Strayed’s long journey to ‘Wild’
April 11, 2013
ASPEN – One summer, Cheryl Strayed spent three months on and around the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking the 1,100 miles from the Mojave Desert to the southern border of Washington State. Twenty-two years old at the time, traveling alone, Strayed was an inexperienced and in some ways a frighteningly unprepared one. Her pack was way too heavy, her navigation skills were minimal, and her boots, probably the most crucial piece of equipment, were too small. At times, those 94 days could seem like an eternity.
In fact, those months were a blip compared to how long it took Strayed to get the story of her journey on paper. The hike took place in 1995; not until early last year was “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” published.
Patience, 15 or so years of it, has paid off. “Wild” reached number one on The New York Times best-seller list; it was the first book selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Oprah’s Book Club 2.0; and Strayed’s story looks destined to become a movie – Reese Witherspoon has optioned the film rights, and Witherspoon herself is reportedly planning to portray Strayed.
Strayed believes the lapse of time was a critical element in the success of the book. She spent the years following the hike living a life: getting married (she met her husband, Brian Lindstrom, nine days after leaving off the trail), having two kids, establishing herself as a writer. And most significant, at least regarding the creation of “Wild,” Strayed gained perspective on herself, her past, and what happened to her on the Pacific Crest Trail.
“My consciousness,” Strayed said about what had changed most about her in the time between hiking the trail and writing about it. “Memoir is not about what happened. It’s about the consciousness about what happened. What you bring to bear.”
Strayed, whose published credits also include a novel and a collection from her online advice column, Dear Sugar, says she doesn’t write for “cathartic or therapeutic reasons.” That might not have been the case if she has started writing “Wild” as a 23-year-old, fresh off her adventure. The hike was a cathartic experience, a way for Strayed to put a marker between a past that included a rough childhood, hard drug use, sexual looseness and, most painfully, the death of her mother, and her future. “Wild” tells of Strayed’s father, who left the family when Strayed was young, and of her stepfather, who distanced himself from Strayed and her siblings soon after her mother’s death. Instead of treating them with anger, Strayed wrote about them from a place of understanding.
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“My biological father – he battered my mom, was a tyrant. It pained me to say these things. But I wrote about that with restraint and reserve. If I’d written it at a younger age, that wouldn’t have been the case,” she said from Los Angeles, where she was beginning a book tour for the paperback edition of “Wild,” and was appearing at an event with George Saunders, her mentor from the masters in writing program at Syracuse University, and Mary Carr, author of the memoir “The Liar’s Club.” “Same with my stepfather. I’ve gone beyond the hurt and accepted what he had to do.
“Writing out of anger and rage can be constructive in the moment. But it doesn’t lead to great writing.”
Underlying the latitude she gave her father and stepfather was the forgiveness she granted to her younger self.
“I began writing ‘Wild’ at 39, mother of two kids, long married to my second husband – this very stable place in my life,” she said. “I’m looking back at my younger self, who was not so steady. One thing people have noted about ‘Wild,’ which is really accurate, is, I’m not hard on myself and don’t go too easy on myself. I don’t think I was a terrible person then. But there were times that I thought I was. That’s what’s there, that sensibility, that sense of forgiveness.”
Nineteen ninety-five was not only a long time ago for Strayed, it was a different cultural age. In this tell-all, capture-it-all era, if a writer and inexperienced hiker sets off alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, the presumption is that there’s a project in mind. It’s Morgan Spurlock destroying his body on fast food, in front of the camera, in “Super Size Me,” a bunch of 20-something acting like drunken fools for a reality TV show.
Strayed, though, hit the trail with no book in mind. Though she longed to be a writer, even back then, writing about the Pacific Crest Trail didn’t really occur to her.
First there was the matter of learning to write. Strayed, who had graduated from the University of Minnesota with a double major in English and women’s studies, went on to the masters program at Syracuse. “I had to apprentice myself to the writer’s craft,” she said.
Upon completing her masters, Strayed found that the closest thing to her writer’s soul was a book that addressed her earlier life. She began work on a novel; “Torch,” published in 2006, told of a troubled family in Minnesota dealing with an ailing mother, circumstances which parallel Strayed’s life.
“A lot of writers have that same experience – they have a certain book in their bones, their first book,” she said. “‘Torch’ was that book for me. I had to write it.”
Getting that first book out of the way didn’t exactly clear a path to write about her adventure in the Western woods. Strayed had written “Torch” while mothering two young children. “How on earth am I going to finish another book? It seemed like an epic thing,” she said of that period.
So Strayed turned to what seemed an easier project, an essay collection. Many of the pieces had already been written; two of them, “The Love of My Life” and “Heroin,” were selected for the Best American Essays anthology.
“I realized they hung together as a collection – the story of me in my 20s and 30s,” she said of her essays. “The missing piece was, I’d never written about my hike of the PCT.”
Gradually, Strayed began to see what a significant omission that was. “My husband would say for years, I should write about the hike, and I’d say, ‘I don’t have anything to say about it,'” she said. “We can’t always see our own lives so clearly.”
When Strayed began writing, she realized an essay wasn’t going to contain what she had to say. “I had so much to tell. I saw it was a book,” she said.
Another obstacle was her contact, as a teacher, with aspiring memoir writers. “We all have an exotic adventure – ‘I lived in Greece for the summer’ – and that does not make a book,” she said. “I needed it to come from a place, a deeper place of literature, where it could illuminate the human experience and my experience.”
“Wild” is that kind of book, connecting Strayed’s past to why she is on the trail. It is also expertly crafted, balanced between what she sees on the PCT and what is happening to her being. And it portrays a character Strayed understands thoroughly, a character she know on the inside and who she can also see clearly from a distance.
“The point wasn’t that I took this big adventure,” Strayed said. “The point was I undertook this thing at a time in my life when I needed to get myself back on course. The time, those years, that perspective before I wrote was a vital ingredient in the story. It was a deep telling of my life, what brought me there, to that trail.”
Strayed has not only a perspective on the hike, but also on being the writer who told the tale.
“I always knew I was doing a great thing for myself. Even when I was grumpy, asking what I was doing on the trail, there was a little voice that told me I was on the right path,” she said. “I only have a deeper sense of it now. I’m glad I seized this moment in my life when I could do it.”
And so on to other things. Strayed has started a new book, a novel.
“I’ve spent so much time the last few years writing on myself,” she said. “I’m over myself.”