CULTURE MATTERS: Strayed, found: ‘Wild’ author explores fear, beauty, growth
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – In 1995, grieving the death of her mother, her marriage collapsing, Cheryl Strayed decided on a whim, without training or backpacking experience, to hike the 2,663-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail.
She chronicled her journey and personal transformation that began with a backpack so heavy she couldn’t put it on and stand up in the best-selling book “Wild,” currently being made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.
Strayed, who also authored “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar,” and “Torch,” will speak in Jackson this week as part of the Teton County Library Foundation’s Page to Podium series. Though all the free tickets for Thursday’s Page to the Podium presentation are taken, there is a wait-list at the library and tickets for Friday’s author chat are still available for $60 and includes a brown-bag lunch from Persephone Café with ticket sales benefitting the library.
JH Weekly caught up with Strayed ahead of her Jackson visit. Here she shares what she’s reading, an idea for a future book and why she believes libraries are important:
Planet JH: What are you reading?
Cheryl Strayed: I’m actually reading a book that was just published called “Goodbye to All That.”
PJH: What is on your list to read next or what can’t you wait to read?
CS: There are some books I’m eager to dive into. There’s a writer in Portland, Justin Hocking, he has a memoir coming out, “The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld,” published by Greywolf Press. The book is about Justin’s love for surfing. It’s coming out in the spring.
PJH: And what are you writing?
CS: I have been so busy being the ambassador for “Wild” and I also just edited the “Best American Essays.” I have been reading that again too. My reading life has been very task-oriented lately and my writing life has been very task-oriented. I wrote the introduction to the “Best American Essays.” Mostly I am writing in my head and hoping to get to it. I do have an idea for a novel and I think I’ll do a novel next.
PJH: Is there anything you are willing to share about this idea for a novel?
CS: I might start writing and who knows, it might not work at all. I do think this next book will be set in Portland. One of the main characters will make their living as an astrologer, which is not at all how I make my living. It’s kind of nice to write a character different from myself.
PJH: Speaking of yourself as a character, you were so honest about yourself in “Wild.” Was that hard? What has been the reaction?
CS: I don’t even separate out writing from honesty. Writing is about honesty. It is about going beneath the surface and going to the bone, to the truest layer of truth. That’s true whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction. You always have to reveal the true humanity of your character. When that character is yourself, it’s painful and scary. There were some things where I had to brace myself and take a deep breath and be brave to write it. If I didn’t do that, I shouldn’t be writing. It wouldn’t pass muster with me. I’d be like, “OK, I’m sort of hiding,” and writing isn’t about hiding, it’s about revealing. I’ve just always been aware of that. It comes with the territory. It’s a job requirement. I think what we always fear is the judgment and condemnation of others and I definitely fear that too, like everyone else. But it’s worth it. People who love “Wild” say, “You were honest and I relate to that.” That’s probably also the reason people who hate “Wild,” hate it.
PJH: Did you always know you had books and stories in you? Did you always know you would be a writer?
CS: I didn’t even know I could be a writer. I didn’t grow up in a household with a lot of books. I didn’t know someone like me could be a writer. I knew I always loved, loved writing and stories. I wanted to be part of that and I wanted to create that kind of beauty in the world that language can create and stories can convey. I always knew that, from the time I was about six. From the time I could read, I would just be blown away by the things I was reading, whether it was poetry or stories.
PJH: You’re in a much different place in your life now than when you hiked the PCT. Would you ever consider doing the PCT or something similar in the future?
CS: I would love to. It was one of the best things I’ve done. I love hiking. I might very seriously consider taking a llama this time. I think it would be a lot easier if someone else were carrying your stuff, so I think I’d consider weight distribution options. I’d at least bring my husband if not a llama.
PJH: This is not a book with long descriptions of beautiful vistas and mountain terrain, but it seems the PCT itself was an important character in your story. Is that the way you see it?
CS: The trail and the terrain are certainly a character in the book and played a huge role. I always described the landscape around me, but I didn’t want to do these long descriptive writings you often find in nature writing that I find incredibly boring. I tried to be more concise about that to keep the story moving. Even when it was so hard, that was the thing that was incredible. It was so beautiful you couldn’t be grumpy for long because you’d think “I’m so lucky to be here and in this experience.” It is that sort of stunning beauty, and you are silenced in the face of it.
PJH: You chose an extremely physical way of finding yourself and clarity. Why do you think you needed something physically challenging to heal your spirit?
CS: First of all, I didn’t realize how physically challenging it was going to be. I had hiked a lot but I hadn’t been backpacking. I sort of underestimated the impact of carrying a backpack. Second of all, I did know I needed a physical experience. I knew when I was in nature, and challenging myself physically, it cleared my mind and I felt better. That’s why people say, “I’m turning 40 and damn it, I’m going to run a marathon.” Physical exertion does bring us clarity and a sense of accomplishment. There’s no replacing that feeling of climbing to the top of that mountain or finishing that hike and saying, “Wow, I did that.” And no one can take that away from you.
PJH: What did you learn from the hike?
CS: So much of what I learned was in that sense of achievement. I got a sense of my own strength again. I was feeling very weak and ashamed, and I had made mistakes. I was kind of caught up in my grief. I was at a point in my life where I felt such despair and sorrow. Then there also was the wonderful lesson about having to surrender on the trail to what’s true. My feet hurt, but I still had to keep walking. I think that’s a really great metaphor for what I had to do in other aspects in my life, too. Emotionally I had to say, “Some of these things that have happened are not what I wish to have happened, but they happened.” To surrender to that and keep moving forward is a wonderful lesson.
PJH: What did you learn from writing about it?
CS: It’s really like being in therapy. You are digging up an experience. You try not only to be accurate in what happened, but to come to a deeper understanding of the experience. I understand my hike way better now than if I hadn’t written about it. You really have to think about it. That’s the difference between art and life. “Wild” isn’t just a report of an experience of a hike I took; it’s an examination of something deeper.
PJH: There were times you were afraid, but you kept going. What is your advice for people in facing their fears?
CS: Fear is not an indication that you shouldn’t do something. A lot of times you feel afraid of things, but it just means that you should get used to moving in fear or taking risks outside the comfort zone. Almost all the best things in life happen outside the comfort zone. Think of fear as not your enemy, but your friend.