Guest contributor: Richard Gilbert
categories: Cocktail Hour
I’m sure it’s no accident that right after reading Wild I got the insight to feather memories of my father throughout my memoir in progress. In previous drafts I’d used a couple of chapters to depict and explain him. Dumb. Especially since, years ago, before I even started writing my book, a wise old editor I told about my farming adventure and how it came in the wake of my father’s serial farming adventures said, “Don’t write a whole chapter on him. Have him appear now and then. Like you’re walking across your pasture and you think of him.”
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is long and meaty, a traditional yarn; it feels both nakedly sincere and confident in its unguarded honesty, a book with a lot of heart. Just what I’m aiming for myself. I couldn’t see how Strayed pulled everything off when I first read it in May, but I did see that she wove in her backstory instead of stopping the narrative with chunks and slabs of Vital Background.
Wild depicts a grueling 1,100-mile solo hike Strayed took, in 1995, from southern California to Oregon, dodging bears and rattlesnakes and reading great literature in her tent at night, burning the pages in the morning in her campfire. She’d grown up outdoors but had never backpacked, not once, until she loaded her pack and tried to lift it just before setting out. She couldn’t pick it up, couldn’t budge it an inch off the floor, having stuffed the large pack with so much that it probably weighed north of seventy pounds. She had to squirm into it on the floor and lift with her legs. And her boots were too small. That’s the strong foreground story, a young woman bent with a physical weight and carrying intolerable emotional baggage.
Her backstory includes memories of her abusive father, whom her mother divorced when Strayed was six; of being raised by her hippy-ish back-to-the-land horse-loving mother and a crunchy carpenter stepfather in Minnesota; of suffering through her mother’s illness and unexpectedly quick death from lung cancer at age forty-five, when Strayed was a senior in college; of being devastated by grief and by her subsequent affairs, heroin abuse, and divorce; of her picking that great new last name, Strayed; of her impulse when at rock bottom to buy a book on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which she’d never heard of and which was thousands of miles to the west of her home in Minneapolis.
Other than noticing that this riveting life story was woven into the hike, what struck me the first time I read Wild was how Strayed depicted her affairs in comparison with a gritty essay about them she published in The Sun. At first I thought she wasn’t as graphic because she needed to be more likable for a 315-page book—her couplings went beyond rampant promiscuity into self destruction, considering the damaged and predatory men she picked to pummel her in the depth of her toxic sorrow. But I’m sure, after reading Wild a second time, that her more elliptical treatment of her affairs was about a choice she made not to bog down the narrative. In the book, she mentions other affairs but only depicts one, with the man who started her using heroin and who was her and her long-suffering husband’s final straw. After that, Strayed, adulterer and neophyte heroin user, made an extreme and impulsive but life-affirming decision to take a hike to clean herself up.
As a writer she really knows what to delve into and what not. Here’s her entire summation of what happened after she discovered she’d gotten pregnant by the junkie boy—during post breakup sex, alas:
I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink.
That’s it on the abortion, no depiction—because it wasn’t needed (and knowing that as a writer can be so hard; it can take hundreds of pages to see what should have been one line)—though Strayed does recall the abortion on the trail when she realizes on the day that would have been her mother’s fiftieth birthday that she’d have had her baby about then. She knew she had to become a different woman first, she reflects, and not one trapped by children like her mother was. Strayed then spends much of the day painfully raging at her mother for dying. As a writer she’s unafraid to show herself in a bad light, and we get on her side, root for the straying orphan.
Her plucky persona, that good-girl-gone-bad-trying-to-be good, really worked for me. I marveled at how fast I was devouring Wild—I’ve since heard others say they read it compulsively—even though the thought of donning a backpack made my spinus erectus muscles threaten to spasm, as if trying to protect my farming-ruined and thoroughly age-desiccated vertebrae. I might have been able to carry a pack when I was Strayed’s age when she did it, at a peachy twenty-six and turning twenty-seven, but I doubt I would have endured the body chafing and pulped feet and six lost toenails that went with it.
She was one tough chick.
Every book has its inherent impossibility. For Wild it was about me walking alone through the wilderness for 94 days; it could have been really boring. The challenge there was to convey what was happening inside of me. The trail was always there, that was the great constant, but I was always different on the trail.—Cheryl Strayed in an interview
In June I threw out the first act of my memoir—it was too slow to start—which helped me cut forty pages, and I broke up two chapters on my father and threaded him throughout. That project took the entire month. I felt I was seeing my material with a colder eye, and placing it or cutting it for effect, not using it because I loved it or because I hoped it was working.
At the start of July I printed out hard copy of my manuscript and also began rereading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. My morning practice was first to read some of Wild, my morning book, and then to read and edit my memoir printout. Over the years I’ve picked up the notion of reading and rereading three, and only three, books as models while writing. But I don’t strictly follow that regimen, in part because I’ve worked on my memoir for so long that I’d go insane with just three books; however, I do try to operate in that spirit of that concentrated devotion to a few books that I aspire to emulate. As a memoir, Wild truly cooks, that much was clear from my first reading, and in the way I needed my book to cook.
Along with reading aloud, reading hard copy—sometimes with the type enlarged to at least fourteen points—is useful for me. This time, however, I printed out my book with two manuscript pages side-by-side on one sheet of printer paper; this makes the type fairly small, but the copy looks and feels totally different. Not so much like me. And more like a real, bound book. Stuff jumps out.
As I write this, I’m halfway through the memoir again. But the day I read Chapter Five looms in my mind like a bad day on the PCT, like a landslide. I felt a doom-laden insight creep upon me as I read the chapter, so recently reworked on my computer, a leaden despair and a roaring in my ears. Chapter Five was a mess. The through story had collapsed, and the chapter’s various sections seemed like just a bunch of this ‘n that—useless rubble, even though as individual pieces they read fine. I might have felt the earth fall away on my own, but the contrast between my effort and Wild’s narrative probably was what gobsmacked me.
And yet, despite the fact that seeing such a problem was a gift, I melted down for a day or two. Fear and confusion riddled me. Could I dig out of this one? How? I whined to Bill Roorbach about how lucky Strayed was to have the PCT to hang stuff on. Bill, who had recently reviewed Wild right here on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, shot back:
The thing about WILD as an example is that we have to build our own Pacific Coast Trail through our books, and be clear when we’re on or off the trail so the reader can be clear: Ah, we’re back on the trail! Also, as she did, we can skip large chunks of the trail if the snow’s too deep, just so long as we explain what’s going on with the weather.
Yep. Right. True.
And so, as I suffered in my failure, I pondered. And finally my subconscious barfed up one of those gifts of insight you earn by work or by suffering, usually by both in my case. In Wild, everything happens on the trail, one damn thing after another, and that indeed could get tedious. Except, as Bill says, she doesn’t tell everything she goes through but compresses and leaps ahead. More to the point for my chapter: the through-story itself is suffused with Strayed’s commentary and reflection on the experience she’s having. She’s not just plodding along and telling us about it, but rather she’s conveying her inner landscape as much as the outer.
In fact, I felt rereading it, that Wild, this narrative-driven book, is just this side of chatty.
I saw that my chapter felt slack, certainly in comparison with Wild but even in regard to my own chapters that preceded it. It featured a sluggish foreground story and a fuzzy expression of the inner story. Each section and its actions and musings seemed isolated, each one a dead-end. I needed more snap to the action, so the narrative didn’t feel like merely “this happened and then this,” just time passing, and I needed more cohesion in the commentary. Most of the content was okay, but the whole pace of the material and its relevance were off.
So I junked my chapter’s opening section, which I loved but which was static and could only be justified as a coda, maybe, someplace else. I restored a passage I’d cut that had a lot of action and reflection. Into that passage I integrated several of the previous freestanding sections—Wild has relatively few space breaks but I use them a lot, and to a fault in Chapter Five, I saw—so that the reader sees what to focus on as the story of my farming adventure moves through time. Integrating necessary but less major sections into the opening caused an instant ordering of priorities: the action-packed, reflective opening became the dominant story, the integrated bits obviously secondary, sharpening the chapter’s focus.
. . . I spun the backstory. I dole it out. The trail is a chronological report of my hike; what came before the trail is not chronological. I give you a scene from when I was seven and then another the year before [the hike]. I worked that pretty hard.—Cheryl Strayed in a YouTube interview
The second time through Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, I dog-eared the page each time Strayed launched a major, discrete flashback/reflection about an aspect of her life before the trail. There are scattered memory outcrops throughout, of course, but I was interested in how many significant backstory passages there are and how they’re introduced and where they occur.
I marked twelve, of various lengths, counting perhaps debatably a short passage from the scenic Prologue and yet not counting the book’s long expository opening that tells about Strayed’s pre-trail life. So this tally is subjective—yours would be different—but the point is that I was surprised there were not more digressions, because her backstory is such a compelling and memorable aspect of the book. Ten or twelve background passages aren’t so many, not stretched across five acts and over 300 pages, though some of them are quite long.
Strayed transitions into them organically; that is, instead of backstory bits used as stand-alone passages that start a chapter (other than the first) or that come after a line break, they arise from what happens to her on the trail. Typical is how she gets into six-pages in the middle of the book on her mother’s death and the death of her mother’s beloved horse:
I made my way along the trail for twenty minutes until I came to a place where the trees opened up. I took off my pack and got down on my hands and knees with my headlamp to explore a spot that seemed like a reasonable place to sleep. I set up my tent, crawled inside, and zipped myself into my sleeping bag, though now I wasn’t even remotely tired, energized by the eviction [from a proprietary campground] and the late-night hike.
I opened up The Novel, but my headlamp was flickering and dying, so I turned it off and lay in the dark. I smoothed my hands over my arms, hugging myself. I could feel my tattoo beneath my right fingers; could still trace the horse’s outline. The woman who’d inked it had told me that it would stand up on my flesh for a few weeks, but it had remained that way even after a few months, as if the horse were embossed rather than inked into my skin. It wasn’t just a horse, that tattoo. It was Lady—the horse my mother had asked the doctor at the Mayo Clinic if she could ride when he’d told her she was going to die. . . .
This digression is interesting—we’ve not heard about that tattoo before—and compelling because we do know about her mother’s love of horses and her sudden illness, including a scene early on of her asking the doctor if she could ride—he said that after her chemo her spine would collapse like a cracker—we remember that very well, so this passage rewards us for what we already know even as it deepens the story.
Though Strayed’s backstory sections are presented as a naturally arising occurrence, memories provoked by current action, they appear rhythmically throughout Wild at fairly evenly spaced intervals. How much artifice an author uses in mixing in such material—did she really remember that there and then?—doesn’t matter to me, if I trust her. Humans are so riddled with memories that coexist with or dominate our “actual” living moments that what’s truly not believable, a real violation of verisimilitude, are chapter-long chunks of freestanding backstory. (I previously noted http://richardgilbert.me/2012/04/05/cheryl-strayed-on-honesty-in-memoir/ Strayed’s view of honesty in memoir.)
So now I’m less self-conscious about how I transition into my own memories of my father. At any rate, I look for places where his experiences are relevant to what’s going on with me in the foreground in the book. For instance, after a summer of almost biblical disasters on my farm—including heat, drought, storm, flood, and locusts (well, seventeen-year cicadas that everyone calls locusts)—I recall how Dad’s perseverance in the face of his farming setbacks inspired me to go on. Which it did, always, and probably at that very time.
I feel silly for seeing clearly so many of the lessons within Wild so late, for being such a slow learner. But writing isn’t a hike up one mountain, it’s a journey through a series of ranges. There’s always more undiscovered country to see ahead of you as you stand there, atop one peak on the never-ending trail, looking out and catching your breath.
1. Write a lot.
2. Don’t be in a hurry to publish.
3. Find the work that moves you the most deeply and read it over and over again. I’ve had many great teachers, but the most valuable lessons I learned were from writers on the page.
4. Be brave. Write what’s true for you. Write what you think. What about what confuses you and compels you. Write about the crazy, hard, and beautiful. Write what scares you. Write what makes you laugh and write what makes you weep. Writing is risk and revelation. There’s no need to show up at the party if you’re only going to stand around with your hands in your pockets and stare at the drapes.
[Richard Gilbert is writing a memoir about his experiences running a sheep farm in Appalachian Ohio. He teaches essay writing and journalism at Otterbein University. His blog NARRATIVE http://richardgilbert.me/ explores issues in creative nonfiction.]