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“Wild” author Cheryl Strayed at the Nonfiction Now Conference

November 26, 2012

By Debtaffa


On my first day in Melbourne I walked from St. Kilda all the way into the city. The walk took half the day.  I lost my way several times and had to ask strangers for directions. My colleagues were, perhaps, a bit surprised by my desire to head off alone, but getting ‘lost’ was part of my intention for this trip. It isn’t often that a mother of five has the chance to solo travel. Prior to leaving Iowa City, I had been thinking a great deal about female strength. I had been thinking about behavior in relation to life stages: the time for seeking, the time for establishing a household, the later years when a woman comes into her own as an elder.

The elder stage, a period that implies responsibility, is a period I am undoubtedly moving towards now. This reflection is part of the reason I decided to interview female writers at the Nonfiction Now Conference in Melbourne: middle to late age women whose writing reflects the wisdom they have accumulated along their journey in life. A bit of relevant information in terms of my intention for this trip: The University of Iowa requested that my colleagues and I travel to the Nonfiction Now conference as a group. We were booked on the same flight from Cedar Rapids to Melbourne. Rather than be disappointed by this arrangement, I tried to engage and be excited. Once on the ground I could go off alone and make my own discoveries. During the planning phases, I would be helpful; six of my colleagues were interested in staying at the hostel I located during my research.

My colleagues and I broke in half in terms of accommodations, according to age and station in life. The more established students–older, married, desirous of quiet, abundant sleep, and private bathrooms–opted for private hotels, family, or friends as hosts. I was the only older student who decided to stick it out with the younger crowd: five hip and fun-loving twenty-somethings that could (almost) be my own children.

I’ve always thought it important to shy away from the physical comforts that come with an established age. Physical comfort can be dangerous; the body has lessons that can only be absorbed with manual labor. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” is a wonderful example of what the body can do for the mind and the soul. The “blazingly honest”  memoir is the story of a young woman who has lost her mother and her marriage. In her brokenness she embarks on an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike to recover and strengthen herself. I came to the interview with Strayed as a lover of outdoor adventure. I told her I admired her unique intelligence, her natural and intuitive knowing in relation to how to heal herself. Strayed responded, “I always . . . eventually . . . veer towards the light.”

This observation is apparent in Strayed’s memoir. She reveals herself as a woman who is willing to go to dark places to confront her deepest fears. “It doesn’t mean that the fears disappear,” she tells me. “It means that you confront and therefore learn to live with them.” Somehow going to the dark places illuminates her life.

The courage that Strayed displays is evident in the decisions that put her, alone, on a thousand-mile hike. Any young woman who would go to such extremes in an effort to confront her wounded soul, is a comrade of mine. The admiration I bring to the interview is less about her artistic accomplishments than it is about this remarkable act. If I had told Strayed that I related to her story, if I said I left my home to backpack around the world the day after I turned eighteen, she would have laughed. It’s a cliche to imagine I know a famous writer by reading some of her work. In fact, the cliche was a portion of Cheryl’s panel. A topic she spoke on just before I interviewed her.

Yet nonfiction does give the illusion of closeness. What does it mean to be close to someone? Landing in Melbourne with my colleagues forced me to confront how little we know anyone. Who were these people I would be living in close proximity with during my stay at the conference? How did Cheryl manage to bond with so many strangers in the woods, as portrayed in her memoir, and why does anyone submit to such lonely, strange encounters?

It is easy to imagine that my decision to stay at the hostel with my colleagues represents a fear of being alone. It may suggest a desire to be with familiar faces. A hotel is private. A hostel isn’t. It’s a given that a traveler will meet outgoing people at a hostel. The Irish carpenter, the French and Italian kids looking for work in Australia because their economy back home has collapsed; I’ve met more people as a result of my decision to stay at a hostel.

Habits. Stagnancy. The internal landscape we develop as we wander through our familiar lives, staring at the same four walls. The thing I appreciate most in Cheryl Strayed is the recognition that the foreign is necessary to get outside of the self. As Ms. Strayed and I talk, I don’t take notes. I observe and listen. She laughs about her encounters in “Wild.” She tells me she has been traveling so much for her book that she intends to stay in Australia for a much needed vacation with her family. Perhaps it is my life in academia, but narrative work like Strayed’s memoir is sometimes derided among my friends. Half of my colleagues love Strayed’s work, the other half would never read it, such is their knee-jerk reaction to memoir in general. I’ve heard them make the argument that the memoir should be pronounced MEmoir.

Somehow the act of disclosing personal anecdotes, of centering the self as a prominent character in the work, suggests solipsism or ego. Omitting the “I” is admired; it suggests the writer lacks vanity or cares about the world. I have always listened to this argument with incredulity. How can writers not see that everyone in our field is, in essence, vain? The very act of writing, in a world overrun by publications, suggests that “I” have an idea worth listening to. Acting as a lens rather than placing oneself in the viewfinder does not subtract the author from the text. Some authors refuse to reveal themselves, yet expose others with such zeal I find them sacrificial; it’s like watching Abraham strap Isaac to the altar, I can’t help but pray the main character will survive.

Using the “I” isn’t such a great sin when the wisdom the reader receives is hard won, as it is in Strayed’s memoir: in the size of her backpack, in the manual labor involved in her destination. If Cheryl Strayed sacrifices anyone on the altar of truth it is herself. Her blisters, her aching body, the keen eye she uses to dissect her life, her pain, and her foibles, she makes the narrative act look easy.

David Shields is known saying, “Find the form to release your best intelligence.”

The memoir owes a debt to Cheryl Strayed. “Wild” reminds us that there is room for the memoir, that it is a valuable genre. She brings a razor to her life, slices away the coy, and rests in her decisions with responsibility.

Silly but true, walking into Melbourne from St. Kilda is a paltry comparison to hiking the thousand mile trail. I didn’t go on the walk with the interview in mind. I turn this walk towards this intention in retrospect: the walk is is a small effort, an offering, a way to pay respect to Strayed, to her strength and her wisdom. It is a way of finding my own path to wisdom and voice and independence.

Interviewing Strayed after her panel, I found her incredibly accessible. “My mother was an amazing woman,” she told me. “She was so kind, it annoyed me. She had so much…optimism.”

Strayed’s childhood was not affluent. She says her mother always emphasized that they were “rich in love” despite being poor. It was the language, simplistic, reductive, that made an intellectual child react with a cringe. It wasn’t until her mother died that Strayed happened a deeper appreciation and a voice that reflects this appreciation.

“My mother taught me to be kind. When I encounter people who are broken I wonder about their story. How do we essentially, compassionately, discuss the most broken damaged parts of life?”

Suddenly the connection was personal: two women remembering their own broken damaged parts.

“I’m not interested in judgment,” Strayed said. “Judgment isn’t interesting to me at all.

The generosity Strayed shows for her past mistakes, for the confusion she experienced as a young woman, does not imply a lack of responsibility. Rather it represents a hard won understanding about human nature and a desire to happen on the correct road. It is an outgrowth of the girl, an early reader who felt the pain and beauty all around her, with such intensity she knew she would be a writer as a small child.

“I was always emotionally vulnerable,” she said.

It’s this vulnerability that gives Cheryl Strayed eyes to see. It is this vulnerability that reveals Strayed’s strength, a strength that can’t be faked.

Reflecting on her experience in the MFA process, Strayed tells me, “Attending the MFA taught me to defend myself and to articulate my ideas with greater care.”

While the idea of defending oneself reminds me of armor, interviewing Strayed made me think that the greatest displays of strength often appear soft and vulnerable, able to absorb the world’s blows.

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