Cheryl Strayed finds her way in Wild

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February 25, 2013

Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
by Cheryl Strayed
Knopf, 336 pages, $29

By Lorne Daniel

“The experience of being a writer is a lot like a long walk in the wild,” Cheryl Strayed said early in her keynote address to an audience of 600 at the San Miguel Writers Conference in Mexico on February 13. The Oregon-based writer spoke of parallels between her search for new direction in her life and her literary pursuits.

Strayed’s memoir Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, was an Oprah book club selection, spent weeks on top of the New York Times bestsellers list and is soon to be made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.

The book came about only after she hit  “that bottom place in my life.” After her mother died, Strayed lost herself in promiscuous sex and heroin, destroying her marriage. Strayed, who grew up in rural Minnesota, says it was natural to go “looking for home in the wild” on the Pacific Crest Trail.

“I was just flinging myself in the direction of what is good.” In the process, “I got to feel part of the world again,” she says. “On the trail, I experienced all the consequences of my own actions.”

Even so, “experience doesn’t make a book,” she emphasizes. “Consciousness does. I didn’t have a story to tell until I started to write it.” The book was written years after the hike was completed.

“The next journey, after the hike, was becoming a writer,” she says. “I had to really, truly apprentice myself to the masters of the craft. And I did that.” She learned, in part, by “just typing out the work” of writers like Alice Munro, or writing paragraphs that tried to emulate the style of works she admired.

Strayed started writing Wild as an essay “but by page 75 of the draft we had come nowhere close to the [Pacific Crest] trail.” She realized she had to expand it into a book with a broader focus. “Structure is the toughest nut to crack,” she says of decisions about how to build the narrative and integrate events that occurred well before her trail trek.

Working from journals and her memory, Strayed also checked back in with some of the people she had met on the trail to verify her recollections. In many cases, though, Strayed was on her own in both the literal and literary sense.

In her keynote, Strayed read a scene from the book in which she is at the start of the trail but can’t budge, let alone lift and carry, her monstrous backpack. She plays the scene for considerable laughs but acknowledges a writer’s dual purposes of entertainment and engagement. “The deeper meaning of that scene is: how is it that we bear the unbearable?” As a writer, “you start to see yourself in terms of those larger questions.”

“I was wildly ambitious” in pouring herself into the book, Strayed says, but she also “embraced the fact that my book is probably going to fall short” of her literary ambitions. “I had absolutely no idea that one day my cell phone would ring and it would be Oprah Winfrey.” And for writers who might wonder, no, she says, she had no previous network of VIP connections. The book simply found–and continues to find–readers who identify with a lost person searching for her self.

 

Lorne Daniel is a Victoria-based writer of poetry and non-fiction. You can find him at www.lornedaniel.com, on Facebook and Twitter.

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