By Joyce Kahn-
Best-selling author Cheryl Strayed appeared before a packed gymnasium of fans at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) on Aug. 15. Strayed’s book entitled “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” (2007) won her national attention when it topped The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. In her gymnasium appearance she was interviewed by VCFA President Tom Greene. She then answered questions from an enthusiastic audience of writers and readers.
“Wild” recounts Strayed’s 1,100-mile solo hike during the summer of 1995, when she was 26. A writer from an early age, Strayed based the memoir on her journal entries from the hike. She made the trek because her life was falling apart. Grief-stricken after the death of her mother from cancer at age 45, she started using heroin, had a succession of casual sexual encounters, and filed for divorce from her first husband. In the book she recounts details of her life as she copes with the challenges she encounters on the trail.
Greene commenced his interview by asking Strayed how much she thought about honesty when she wrote the book. Strayed replied, “You don’t sit down with all the facts available to you. [In] everything in nonfiction I’ve ever written, the truth is revealed as I write it. … I come to know something new about myself, the world, or the person I’m writing about. …You come to a deeper place, that we go to literature for, that answers the question, Who are we?”
“Wild” is being adapted as a motion picture, with Reese Witherspoon playing the older Strayed, and Strayed’s daughter playing the younger Strayed. Greene asked her what it means for her to have her book made into a film. She replied that it was both funny and bizarre. “I highly recommend having a film made of your life. … You get something back you thought was gone before. Seeing my daughter reenact my life helped with healing.”
One audience member remarked that the part about her mother dying must have been difficult. “I seek that out as a writer,” Strayed responded. “I don’t experience it as hard.”
“In Torch, though fiction, I’m attracted to the underneath, … what’s really true, … what’s happening inside,” she continued, alluding to her 2006 novel. As an example, she referred to how she might ask a husband, “So why do you really love your wife?” in order to get at his underlying feelings.
Strayed peppered her remarks with no shortage of wisdom about the secrets of good writing.
“The most important rule in writing is that you can do anything as long as it’s believable,” she advised. “The core of what I’m trying to tell is, How do we bear the unbearable? How do I continue forward? The world will teach. Let it live in you.”
Another audience member asked about the role of nature in “Wild.” Strayed answered that the Pacific Crest Trail is a character in the book. While wanting to make nature vivid and not boring, her work, she said, “evokes the place I go to for solace. I think it was an important piece of the journey. I’m passing through; it’s not really part of my world. … I grew up in the woods. … It was a return for me, like I was returning to the girl self I had and lost.”
Not having read the book myself, I asked a friend what accounted for the wildly popular acclaim the memoir received—acclaim that surprised even the author herself. It’s a good story, well told, my friend responded, a true story about a brave person doing brave things—an adventure story.
While for many people Strayed’s experiences parallel some of their own, and thus they easily identify with her, I wonder how many more people love this book because it is just the kind of experience they wish they had had in their youth or when they came to a difficult crossroads in their lives–needing solitude, the grounding nature can provide, soul-searching, and healing.