Wild woman writer

Cheryl Strayed to speak at Stanford

How do you know you've arrived as a writer?

When Nick Hornby decides to adapt your memoir for the big screen -- and Reese Witherspoon stars as you.

That's the enviable position author Cheryl Strayed finds herself in. An essayist, memoirist, novelist and advice columnist, Strayed had already won a wide following for her powerful storytelling and intimate, confessional tone. In 2012, she had a a New York Times bestseller with "Wild," a memoir that chronicled her quest to hike over 1,500 miles of the John Muir Trail solo and banish her demons along the way. Now that "Wild" has hit the theaters in Hornby's screenplay directed by Jean-Marc Vallée ("Dallas Buyers Club"), Strayed is even more of a hot commodity.

On Tuesday, Jan. 13, at 7:30 p.m., Strayed will give a free talk at Stanford University. Early arrival is encouraged; priority seating will be offered to Stanford students (with valid ID) from 7 to 7:15 p.m., at which point doors open to the general public.

The Portland-based writer comes to the Midpeninsula as a guest of the Stanford Storytelling Project, a program that runs a podcast and sponsors workshops, grants and public events that promote the art and craft of telling stories.

Those who've already caught "Wild" in the theaters have actually seen Strayed before, though they may not realize it; she gets a cameo as the woman in the pickup who drops Witherspoon at the shabby motel where her journey begins.

Though Strayed is now best-known for her memoir she's also the author of a 2006 novel, "Torch," as well as "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love." The latter is a collection of advice columns written anonymously for the column "Dear Sugar" on the literary website, The Rumpus. In "Tiny Beautiful Things," published in 2012, Strayed shows herself to be a writer of searing honesty and courage, compassion and wit.

In advance of her Stanford appearance, Strayed spoke to the Weekly about creating credible characters, the difference between fiction and non-fiction, and what it's like to see her life writ large on celluloid.

You've talked before about the importance of credibility in a character -- whether that character is you or someone else. How does a writer or storyteller create a credible character?

You know, when we talk about creating a persona on the page, I think the minute people hear that word they think there's something false or artificial going on, but really, we create personae all the time. The way you act at work is different from the way you act when you're grumpy at home. One time my kids were being naughty, and I said, "Why are you being like this? You never act like this in front of other people!" My daughter shot right back, "Well if there were other people here, you'd be talking a lot nicer to us, too." What she was recognizing was the per formative aspect of the public face. So when you're writing, you do that to some extent: You show your public face, and at the same time you sometimes do the opposite: You sometimes offer deep revelations. There are things I've written about myself, very candid, raw, intimate details that might not pop up in casual conversation. So that character on the page: That is both the truest version of me and also a persona.

How can the writer of memoir avoid the charge of narcissism? Or in other words, how do you take the personal and make it universal?

I think that those charges of narcissism come from a misunderstanding of what memoir is. I teach as well, and one of the things I talk to students about is just because it happened to you and it was fun or dramatic or terrible or bizarre; that doesn't necessarily make it worthy of literature. There's basically no difference between what memoir and fiction aim to do. A novel aims to tell us about ourselves and what it means to be human. Memoir tries to do the same thing: The self is the main character, but you still have to essentially make the self universal in some way. "Wild" isn't interesting because I took a big hike. Many, many people have hiked much further and better than me. And the same with my suffering from my mother's death: Many have suffered far more greatly than me. And so my job as a writer is to say, "I'm going to use this life -- my suffering, my journey -- to tell a story that resonates with others. And how I know that that mostly worked for readers is that when they talk to me about the book, they actually talk more about themselves, and their own stories.

How much does the distinction between fiction and nonfiction matter to you?

We think when it comes to nonfiction writing that we know the plot because it's what happened to us, but so much about writing memoir is about choosing what to include and what to leave out. I think one of the most important, powerful scenes of "Wild" is when we kill my mother's horse. It's horrible, awful, brutal scene and I'm so sorry for my readers -- I really am; it's the kind of scene I'd skip over as a reader because I just couldn't bear it -- but I had to write it. And at the beginning of the writing process, I didn't know it would be in the book. I sold "Wild" based on the first 130 pages plus a synopsis, but my mother's horse was nowhere in there. It wasn't until I was deep into the act of narration that it became clear to me that that was part of the story I had to tell. So even in nonfiction, sometimes, the plot reveals itself to you.

It seems like in your life and in your writing you have an instinct for leaning into pain, rather than away from it. Is that fair, and if so, what does that get you?

Yes, I think that's right, but I hope too that I lean into the joy. Happiness is so much harder to write than sorrow. What do you say, "Oh my god, everything is so f---ing fabulous?" Nobody wants to hear that. The point is not to tell the pain more than the joy, but the point is to tell the truth. I cried as I wrote some scenes in "Wild," for sure. I was wailing as I wrote about the horse. You go back and you have to relive it. Yet one of the scenes that was hardest to write was the last chapter, when I was coming to the end of the hike. How do you write about ecstasy, joy, gratitude? It was a joyous day, I was so excited, I was so happy, and that's hard to write too. So I'm always trying to lean into the real experience: to access real emotion and use language to help the reader get a palpable feeling of what the story is, even if it's deeply painful.

In so much of life we try to stay to the other side of that. So many readers who have written to me have said over and over, "You have written what I feel, and what I felt I wasn't allowed to say."

What has it been like to see your life translated by Hollywood?

It's cool. It's really amazing to see other artists interpret my story. And I will say that it's been a positive experience, but only because I like the movie. If I didn't like the movie, it would be a painful experience. It would be embarrassing. I'd be apologizing to my fans. I was very involved in the making of the movie. I'm part of the team as an associate producer, and they sought my counsel about any number of things. When I first saw the film, I was relieved. So I feel proud of it.

The part of the it that makes me wince a little bit are the parts where it's like, "Well, it wasn't quite that way. Some people have written about how Reese as Cheryl at the beginning of the movie is harsher and more angry, and she softens over time. That wasn't quite my trajectory, but you need to show change in a different way in a film that you do in a book. Honestly, the only part of the movie that really makes me wince is the sex scenes, where I'm like, no, that's not how my promiscuity looked. It wasn't like picking up guys in restaurants and going into the alley with them. But (director Jean-Marc Vallée) was trying to create a shorthand for something so he didn't have to belabor it.

But really, I love the film. I've told everyone involved how much gratitude I have for them and their beautiful work. I feel a bond with them forever that they took my book and honored it.

What: Cheryl Strayed, author of "Wild"

Where: Cemex Auditorium, 655 Knight Way, Stanford

When: Tuesday, Jan. 13, 7:30-9 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to storytelling.stanford.edu

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Like this comment
Posted by Melissa Anderson
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 13, 2015 at 12:58 pm

Correction: While much of the John Muir Trail runs in conjunction with the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed hiked the longer PCT. PCT runs from Mexico to Canada while the John Muir Trail is only 211 miles long.

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