Cheryl Strayed on honesty in memoir

I was an avid journaler all through my twenties and I wrote in my journal every day of my hike, sometimes twice a day. That journal was incredibly helpful to me as I wrote “Wild.” I recorded many details and snippets of dialogue that would otherwise have been lost. Having that document allowed me to correct, corroborate, or expand things I remembered. In some cases, I tracked down people I met on the trail and asked them to share their memories of the time we spent together, but most of all I relied on my memory of what happened and how it felt. Memoir is the art of subjective truth, and while I feel a strong obligation to the truth piece of that, I also firmly plant that truth within the context of my own subjectivity. I didn’t write anything that didn’t happen the way I remember it happening, and yet I’m fairly certain there are things that others would remember slightly differently. Of course there are a million instances that I brought to life by using the skills of a storyteller, as memoirists do — did the wind really blow that man’s hair across his face the moment he asked me that question? Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s how I pictured it in my mind and so I reproduced it for you on the page.

Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, made her comments in an interview with John Williams for The New York Times. Miwa Messer also has an interesting interview for Barnes and Noble with the author of this very hot memoir.

Asked by Messer why it took her so long to write Wild, Strayed, a novelist and short story writer whose excellent essay “The Love of My Life” on her self-destructive sexuality and heroin addiction is available on line at The Sun, alluded to the memoirist’s necessity to not merely relate experience but to understand it:

I teach memoir on occasion and the question I’m always pushing my students to answer in their work is not what happened, but what it means. I think that’s why it took me more than a decade to begin writing about my hike. I had to figure out what it meant. I couldn’t do that until I’d lived a while beyond it; until I’d moved solidly out of the era of my life that I write about in Wild. At its core Wild is a story about a woman figuring out how she’s going to live in the world given the facts of her life — some which are painful. I couldn’t tell the story about how that woman figured it out until she really had.

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12 Comments

Filed under Author Interview, honesty, immersion, memoir

12 responses to “Cheryl Strayed on honesty in memoir

  1. Reading this now…very much enjoying her voice. Ms. Strayed was good about her forward as well, letting the reader know what had been changed, her recollections, etc.. As the debate goes on regarding truth in non-fiction, she is refreshing.
    An informative post; thanks for the heads up on The Sun…shall search for it ~ a

  2. Another great piece on a very hot memoir. Several people have emailed me or written about one or another of the reviews and interviews this book/author is accumulating. (Two raves and an interview in the NYTimes). A very succinct definition of what is memoir “truth” and why the facts alone are not enough. Here is the interview on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show for those interested:http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2012-03-28/cheryl-strayed-wild-lost-found-pacific-crest-trail

    • Thanks, Shirley. That is a great interview! All should listen. I used to listen all the time to Diane Rehm until we moved and my media habits changed–she is super, and very real in person, as I met her once. She is just like she is on the show.

  3. Richard Moore

    Thanks for spotting these statements by Ms Strayed. She has articulated the distinction between truth and Truth in the most elegant and sensible way I have encountered to date. Have the Truth Police offered a rejoinder? Love to read it, sort of.

    Frankly, I’m getting jaded with this never-ending debate, which is often more about finger pointing than an exchange of views.

    • Richard, I agree she gives a perfect definition of the memoirist’s task. Those who don’t understand usually leap on when there’s a scandal, in my experience, so I doubt anyone is looking to attack her for her honesty here. I hope not. I was just on the Poynter Center site reading a post against Mike Daisy, and the writer took off on memoir as well. Probably hard-core journalists are always going to try to hold everyone to what they see as the line between nonfiction and fiction.

  4. paulettealden

    I’m reading WILD now and really loving it. I take what she means about the storyteller’s skill (and license) is that she can “create” vivid details, such as describing hair blowing across the man’s face, to bring the scene to life, but she’s not going to create things that COUNT that didn’t happen–so we can trust her entirely on the truth of what matters, her own experience and memory of it. Readers I think understand that memoirists are WRITING — selecting and shaping material — and that writing involves the imagination as well as memory. But in some cases the imagination runs wild (no pun intended) and it crosses over into fiction. She seemed determined not to cross that line, but within the restrictions of memoir’s pact with the truth, she’s going to serve the reader by making it a damn good (vivid) read. Readers don’t mind about blowing hair, but they would mind her telling us something happened that didn’t.

  5. Thanks for introducing me to “Wild Cheryl Strayed.” (That’s the way I, and I’m sure lots of others, read the cover of her book at first.) The Sun article was very good, very tough. I kept wondering whether her first husband’s name really is Mark and if he has read the piece, and whether if he did, did he fall on his face again, and how he talks about it with his friends or his wife.

  6. The long, drawn-out conversation on truth in memoir can stop right here. What Cheryl as articulated is exactly what memoir is about. She says: “I didn’t write anything that didn’t happen the way I remember it happening…” The key words here are “the way I remember it happening.” Memoir is stitched together from the cloth of the writer’s remembrances. You don’t make shit up. But you do have to cut and sew and piece things together so that the greater story — the bigger truth of what the writer is trying to tell — emerges. That doesn’t mean borrowing a scrap here and there from some other life, but it might mean — as Paulette pointed out — using your imagination to create vivid detail, to help the reader see what you see, hear what you hear. I also happen to believe that memory, like dreams, often speaks in the language of metaphor. Someone who has wind in their hair is a person who is skin-to-skin up against the forces of nature and wears that wind on them. Cheryl sees a man with wind-blown hair in her memory. Whether it was that particular guy or not does not bother me. Painting him that way does is help me to get behind her eyes and see life he way she did on the trail. As long as the writer is faithful to their memory, they is doing her job. Memoir is not a reporting of the “facts” of a life (if there is such a thing). It is, however, an attempt to get at the truth.

  7. Aaron

    It’s not an attempt to get at the truth. Truth implies some kind of objective consistency. As she said above, she tells her students they have to figure out what it means. (I.e., what it means to them, personally.) That is an entirely subjective concept.

    • Aaron

      And that’s one of the problems I have with memoirs, at least those that stray from a straight-forward telling of events and try to “make sense” of what happened. They too often become a rationalization after the fact, a story colored by the authors own ego and psychological needs. I think you can get a more accurate exploration of a situation by writing fiction about it. In that case, you are more detached so your own ego has less of an effect on its interpretation.