Studying ‘Wild’ for its structure

Reading my memoir printed out like this, two pages on a sheet, helps me see it in a new way.

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir is narrative-driven but reflective.

 Every book has its inherent impossibility. For Wild it was about me walking alone through the wilderness for 94 days; it could have been really boring. The challenge there was to convey what was happening inside of me. The trail was always there, that was the great constant, but I was always different on the trail.—Cheryl Strayed in an interview

I threw out the first act of my memoir in June—it was too slow to start—which helped me cut forty pages, and I broke up two chapters on my father and threaded him throughout. That project took the entire month. I felt I was seeing my material with a colder eye, and placing it or cutting it for effect, not using it because I loved it or because I hoped it was working.

At the start of July I printed out hard copy of my manuscript and also began rereading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. My practice was first to read some of Wild, my morning book, and then to read and edit my memoir printout. Over the years I’ve picked up the notion of reading and rereading three, and only three, books as models while writing. But I don’t strictly follow that regimen, in part because I’ve worked on my memoir for so long that I’d go insane with just three books; however, I do try to operate in that spirit, one of concentrated devotion to a few books that I aspire to emulate. As a memoir, Wild truly cooks, that much was clear from my first reading, and in the way I needed my book to cook.

Along with reading aloud, reading hard copy—sometimes with the type enlarged to at least fourteen points—is useful for me. But this time I printed out my book with two manuscript pages side-by-side on one sheet of printer paper; this makes the type fairly small, but the copy looks and feels totally different. Not so much like me. And more like a real, bound book. Stuff jumps out.

As I write this, I’m halfway through the memoir again. But the day I read Chapter Five looms in my mind like a bad day on the Pacific Crest Trail. Like a landslide. I felt doom creep upon me as I read the chapter so recently reworked on my computer . . . a leaden despair and a roaring in my ears. Chapter Five was a mess. The through story had collapsed, and the chapter’s various sections seemed like just a bunch of this ‘n that—useless rubble, even though as individual pieces they read fine. I might have felt the earth fall away on my own, but the contrast between my effort and Wild’s narrative probably was what gobsmacked me.

And yet, despite the fact that seeing such a problem was a gift, I melted down for a day or two. Fear and confusion riddled me. Could I dig out of this one? How? I whined to Bill Roorbach about how lucky Strayed was to have the PCT to hang stuff on. Bill, who had recently reviewed Wild on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, shot back:

 The thing about WILD as an example is that we have to build our own Pacific Coast Trail through our books, and be clear when we’re on or off the trail so the reader can be clear: Ah, we’re back on the trail!  Also, as she did, we can skip large chunks of the trail if the snow’s too deep, just so long as we explain what’s going on with the weather.

Yep. Right. True.

And so, as I suffered in my failure, I pondered. And finally my subconscious barfed up one of those gifts of insight you earn by work or by suffering, usually by both in my case. In Wild, everything happens on the trail, one damn thing after another, and that indeed could get tedious. Except, as Bill says, she doesn’t tell everything she goes through but compresses and leaps ahead. More to the point for my chapter: the through-story itself is suffused with Stayed’s commentary and reflection on the experience she’s having. She’s not just plodding along and telling us about it, but rather she’s conveying her inner landscape as much as the outer.

In fact, I felt rereading it, that Wild, this narrative-driven book, is just this side of chatty.

I saw why my chapter felt slack, certainly in comparison with Wild but even in regard to my own chapters that preceded it. It featured a sluggish foreground story and a fuzzy expression of the inner story. Each section and its actions and musings seemed isolated, each one a dead-end. I needed more snap to the action, so the narrative didn’t feel like merely “this happened and then this,” just time passing, and I needed more cohesion in the commentary. Most of the content was okay, but the whole pace of the material and its relevance were off.

So I junked my chapter’s opening section, which I loved but which was static. I restored a passage I’d cut that had a lot of action and reflection. Into that passage I integrated several of the previously freestanding sections—Wild has relatively few line breaks but I use them a lot, and to a fault in Chapter Five, I saw—so that the reader sees what to focus on as the story of my farming adventure moves through time. Integrating necessary but less major sections into the opening caused an instant ordering of priorities: the action-packed, reflective opening became the dominant story, the integrated bits obviously secondary, sharpening the chapter’s focus.

I love line breaks (aka space breaks or narrative breaks, white space) but had too many in Chapter Five only because each section was too much an island, cut off by white space. Strayed doesn’t use them much but she uses them well; I was excited by how she used a break within one of her backstory flashback passages. It underscored how line breaks emphasize but also can help meld a narrative, letting it breathe but holding it together and integrating it as a dramatic unit; its use recognized that her readers were into that passage, not as mere filler background but as drama in its own right. That line break showed how cohesive her entire chapter is.

When I began to fold some of my formerly freestanding passages into my new opening section, I added a line break or two within the section; the breaks no longer signaled New Topic Transition but Dramatic Emphasis within an ongoing story.

Next: Wild’s structural deployment of backstory.


Filed under memoir, REVIEW, revision, structure, working method

16 responses to “Studying ‘Wild’ for its structure

  1. I love how explicit and thoughtful you are in detailing your writing process, Richard. It makes me feel a bit less alone. And inspires me to constantly dig deeper into my own writing, to be less content with simply patching things together.

    When I read Wild, I was struck by her use of line breaks as well. Or, more accurately, how sparely and purposefully Strayed applies them. My own book-in-progress is full of what you’d call “islands”. I think it’s time to go back and reexamine them. Sometimes I get stuck on how slow this process is, and I focus on forward momentum. But it’s important to remember the power of backward expansion as a way of developing the story as well. Thanks for the reminder. Looking forward to the next Wild post!

    • Thank you, Mandy. Your comment makes me think more. Maybe islands don’t work as well in my book because of its event-driven narrative nature. I do think they can work, and well. . . . It is a slow process for me too! Baby steps . . .

      • I think of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which is almost exclusively islands (one paragraph to five page chapters). The narrative emerges from a collection of vignettes, but the book (unsurprisingly) reads as more lyrical than narrative, almost like a series of prose poems that add up to a greater whole. In this style, one must rely pretty heavily on juxtaposition.

        What I think I really love about Strayed or Annie Dillard or EB White are these searching, essayistic passages which grasp at what Joyce, in his definition of epiphany, called “the whatness” of the thing. I think that’s ultimately, why I prefer to write nonfiction. But for Flynn the whatness–the expository reflection–is more often implied than stated. It may be an equally challenging feat to write that way. And maybe less accessible to readers. And I can’t decide if things like accessibility truly matter. Obviously it didn’t to Joyce. But it seems to to Strayed.

      • Yes! Flynn is a great example of islands. Another book I love is Dillard’s For the Time Being that’s all islands. I agree, Mandy, that Strayed strives for accessibility, and I respect that. It takes a genius of geniuses to get away with anything else! She is sincere, I guess I’d say, too, and I tend to be as well, to a fault. It takes courage to not give a damn, I know, but also to be sincere and vulnerable. These two temperaments may produce different types of books, though in person I imagine Strayed as a pretty confident go-her-own-way person, based on Wild and her essays I’ve read, so the link between temperament/personality and its expression in writing remains foggy for me . . .

  2. This is a great article about reading like a writer. Every memoir has clues, and since every human is a potential memoir writer, think of the billions of us who are out scouring the bookshelves trying to find clues to the stories of our own lives!

    I didn’t read Wild, but your article reminds me of the motorcycle travel book called “Zen and Now” by Mark Richardson. During his trip retracing Pirsig’s famous ride, Richardson had lots of time to muse about his past.

    Similarly, Bill Strickland’s memoir “Ten Points” is about how he used a summer of bicycle racing to overcome demons of his childhood.

    In these examples, like Wild, it is natural for the author to muse about the past while traveling.

    I have also seen backstory inserted into delirium, in the first chapter of Jon Reiner’s “Man Who Couldn’t Eat.” And I’m prepping a blog about several memoirs that used alternating chapters to weave the backstory in with the present.

    It’s an important puzzle. Thanks for thinking about it in public so we can muse together.

    Best wishes,
    Memory Writers Network

  3. Richard:
    Just came across this post through your Twitter feed. I read Wild as a library book when it first came out–before all the hoopla. I was so taken by its structure I immediately bought my own copy to do exactly what you’re doing: study how she did it. I, too, am writing a memoir: mine about growing up on the West Side of Chicago with a sprawling rooming house and our neighborhood’s demise into a riot-riven wasteland where my parents still kept up 3 high-quality apartment buildings, despite the dangers. I want to move back and forth in time as well. My copy of Wild is all marked up with notes on Strayed’s flashbacks within flashbacks (one of the most brilliant, early in her hike, works so smoothly one hardly notices how we’re moved between time and place repeatedly. It’s her explanation of how she decided to make the PCT trek, moving us off the trail, to her friend’s house in the midwest, to her pregnancy test, to her meeting Joe out West, getting into heroin, back to midwest, seeing Joe & doing heroin again in midwest, realizing she’s pregnant, to the shovel she has to buy at REI to dig out her truck from snow, to seeing the PCT brochure at REI, to heading back to REI to pick up the brochure and making the decision to hike and heal.) I may not have gotten this all right here (writing off memory), but I’m sure you know, since you’re studying the structure. I have gone onto Cheryl’s Oprah site three times to ask her (she answers video questions there) about how she laid out her structure, but so far no answer. Maybe they think the readers are more interested in her personal background, but writers want to know about this highly salient aspect of her book. Thanks for this post. I’m sure we’re not alone in this endeavor!

    • Linda, the complex passage you mention struck me too! I went back and read it a third and fourth time to figure it out, how she did it. I didn’t write about it because my explanation would be too long and confusing to those who haven’t read the book. But yes, it really works and is smooth, so very artful.

      And I also read Wild first as a library book and then had to buy it. If Cheryl answers your question, please alert us here.

  4. Hi Richard, I just blogged a little about you over on my own blog. Am about to post it over on the She Writes forum. Hope some new readers find their way over to you!

  5. Wonderful piece, Richard. “Wild” is your PCT right now. Your X-Ray reading of it is such a nice insight into the writer-as-reader.

    I look forward to more.

  6. Like everyone else, I love how you read like a writer, and I love watching the way your mind works toward editing.

    But I love your voice. I think of those chapters I’ve read, and I wonder who you would be if you were not you. I wonder what is wrong with your own notions of your book.

    I want warm and breathing. I want to be swept away by the lush prose you do so well.

    It’s been years. Do you need to edit again? I want the book.

  7. Brendan and Leslie,

    So great to hear from Goucher alums, and classmates, Leslie from the very first. Brendan, great metaphor—WILD is my PCT! Actually, having now finished it a second time, I am rereading Mary Karr’s LIT which I first read a while ago. It’s interesting after reading a book once, even some time ago (two years? whenever I reviewed LIT here) how one sees so much more clearly what a writer is doing. It both takes some magic from the book and deepens appreciation. Weird.

    Leslie, I am finishing the sixth (!) version of my memoir and think I finally have it! One of the hard things I had to learn is that a GREAT stand-alone essay might not work in terms of a book, or it might have to be broken up as I have broken up the chapters on my father and be threaded throughout. It has taken me a ridiculously long time, I agree. OTOH, poet Karr, having written two previous memoirs, still took seven years on LIT. I am coming up on seven! I think if it does not happen in 2012-2013 it may be time for something new, and/or for me to quietly retire this blog. Somehow I don’t think I will quit, too much stubbornness, too much latent belief in my story . . .

  8. Hang in, Richard. A memoir is like life work. (literally) I’m on my seventh year, and know I’m getting closer. In the meantime, what an exciting, awakening journey it’s been. I know my writing is getting stronger, I’m learning more about the genre this way than I could any other, I’m being forced to explore fabulous treasures of creativity, meeting other people who are following the same bliss. I will hate to see this chapter end!!


    • That’s such a great perspective, Jerry. And true—I know that I am going to miss MY seven years of wrestling with my memoir. I have learned so much about writing and about myself.