Tag Archives: Cheryl Strayed

My top 12 books of 2012

From 30 finalists, a dozen memoirs, novels, how-to & history.

Bookstore in Mainex

While reading sixty-something books—those re-read I listed and counted again—I picked thirty favorites. I’ve now winnowed them to my top twelve. They’re listed here in the order I read them.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Black’s short stories are funny and wise. Readable from this collection on line is the fine “The Only Way Out is Through,” about a man trying to help his furious, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip; the story’s flash forward still thrills me. Another of my favorites is “Someday is Today,” based on the death of Black’s brother in law, in which a young single woman struggles to comfort her widowed sister and tries to help care for the couple’s three young girls. Review/Author Interview.

A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews. Crews depicts his life from age five to ten, the son of destitute sharecroppers in Georgia’s coastal plain during the Great Depression. These are folk right out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Crews masterfully employs both his child and adult perspectives. Reviewed.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. This 2005 Pulitzer finalist is about the suffering and deaths among a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. Urrea, the son of a Mexican father and American mother, is a poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, and journalist who is steeped in border culture. He exhaustively researched and fully imagined this tragic incident, producing a powerful and important book that soars lyrically and inhabits shifting points of view. Reviewed.

Such a Life by Lee Martin. These linked memoir essays are deliciously readable and inspiring—see him turn his life into art! And in Ohio, no less. My favorite essay, “Never Thirteen,” is about Martin’s girlfriend and himself when they were thirteen and were about to be split up by his parents’ return from suburban Chicago to their farm in southern Illinois. Martin captures the sweetness in the kids’ relationship, which is set against the fears, suspicions, and flawed lives of the adults around them. He’s a master at moving between himself then and himself now. Review/Author Interview.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Impressively Woolf opens her wondering mind and wandering body to us. This book-length essay is always transparent and never didactic: surprisingly, she embeds most of her inquiry into sexism in scene. Her riff on what-if-Shakespeare-had-a-sister is witty and poignant, and the book peaks in conclusion with a Rilke-worthy mystical vision of the sexes’ ultimate unity.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. A blockbuster bestselling memoir I adored—my favorite memoir of 2012. For me it was a very comfortable book to slip into, and it also inspired me as a writer. I read it completely twice and its prologue about six times. Sales figures indicate I’m not the book’s only admirer—and Oprah even revived her book club with it. Reviewed.

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy. Better late than never I read this masterpiece from 1985, and I’m still reeling from the prose, the story. It’s a bloody western, a historical novel, a revisionist history, an overly dark view of humanity, a master class in narrative technique. You don’t “like” this novel any more than you “like” Everest. You love it or hate it, but you must bow down before its grandeur.

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. How to foster and feed and practice the writing mind that makes sentences lies at the heart of this hymn to prose style. Klinkenborg’s method is to gut it out, one sentence at a time. I was stirred by his hard-edged honesty about how hard it is to think. That is, to write. Reviewed. Another fine how-to book among my thirty finalists is Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristen Kimball. A compelling story, beautifully written, about a young couple’s first year as full-time farmers. My desire to call attention to this fine memoir may be why it edged out on the top twelve list Philip Roth’s strong 1996 memoir about his father, Patrimony.

Canada by Richard Ford. In my favorite novel of the year, action is seen through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy, though technically—and memoiristically—it’s narrated by his adult self. The story is how his middle-class parents committed a crime that wrecked their family and shattered his and his twin sister’s lives; it begins in Montana and moves to Canada, where the boy ends up, alone, living a Dickensian existence. A short third act is told purely from his perspective at age sixty. Reviewed.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Like Canada narrated technically by a middle-aged man about and from the viewpoint of his teenage self, this winner of the National Book Award for fiction is set on a high plains Native American reservation. A woman, a tribal record-keeper, is raped and brutally beaten, and her thirteen-year-old son sets out to solve the crime, as does his father, a tribal judge. It’s a detective story, a whodunit with high stakes, as well as a coming-of-age tale, and a portrait of ongoing racial injustice. I also admired Kevin Powers’s celebrated novel of the Iraq War and its aftermath for one soldier, The Yellow Birds, which The New York Times has named one of the top five novels of 2012.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. Millard depicts the shooting and lingering deathbed agonies of President James Garfield—killed by doctors who didn’t yet believe in European germ theory. Born to dire poverty in Ohio, Garfield was leading a college at age twenty-six; entering the U.S. senate to fill an open seat, he soon rose to the rank of general in the Civil War, and after the war was drafted as a presidential candidate against his will. Millard’s book, a carefully crafted narrative, is still history and harder reading than memoirs or fiction, but worth the effort to feel an America being swept into modernity as its physical frontiers shrink. Garfield was not only smart, he was good to the core, and Millard’s portrait of his noble character and his needless suffering is humbling and inspiring.

11 Comments

Filed under reading, REVIEW

Those best books lists . . .

Strayed’s Wild my top memoir; Ford’s Canada my top novel.

Strayed's Wild

I’m on track to have read some sixty-seven books in 2012. I know that because for the first time I kept a reading log, which is heavily weighted toward memoir: thirty-plus read, including re-readings. Maybe that’s because memoir’s been my own writing project, though by now I’m a true fan of the genre. The rest are a smattering of history, theory, short stories and novels. There were standouts and duds in all departments—books unlogged because unfinished. I’m working on my complete favorites list, and so far it includes, along with the memoirs and novels, a short story collection, a work of journalism, a how-to book, and a history. (Admittedly I find myself wanting variety on my list.) The best indicator of my heart’s true tally: the thirty titles in boldface (“to re-read”) on my reading log.

The idiosyncratic nature of preferences is shown by my slow-to-grow admiration of Junot Diaz’s blockbuster novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I just finished; from the start it’s obviously great, so full of energy and so confident in its story, but it was late to capture me the way a couple other novels did this year, maybe because of its shifting narrators—a real feat, technically and imaginatively—when I was most invested in Oscar’s story. Of course any writer and most readers can see advantages in multiple narrators: the urgency, voice, and warmth of first person allied with multiple perspectives on key characters and events akin to third-person. I have a feeling that Wao, with its fearless slang and colloquial vulgarity, is a time bomb that will detonate for me when I need it. The other thing against it making my top twelve list is that I read it so late in the year, and books need time to marinate and resonate—at least for me they seem to. It’s been hard to get a draft of twelve, so I better stop before I talk myself into listing it . . .

Ford's Canada

And although I say here that Richard Ford’s Canada is my favorite novel, I’ve just realized that I’m mentally exempting probably my finalist list’s greatest novel read this year, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, simply because it’s an older book I just got around to, whereas Ford’s is indeed a 2012 publication. I can see why it would be easier, cleaner, and just plain better to stick to 2012 books for these best lists, like the major review outlets do. Except that’s not the way real people read. Also, while I admired McCarthy’s masterpiece I enjoyed Ford’s novel in a rare childlike way. Notably missing in action so far from my draft of the final twelve is the great Iraq War novel The Yellow Birds, a lyrical wonder. I have no idea why. Except like Wao I read it late. It is in boldface, however, among the top thirty, on my log.

Who said these lists were fair, let alone logical?

Next: My top twelve books of 2012.

8 Comments

Filed under fiction, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV, reading, REVIEW

An alphabetical memoir

Marcia Aldrich employs an unusual structure to explore a suicide.

Companion to an Untold Story by Marcia Aldrich. University of Georgia Press, 262 pp.

 It’s a gorgeously written, geniusly structured tale about a friend of Aldrich’s who committed suicide. I loved it.—Cheryl Strayed, in an interview

A straight-ahead chronology may seem the natural way to tell a tale. To convey experience by showing it unfold. But as many a memoirist learns—and many a novelist, for all I know—chronology is a hard mistress. Time’s weight traps the writer and bogs down his story. This happened and then this and then . . . Tempted to include too much, because it happened and was so interesting, the memoirist finds his narrative plodding. He wonders, Where in all this stuff is the story?

Marcia Aldrich, a creative writing teacher at Michigan State and former editor of Fourth Genre, avoids this in Companion to an Untold Story but takes another risk. She tells the story of a friend, his suicide, and the aftershocks by using an unconventional structure, that of an alphabetical reference book called a companion. Scenes, narrative summary, and reflection are organized in alphabetical entries. Some consist of a few words; some run a couple pages. Her first entry lays out the stark story and teaches the reader how Aldrich will proceed:

 Age at death. In obituaries, a proxy for the worth and fullness of

the life. Joel was born May 23, 1949, and died, according to the

official determination, on November 20, 1995, at age forty-six.

Brilliant and introspective, in youth a poet, Joel spent most of his working life as an underpaid substitute teacher near San Francisco. The marginal job barely supported his meager existence in a tiny apartment. A diabetic since childhood, he suffered from seizures and blackouts, even though he injected himself with insulin each morning. As he aged he developed excruciating pain from nerve degeneration. He struggled to pay for medicine and for repairs to keep his beater cars running. His clothes were threadbare. He was alone.

Aldrich becomes his companion in Companion to an Untold Story. He’d been her husband’s boyhood friend and remained his best friend. She inherited him. And she and her husband adopted him in the way that many a young couple gathers the odd person as a third wheel, a companion and witness to their abundance. Over the years, some friends fall away; but for Aldrich and her husband, Joel didn’t. He gave them their marital bed, having space himself only for a couch, and befriended their children. Yet when he left billboard-sized clues of his plan to kill himself, they missed them. He was crafty, to be sure. His cover story: paring down his life. He boldly drove cross-country, on bad tires, ferrying to them in his Ford Escort wagon the bulk of his modest worldly treasure.

Too late they entertained their unspoken fears when a box containing his last possessions came by mail, delivered more quickly than Joel had foreseen. Aldrich’s husband called, and they ascertain that Joel listened to the message on his answering machine in his empty apartment. By then he had mailed the police his suicide note and keys. Next he went in his bathroom and put a .38 revolver to his head. Aldrich feels guilty and, as a writer, compelled to make sense of what happened. How, she wonders, could she have failed to admit what she saw? When she uses the binoculars he gave her, she feels herself looking through her dead friend’s eyes.

How natural and revealing the book’s structure is—entwined glimpses of a man’s life, his violent death, and the memories Aldrich lives with. Yet how clearly imposed and partial it is. Incompleteness is one point: a complete narrative is never possible and efforts to make one are tedious. We know early that Joel scraped by as a substitute; late in the book we’re informed that in his twenties he worked for a time as a salesman and was good at it. The years closed behind a different path.

In “Higher education” we learn of Joel’s struggles in education, including never receiving a high school diploma; after attending several colleges he earned an undergraduate degree at Cal-Berkeley. While working on a master’s, he turned down a permanent berth in a school and then was unable to complete the degree. In a letter, entered under “Spin the bottle,” he reflects on teaching’s appeal for him. Subjected to psychiatry as a youth when “I should have been playing spin-the-bottle” he’s also angry because he feels his father abdicated his  responsibilities to teachers. Yet Joel chose a life “emulating and building upon” his own father surrogates and implies that teaching was a way for him to act in a father’s role himself.

Mostly this memoir isn’t “reported” or “researched”—though it uses effectively the available evidence, including Joel’s sardonic letters and a former girlfriend’s e-mails to Aldrich. Companion to an Untold Story, winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, is ultimately a meditation on memory and mystery. Released from event sequence, its approach searching but indirect, like poetry, Aldrich’s memoir is compulsively readable and surprisingly moving.

Next: An interview with Marcia Aldrich.

7 Comments

Filed under memoir, narrative, REVIEW, structure

On hating a memoirist

Bill Roorbach readin’ and lovin’ Wild up in Maine. Despite its bestsellerdom, or because of it, some hate the book and its author.

Another nonfiction issue: judging a book by its author?

 I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are, and having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world.—William Gass

As my previous three posts indicate, I admire Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I devoured it as a reader and also loved how I could raid her techniques for my own memoir. So I was surprised to read some reactions to Bill Roorbach’s laudatory review of Wild on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

Margaret Benbow, a poet, wrote:

. . . Why do I feel that I understand her, and what she’s about, better than you? Because I’m a woman. I intensely enjoy her writing. No question that she has the chops. The problem comes with your faith in her “honesty”. I see most of her unbuttoned, hairy, sweaty sexual recollections as calculating. They get the reader’s attention, right? She glories in her own screw-ups, rubs her (and our) face in them time and again. She SETS UP screw-ups on the trail. Who in her right mind would prepare so inadequately for such a demanding physical crucible as the Pacific Trail? Why has she chosen brand new unbroken-in too-small boots? She endlessly whines about the poor rags of her feet–whose tattered condition was absolutely inevitable, given her contempt for the most basic preparation. She has mailed packages to herself with food and money at halting-places on the trial. They are often missed, inadequate.

Strayed has a kink in herself which demands constant life crises…and for readers to see them, deplore them, be excited by them, root for her to overcome them. She’s extremely good at being an exhibitionistic screw-up performance artist. In general, I like and admire her book. But I don’t like that calculating glimmer in the back of her eye.

Hmmm. Well. I found surprising and interesting this peevish reaction and Bill’s irritated reply and her rejoinder and another reader’s also weighing in coolly toward Strayed. Personally I had no problems with Strayed’s sensuous but rather mild depiction of a sexual incident on the trail. And I felt her preparation, a mix of intense focus and amateurish oversight, totally believable (and she only screwed up once mailing stuff to herself).

Something deeper was at work in my acceptance. I admired her courage for taking a 1,100 mile hike alone—and for her entire under-employed young artist journey. When I was young I always wanted to do something like her backpacking adventure, which she undertook, I think, in her role as a young writer as much as she did for its healing properties. Instead, I worked. My equivalent post-college adventure was traveling to New York for the first time and taking classes at a famous method-acting school; I’d never been outside the south or in a big city, and New York scared me—it scared a lot of people in the late 1970s, so much crime and hostility on the street. I remember reading The World According to Garp on July 4, 1978, sprawled beneath an air conditioner—it was 104 degrees outside—in my sublet at 113th Street and Broadway.

Cheryl Strayed: don’t worry, be happy?

At the age Strayed lit out for the trail, twenty-six and turning twenty-seven, I’d worked for several newspapers and had just accepted a Kiplinger fellowship to Ohio State, where I spent a year reading history, philosophy, religion, and literature. Then I went back to newspapers, married, settled down, had kids. I also wrote short stories, but about the time I wrote one that had promise, I got busy (or something) and quit, not returning to creative or deeply personal writing for several years. So I was awed by Strayed’s belief in herself or in her writing dream, which she had very little to show for coming off the trail as thirty loomed ahead.

But I did have to overcome my own doubts about Strayed, I realized. For me, it was her blaming her self-destructive meltdown—her affairs and drug use and divorce that led her to the trail—on the depth of her derangement after her mother’s death. Gradually I accepted her explanation of being derailed by grief, not because I’ve ever shared it to that extent but because of other life experiences I brought to Wild.

Strayed, the middle of three children, was six when her mother divorced her abusive father; she carries scarring memories of seeing her mother hurt, punched or dragged down a sidewalk by her hair, and of being threatened herself with her daddy’s knuckle sandwiches. Strayed and her sister grew up as not very close siblings, and her sister puzzles Strayed by staying away when their mother lies dying. Maybe she just couldn’t take the pain of it. But this woman, a couple years older than Strayed, by definition took the first blow, so to speak, from their father and his dysfunctional household—the first born takes the first blow and gets the first benefit from parents—and she surely suffered more than Strayed. Maybe she had more bitterness toward their submissive mother or just more distance. Maybe she was angry at Strayed, so tough and questing, for displacing her in the sibling hierarchy. Perhaps for all of that.

In any case Strayed ascended over her more damaged sister (in my reckoning) as leader of the sibling pack and glommed onto their mother so fiercely as a child and young adult—which she depicts—that I don’t see how her older sister could have had anything but a secondary relationship,  in comparison, with the woman. That wouldn’t have affected their brother, baby to all in the family dynamic. But it would have, as we said in the South, cheesed her big sister’s grits.

Am I what Bill Roorbach accuses Margaret Benbow above of being, an armchair psychologist?

Absolutely.

But aren’t we all?

I hope I don’t explain everything in life, as a middle child myself, in terms of birth order. But my own experience of its significance is why I despised Vladimir Nabokov’s self-portrait in Speak, Memory, reviewed here. And my reaction was in part a perverse rebellion against the literary establishment and canon—more middle child stuff?—for endlessly praising his memoir. Briefly, Nabokov admits to cruelly dominating his younger brother as they grew up and then judges him a hapless fool for sticking around Germany too long and getting killed by the Nazis. Guess which one of the brothers I identified with?

Regardless of the validity of my or Margaret Benbow’s visceral reactions to authors, isn’t this yet another nonfiction issue? Judging a book by its author? I’m always ashamed when I do, feeling it’s an invalid way to assess a work of literature, and at the same time secretly convinced of the truth of my perception. To me Nabokov was a cold fish and a cruel human being, whose art—or at least whose nonfiction—should be suspect. (Some milder critics merely find Speak, Memory boring since, following his aesthetic star, Nabokov wrote about his toy soldiers and butterfly collection rather than his assassinated father and his aristocratic family’s traumatic exile from Russia.)

And yet I give Nabokov a pass in his fictional worlds and works. We all do, pretty much. Relatively few blame him for Humbert Humbert in Lolita. No, quite the contrary. We praise an author of fiction for using bits of himself—his socially unacceptable feelings, his misdeeds, his psychic warps—to animate various characters. There seems to be two reasons why some fiction writers cannot countenance memoir: such a waste of good material; and using oneself overtly, in such an unguarded way, only invites others’ disdain.

An acquaintance, a scholar and editor, who read a chapter of my memoir praised my courage. I’m not sure what he meant, unless it’s the exposure of my family’s particular trauma and that general risk of backlash that memoir writers face. My twentysomething son said the problem with my memoir is that it doesn’t show how strange I am. On the one hand, such a classic kid’s response to his parent. On the other, he had a point. Am I protecting myself too much, fearing rejection? I upped the strangeness quotient. But one should construct a persona that serves the particular book, no? Reveal one’s weirdness artfully, not all at once?

But regardless of what you do, brace yourself, Effie. Because some people are going to think—and say—terrible things about you and your modest attempt to offer to the world a gift.

37 Comments

Filed under audience, honesty, memoir, MY LIFE, NOTED, reading, REVIEW

Cheryl Strayed’s back pages

How Cheryl Strayed feathers her compelling backstory into Wild.

. . . I spun the backstory. I dole it out. The trail is a chronological report of my hike; what came before the trail is not chronological. I give you a scene from when I was seven and then another the year before [the hike]. I worked that pretty hard.—Cheryl Strayed in an interview

I have each of my memoir’s chapters broken into beats in my working table of contents. Different narrative threads are color coded, red for my father.

 The second time through Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, I dog-eared the page each time Strayed launched a major flashback depicting an aspect of her life before the trail. There are scattered memory outcrops throughout, of course, but I was interested in how many significant backstory passages there are and how they’re introduced and where they occur.

I marked twelve, of various lengths, counting perhaps debatably a short passage from the scenic Prologue and yet not counting the book’s long expository opening that discusses Strayed’s pre-trail life. So this tally is subjective—yours would be different—but the point is that I was surprised there were not more digressions, because her backstory is such a compelling and memorable aspect of the book. Ten or twelve background passages aren’t so many, not stretched across five acts and 315 pages, though some of them are quite long.

Strayed transitions into them organically; that is, instead of backstory bits used as stand-alone passages that start a chapter (other than the first) or that begin as freestanding passages after a line break, they arise from what happens to her on the trail. Typical is how she gets into six-pages in the middle of the book on her mother’s death and the death of her mother’s beloved horse:

I made my way along the trail for twenty minutes until I came to a place where the trees opened up. I took off my pack and got down on my hands and knees with my headlamp to explore a spot that seemed like a reasonable place to sleep. I set up my tent, crawled inside, and zipped myself into my sleeping bag, though now I wasn’t even remotely tired, energized by the eviction [from a proprietary campground] and the late-night hike.

I opened up The Novel, but my headlamp was flickering and dying, so I turned it off and lay in the dark. I smoothed my hands over my arms, hugging myself. I could feel my tattoo beneath my right fingers; could still trace the horse’s outline. The woman who’d inked it had told me that it would stand up on my flesh for a few weeks, but it had remained that way even after a few months, as if the horse were embossed rather than inked into my skin. It wasn’t just a horse, that tattoo. It was Lady—the horse my mother had asked the doctor at the Mayo Clinic if she could ride when he’d told her she was going to die. . . .

This digression is interesting (we’ve not heard about that tattoo before) and compelling because we do know about her mother’s love of horses and her sudden illness. We remember an early scene of her mother asking the doctor if she could ride (he said that after her radiation treatments her spine would collapse like a cracker). So this passage rewards us for what we already know and it deepens the story. Strayed has withheld the tattoo until she needed it narratively.

Though Strayed’s backstory sections are presented as naturally arising occurrences, as memories provoked by current action, they appear rhythmically throughout Wild at fairly even intervals. How much artifice an author uses in mixing in such material—did she really remember that there and then?—doesn’t matter to me, if I trust her and it makes sense. Humans are so riddled with memories that coexist with or dominate our “actual” living moments that what’s truly not believable, a real violation of verisimilitude, are chapter-long chunks of freestanding backstory. (I previously noted Strayed’s sensible view of honesty in memoir.)

I’m trying to be less self-conscious in my memoir about how I transition into memories of my father. At the least I look for places where his experiences are relevant to what’s going on with me in the foreground. For instance, after a summer of almost biblical disasters on my farm—including heat, drought, storm, flood, and locusts (well, seventeen-year cicadas that everyone calls locusts)—I recall how Dad’s perseverance in the face of one of his own farming setbacks inspired me to go on. Which it did, always, and I think at that very time; in any case, my hard season epitomized how I always drew strength from his lesson. So the story of how he overcame his nursery’s salty well—its irrigation water was killing his plants—is true to my memory and to the connection with him that I need to convey there amidst my own disasters.

We are after Truth, the Big Picture, the granular bits in your interior landscape. There’s seldom a transcript to help you convey what it was like to be you—and I’m beginning to think that the more “facts” we have the harder it can be to bring the past to life. One would like some photos, some dates, sure. But I’m careful now about thinking that my experience as a journalist can help me find what’s vital in external records; I’ve had to cut so much of that, while so much of what I have discovered that’s useful has been in the process of writing.

I feel silly for seeing so many of the ordinary-but-important craft lessons within Wild so late, for being such a slow learner. But writing isn’t a hike up one mountain, it’s a journey through a series of ranges. There’s always more undiscovered country to see ahead of you as you stand there, atop one peak on the never-ending trail, looking out and catching your breath.

This and the previous two posts have run in abbreviated form as a single post on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

Next: The backlash against Cheryl Strayed and Wild.

 The interview quotes from Strayed in this and the previous post were taken from the excellent short video below, a discussion with Bill Kenower of Author magazine.

5 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, honesty, journalism, memoir, MY LIFE, narrative, NOTED, REVIEW, revision, working method

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.

16 Comments

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

My wild summer reading & revising

I took this photo in June in the ruins of Muckross Abbey, Killarney, Ireland. The tree, planted by Franciscan monks almost 600 years ago, is a common yew—used for shrubbery in the U.S.

Writing lessons from Cheryl Strayed’s great memoir, Wild

Find the work that moves you the most deeply and read it over and over again. I’ve had many great teachers, but the most valuable lessons I learned were from writers on the page.—Cheryl Strayed’s third writing precept, from her website

This summer’s blockbuster memoir

I’m sure it’s no accident that right after reading Wild I got the insight to feather memories of my father throughout my memoir in progress. In previous drafts I’d used a couple of chapters to depict him. Dumb. Especially since, years ago, before I even started writing my book, a wise old editor I told about my farming adventure and how it came in the wake of my father’s serial farming adventures said, “Don’t write a whole chapter on him. Have him appear now and then. Like you’re walking across your pasture and you think of him.”

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, currently number one on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, is long and meaty, a traditional yarn; it feels both nakedly sincere and confident in its unguarded honesty, a book with a lot of heart. Just what I’m aiming for myself. But I couldn’t see how Strayed pulled everything off when I first read it in May, though I did see that she wove in her backstory instead of stopping the narrative with chunks and slabs of Vital Background.

Wild depicts a grueling 1,100-mile solo hike Strayed took, in 1995, from southern California to Oregon, dodging bears and rattlesnakes and reading great literature in her tent at night, burning the pages in the morning in her campfire. She’d grown up outdoors but had never backpacked, not once, until she loaded her pack and tried to lift it just before setting out. She couldn’t pick it up, couldn’t budge it from the floor, having stuffed the large pack with so much that it probably weighed north of seventy pounds. She had to squirm into it on the floor and lift with her legs. And her boots were too small. That’s the strong foreground story, a young woman bent with a physical weight and carrying intolerable emotional baggage.

Her backstory about that baggage includes memories of her abusive father, whom her mother divorced when Strayed was six; of being raised by her hippy-ish back-to-the-land horse-loving mother and a crunchy carpenter stepfather in Minnesota; of suffering through her mother’s illness and unexpectedly quick death from lung cancer at age forty-five, when Strayed was a senior in college; of being devastated by grief and by her subsequent affairs, heroin abuse, and divorce; of her picking that new last name, Strayed; of her impulse when at rock bottom to buy a book on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which she’d never heard of and which was thousands of miles to the west of her home in Minneapolis.

Other than noticing that Strayed’s riveting life story was woven into the hike, what struck me the first time I read Wild was how Strayed depicted her affairs in comparison with a gritty essay about them she published in The Sun. At first I thought she wasn’t as graphic because she needed to be more likable for a 315-page book—her couplings went beyond rampant promiscuity into self destruction, considering the damaged and predatory men she picked to pummel her in the depth of her toxic sorrow. But now I’m sure, after reading Wild a second time, that her more elliptical treatment of her affairs was about a choice she made not to bog down the narrative. In the book, she only depicts one, with the man who started her using heroin and who was her and her long-suffering husband’s final straw. After that, Strayed, adulterer and neophyte heroin user, made an extreme and impulsive but life-affirming decision to take a hike to clean herself up.

As a writer she really knows what to delve into and what not. Here’s her entire summation of what happened after she discovered she’d gotten pregnant by the junkie boy—during post breakup sex, alas:

I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink.

That’s it on the abortion, no depiction—because it wasn’t needed (and knowing that as a writer can be so hard; it can take hundreds of pages to see what should have been one line)—though Strayed does recall the abortion on the trail when she realizes one day that it would have been her mother’s fiftieth birthday and that she’d have had her baby about then. She knew she had to become a different woman first, she reflects, and not one trapped by children like her mother was. Strayed then spends much of the day painfully raging at her mother for dying. As a writer she’s unafraid to show herself in a bad light, and we get on her side, root for the straying orphan.

Her plucky persona, that good-girl-gone-bad-trying-to-be good, really worked for me. I marveled at how fast I was devouring Wild—I’ve since heard others say they read it compulsively—even though the thought of donning a backpack made my spinus erectus muscles threaten to spasm, as if trying to protect my farming-ruined and thoroughly age-desiccated vertebrae. I might have been able to carry a pack when I was Strayed’s age when she did it, twenty-six and turning twenty-seven, but I doubt I would have endured the body chafing and pulped feet and six lost toenails that went with it.

She was one tough chick.

Next: Rereading Wild to unlock its intricate construction.

18 Comments

Filed under honesty, memoir, metaphor, REVIEW, revision, working method