When I first started brewing the idea of A Letter From Paris, I yearned to take a lesson from Mary Karr at Syracuse university. After reading Lit and The Liar’s Club I knew she’d have certain insights into writing about family, and her interviews with The Paris Review had given me so many insights into the memoir process that I wanted more.
Alas, Australia to the US is a bit far to travel for a memoir lesson (and i don’t think I would have been allowed, anyway?!) so I was delighted to discover The Art of Memoir and I bought it the week it came out, as i was writing the outline for A Letter From Paris.
Books are incredible. We can sit there at the feet of mentors for the price of a hardback despite being on a separate continent, and my tabbed and annotated copy of The Art of Memoir was a great companion as i braved the beginning of writing about family, in what became A Letter From Paris.
The Art of Memoir is a great study in the biggest dilemmas of writing memoir, and Karr uses lessons that she’s actually taught in her University classes in the book.
But after reading that book, and writing a few thousand words of the first draft, I needed something to help me find the actual structure of my manuscript. Karr had answered all my biggest dilemmas about writing truth and excavating family dramas – so I revisited WILD by Cheryl Strayed.
I studied WILD like it was a writing textbook.
I actually filled a large blue notebook with chapter analysis and comparisons with how i could write my own memoir along the same (3 Act, Hero’s Journey) structure. WILD is a master in structure study (seamless flashbacks, universal themes woven through personal anecdotes…), so when i stumbled upon Alden Jones, who has just released The Wanting Was A Wilderness (a literary memoir and also a craft study of WILD), I was desperate to get a copy.
Right now, the postal service in Australia is a shambles with COVID. In Melbourne, where I live, Stage 4 restrictions (now extended to November?!) mean that parcels are delayed by months, and I can’t seem to get a copy of The Wanting was A Wilderness until midway through 2021!
But there is a bright spot to COVID.
Book launches and In Conversation events have pivoted to an online model, so when Alden mentioned a live event with Cheryl Strayed, run by the Center for Fiction in New York, I was quite thrilled that this was something good COVID actually made possible.
The Wanting Was A Wilderness and Outward Bound
Now – full confession that I haven’t read it yet (le sigh), through twitter chats with Alden as well as excerpts and reviews, I understand it’s a memoir of her own wilderness journey braided with a craft study of Strayed’s memoir, WILD.
At heart is the question:
How did Cheryl Strayed take material that is not inherently dramatic―hiking―and transform it into an inspirational memoir, beloved to so many?
The wilderness trip Jones simultaneously explores (her book is part-memoir, part-memoir study), was her own 85-day Outward Bound trip. I did Outward Bound in 1996 (like Strayed, I, too, lost multiple toenails on the hiking trail!).
I loved learning that Jones’ trip was so long (almost 3-times the length of my own Outward Bound trek), remembering the no-coffee rule (we had a total fire ban in Australia when I did Outward Bound, so no fires, and no heating water for coffee), and she also hiked a volcano.
I’d love to trade Volcano stories with her one day. And does she still remember the taste of iodine drops in the water we got from rivers and lakes? The day we did our volcano trip (rainy, sliding belly-first along the stalactite-dripping claustrophobic cave) , my fellow hiker got hypothermia and me and another girl had to take turns keeping her awake until we could warm her up through physical heat. Our group pitched a tarpaulin and zipped our sleeping bags together so we could take her wet clothes off her and dry her out / keep her alive.
Quelle scary event. But back to memoir…
Jones and Strayed chat memoir
Jones is an award-winning memoirist and respected teacher on the Literature faculty at Emerson College, so she has loads of wisdom to impart about the craft of writing memoir. Her travel memoir, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia was listed as a top ten travel title of 2013 by Publisher’s Weekly. She’s also won awards for her fiction collection, Unaccompanied Minors. The Wanting Was A Wilderness is not her first rodeo!
Jones’ talk with Strayed was full of gems for anyone writing (or wanting to write) a memoir. After talking about their own writing processes for about 40 minutes, the two answered the top-voted questions from the audience. Here’s a little snippet from my notes from Thursday’s talk – you can watch the replay here.
A large proportion of the discussion was taken up with the notion of likeability – what we leave out of our memoir, what we choose to include..
“If you’re not likeable enough, the reader won’t want to go on a journey with you” said Jones, referencing Lacy Johnson’s essay on likeability. They also discussed the balance required between self-deprecation and self-kindness, in how you reference personal experiences. It’s fascinating to me that this part of the editing process is always so subjective. Strayed mentioned her editor wanting more of her life post-hike in WILD. I remember my editor convincing me to delete a particular passage from an early draft of ALFP, as she explained how many people would not be able to relate to the experience. It fascinates me how precarious the editing relationship – I’m so glad Strayed stood her ground and simply finished WILD with the elegant:
How wild it was, to let it be.
The therapeutic process of memoir
Someone in the audience asked how the two managed dealing with painful memories and experiences in their writing.
It’s a fundamental misunderstanding, to me, that writing about our personal history is a dangerous and unhealthy thing.
As Jones said in response: “When you write about painful events, you get to control the story.”
Strayed agreed, discussing that memoir is a therapeutic process. “Like therapy, your journey is to get to the truest truth. Tell the truth, that’s all you can worry about.”
The empathy required for memoir
This is another misunderstanding, I find – that people think memoirs are a way to seek vengeance on someone who has done you wrong.
Jones: “You can’t write about yourself or about other people without a considered evaluation of what they’re going through…”
They also discussed how empathetic you need to be towards yourself, to write memoir.
As Strayed said: “I had to be able to love my 26 year-old self… to write WILD.”
On the benefit of space from your memoir
There was a great little tangent from the two on the benefits of having ‘space’ from an experience before you write about it. Jones mentioned the distance / objectivity with which Strayed wrote WILD versus the rawness of her essays such as Love of My Life and Heroin/E. Fair warning, both essays are painfully-exquisite explorations of grief.
On reading your own reviews
Strayed confessed that it took her months to open up The Wanting Was A Wilderness. The main reason was that she’s stopped reading things about herself / her book because it hurt too much when people got it wrong. I can relate. I recently had two emails on the same day from readers of A Letter From Paris who seemed to miss the point in my book where I explain that my parents are both dead (reminding me of the Anais Nin line: we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are).
Misunderstanding of Memoir as a genre
I really enjoyed the Q+A section at the end of their chat, because the three questions were all things people ask me or casually reference to me and it was remarkably comforting to hear Strayed and Jones’ takes, which are essentially mine!
MEMOIR AS UNIVERSAL STORY
In the first question, someone mentioned something about memoir being narcissistic, and Strayed said this is the primal misunderstanding of memoir as a genre – that it’s a self-absorbed act, to write one.
Jones: “No-one will read a memoir if it’s self-absorbed, you have to be entertaining.”
“You need to ask yourself: how does this experience tell the universal story? How is my life like your life? Art is about the universal story – the self isn’t that important.”
That’s such a beautiful statement that I think I’ll leave it there.
You can purchase The Wanting Was A Wilderness here – and, incidentally, the title is a line from Strayed’s WILD.
As I’m working on my late father’s found memoir, I loved the description of The Wanting Was A Wilderness as “an exchange of two writers talking across the page…”