Cheryl Strayed spoke about the importance of being "more than a little bit brave." Craft is essential, yes, but being a brave soldier is also important. She says this is advice given by F. Scott Fitzgerald in a letter to a Radcliffe student about a short story she'd send to him in 1938.
"All the most important things in life demand that we hold opposing things together at the same time," she said. "And nothing was ever the same again." This is the "invisible last line" of everything she writes.
Write about the passion and pain that won't let you go. Who you are is enough, she said. Trust that.
In her first novel Torch, she fictionalized her northern Minnesota life and the people she knew. Her agent said that everyone she showed it to thought the landscape and people were "so exotic."
You must also surrender to your own mediocrity. Strayed studied her favorite/great writers--worshiped at their altars--and this kind of screwed her up, she said. Her standard became greater than she could achieve. It threatened to stop her writing.
"I can't climb to the top of the Alice Munro Mountain. I have to crawl to the top of the Cheryl Strayed Mound."
But do be ambitious, she added. Try to write the best piece of literature ever.
This seems at odds with surrendering to your own mediocrity, but she said that it is a reminder never to take your eye off the ball of your writing. Your real life is the writing--publication, reviews, etc., are all separate from that.
Strayed urged listeners to write with fearlessness and abandon, as though we have nothing to lose.
You are a truth-teller, she said, a revealer. Go one step beyond what you think you're going to be able to allow on the page.
She gave the example of the point in Wild where she finally swallowed the last dust of her mother. She put that in, expecting she'd take it out before publication. But she didn't. And it's been the moment to which she's gotten the most response.
Not just "true confession" stuff, but the truest moment.
Write with a sense of abundance, not scarcity. Don't waste your time coveting the success of your friends.
Make Your Own Rules of Writing
Strayed said that she's a binge writer. She's made this work for her.
She doesn't write every day, not even every month. But she'll check into the hotel down the street for two days with instructions to her husband not to call unless someone stops breathing. Write with love, she reminded us. In the dark places, remember the light.
This means also writing with humility and guts--and listening to what others say about your writing, especially if there's a chorus of voices making similar comments about one thing.
At the same time, stand up for your vision. It's your story, your word. Believe in it.