Friday, September 20, 2013

Some Notes from Bestselling Author Cheryl Strayed about Writing Wild

Bestsellers make me curious.  Sometimes they are worth attention, sometimes they are all hype and bad taste--a great example of the latter is 50 Shades of Grey, which sold 700 million copies for content instead of good writing.   

Then there are books that make it big and deserve it.  One of these is the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Wild.

I read Strayed's Wild and her compilation of advice from "The Rumpus" column, Tiny Beautiful Things.  Both books were so well crafted, so engaging, I've become one of those readers who are eager to know more about Strayed's writing practice, her ideas, and her book structure techniques--anything I can absorb.

I heard she was speaking at the August 23 Breadloaf Writers' Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, and almost broke up my vacation week to attend.  I couldn't.  But luckily one of my students in the advanced online class did and she took good notes.
Here are Susan's notes from "Rules to Write By," a talk given by Cheryl Strayed at Breadloaf.  Hopefully, you'll enjoy them and get some ideas for your own book.  Thank you, Susan!
Being Brave
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.
Write big even if your life is small. 

Grow or gain consciousness around the larger issue. She thought when she began writing Wild that it was going to be an essay about starting the hike with a backpack she couldn't lift. Instead, this became the core scene of the book, speaking of something she couldn't bear that she had to bear.

"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.   
"If the reader begins to ask why am I reading this story," Strayed noted, "the writer hasn't been telling a big enough story, with enough heart, risk, and bravery." 

Write What You Must Write
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.

Fearless Writing
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.