Yale Writers' Conference: Day 7, Cheryl Strayed

Have you read Wild? I did, and I am not someone who typically reads any nonfiction, particularly nonfiction about nature-y things, such as fly fishing or hunting bears or camping in the woods or hiking the Pacific Coast Trail (all actions I can't imagine voluntarily doing). But I read Wild about a year ago, because I had seen some of Strayed's short essays and loved them, and I got hooked on the narrative immediately. Don't rely on Reese Witherspoon to tell you the story. Go get the book yourself.

The author is here today to give us a craft talk. She wears a bright blue shirt and a black arm bracelet or possibly a fit bit. Too far away to tell. She does not look unlike Reese.

Here's what she has to say:

Paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald in a letter to a young writer who sent him a story: "You have all of the elements of a short story here, but have unfortunately, you have missed the elements of the human heart." Bring all of yourself to the page. "Nobody wants a soldier who is just a little bit brave," says Fitzgerald.

About having to choose the best creative non-fiction manuscript for Bread Loaf Conference: The "yes" area of the living room was noticeably slim, but the maybe pile kept growing. At the end, she couldn't find one to recommend to the next judge. Many of them were good, but none of them were great. None were able to answer the question that is always asked of memoir writing (but also of other genres), "Why I am I reading this?" In truth, nobody except your more inherently wants to read about you or your characters, unless you are answering the question, "What does it mean to be human?"

Of all those hundreds of manuscripts she read for the contest, almost all fell into four distinct categories:(1). I took an interesting trip, (2). I had a terrible childhood, (3). someone I love dearly died or is dying, and (4). "things that happened to my vagina" (babies, miscarriages, infertility). And she admits that her book covers this same territory. In other words, most writers will not discover a new story  to tell--they've all been told, Instead, what you need to do is find your original voice.

She is hard on her original novel, Torch, saying that much of her voice was modeled on the writers she admires (Edna O'Brien, Raymond Carver, Mary Gaitskill). She discovered in re-reading the novel for an audio book that she needed to find her voice. It's okay to aspire to be like Alice Munro, but you can never be her, so you have to learn how to make the thinnest possible screen between yourself and the reader. "Give your heart." Allow your characters to speak in their truest voice, by forgetting so much about what happens, but thinking more about what meaning you made of the things that occur.

She recommends some great memoirs to read: James Ellroy's My Dark Places, Lydia Someone's, The Chronology of Water, Mary Karr's Lit, Roxanne Gay's essay, Bettyville by George Hodgeman.

She reads an excerpt from a Hemingway story and I am distracted by the person siting next to me who is practicing her penmanship by writing the alphabet over and over in the margins of her notebook.

Have to strive to allow your reader to recognized herself in your writing. Don't try to plant lessons in your story, just try to tell the story--how do you get over grief? How do you survive loss? ]

She quotes Vivian Gornick, who I had as an instructor at Penn State, and who does not suffer fools; she decimates them. "Slowly, I began to see that the story is not how mama made me a woman, but the story is that I had become my mother and so could not leave my mother... So much of her was inside of me, that I couldn't leave. Once I understood that, I knew I was writing to serve that insight."  For Strayed, the question is how can she live without her mother or more universally, how does a person live with the suffering she carries, whatever that suffering may be?

She describes the revelations that come out of her book and over again. Revelation One:  I can't do this. Revelation Two:  I have to do this. Revelation Three: I am doing this. Example: I can't carry this backpack it's too heavy. I have to carry this backpack if I am going to survive. I am carrying this backpack.  Pronouncing the bigger thing (like, I can't survive the death of my mother. I must survive it, I have survived),  requires that you lay down the emotional foundation to do it first (the repetition of that same challenge in smaller ways prior to that biggest revelation. You have to earn the bigger epiphany).

Be brave enough to be afraid of the things you write. Go too far. Tell the truth. Say, I will have to take this out into he final manuscript. Be careful of confusing revelation with confession. Confession is telling the secret, like you would to a priest. Revelation is about excavating the meaning of that secret. It's also rooted in necessity--you must figure it out.

More interested in credibility than liability--having the reader believe you is more important than having the reader like you (or your characters).

Considering diagramming your story--taking all of the threads and mapping out where each scene is going. One thread must be going directly forward (what's happening into the "now" of the story) and some will be going backward, but each scene should go more emotionally deeper as the story unfolds. I thought this, then I thought that, and then I realized this was the truth. A thickening.

Recommends listening to the podcast, Long Form.

Here's an exercise she gives her students that you can use: Write a "Woe is Me" narrative, because we all feel so very sorry for ourselves all the time. See what you come up with, how brave you an be, how deep you can go, what your particular tale of woe is.

I got to ask the last question, whether or not she wrote while on the trail. She said that she did, and that some of it was useful when she went back to the book. She wishes though that she had written more about what was around her (the flowers, fauna, etc.) and also more about what she was thinking instead of always writing about how much her goddamn feet hurt.