Cheryl Strayed Says, Take Risks in Your Personal Writing
GrubStreet instructor Ethan Gilsdorf had the chance to speak with Wild author Cheryl Strayed about what it's like to take risks in your personal essays and memoir writing. Here's what she had to say.
Ethan Gilsdorf: This is a question for my writing students at GrubStreet. I’ve been teaching a class right now here in Boston called “Writing and Publishing the Risky Personal Essay.” I’ve been trying to get my students to think about the idea of taking a risk on the page. I was just looking at your introduction to the Best American Essays anthology, which you edited last year, and we used a couple of essays from this term. I was struck by your introduction, and your advice to students, that when writing a personal essay, the unwritten last line should be, “And nothing was ever the same again.” What would you say to my students or to people who are feeling shy about exposing that kind of story where there is so much at stake and there’s so much on the line for them, not only for them as a character in their own story but, what people might think of them once they’ve written it and hopefully published? That’s a scary thing for some students.
Strayed: It is scary, and that’s what art is about. Art is about moving the self and the other into the narrator of the unknown, you know? Or the known that is not expressed. I think the best things do happen when we push beyond the kind of boundaries of polite society. The number one question you get when you talk about writing truthfully about your life is, “Oh my gosh, aren’t you afraid?” And what we’re always afraid of is, people will judge us or they’ll condemn us if we reveal ourselves to be flawed. But having now done this for years, I can absolutely say, without any question, that that’s hardly ever what happens. When people are honest and vulnerable, we usually respond with our own honesty and our own vulnerability, and with kindness. You could go read my one star reviews on Amazon, which I have not done, for the record. People say all kinds of nasty things about me, all kinds of horrible things. But that’s a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage, compared to the many, many, many people who say to me, “Thank you. Thank you for telling your truth. Thank you for being brave enough to say not just the things about yourself that are pretty, or things to be proud of.” I do think that that has been such a great lesson for me.
One of my first essays is called “The Love of my Life.” I had been experimenting with being brave before, but I was just absolutely merciless with myself. And that essay --- gosh, it was published more than ten years ago now --- I don’t think a day has gone by, in more than a decade, that I haven’t received an email from someone who feels like their life has been changed because they read those twenty pages that I wrote about, the hardest time in my life. That’s the power of literature. It will only have that power if we’re brave enough to harness it. Art is about truth. It’s not about telling half the truth. If you’re not prepared to be strong in that way then writing is not for you. There are a lot of people who do a lot of things, and they’re not asked every day to tell the truth on that level. But I think that’s the mission of art. So don’t hem and haw about it. That’s my advice.
A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf