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 2007, Ethan Gilsdorf is a memoirist, essayist, critic, journalist, poet, teacher, performer, and the author of the award-winning memoir 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. Hundreds of his personal essays, articles, reviews, cultural commentaries, profiles, opinion pieces, short stories, and poems have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Esquire, Boston Globe, Wired, Salon, O the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic, Brevity, Electric Literature, Poetry, The Southern Review, North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. Twice his work has been named "Notable" by The Best American Essays. At GrubStreet, Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and leads GrubStreet's 10-month long intensive Essay Incubator program; he also leads writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations. 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 presented the TEDx talk "Why Dungeons & Dragons is Good for You (In Real Life).” He studied filmmaking and creative writing at Hampshire College, and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. A former editor for Frank magazine and New Delta Review, Gilsdorf is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. He has taught at LSU, Emerson College, and for LitArts RI. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he’s been featured on NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC; and in the documentary Revenge of the Geeks. More info: ethangilsdorf.com, Twitter @ethanfreak.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf